My three years old daughter had a small family-only birthday celebration recently. She wore a pink tutu dress like a princess. We started the party with a prayer, led by me, not in the tradition of a particular religion, but in a universal way.
There’s a reason for this. My father-in-law is Christian from North Sumatra. My mother-in-law is also Christian from a family of Malay Muslim. Her sisters who attended the birthday gathering all wear headscarves. My father, on the other hand, is a haj hailing from Jakarta, while my mother is a Muslim who comes from Christian Manado heritage. All my 10 aunts are of different religions – Catholicism, Islam and Confucianism.
My husband has a big tattoo of a cross on his back, but he had to convert to Islam before he married me, so his father did not attend our wedding ceremony. I personally have no problem marrying someone from a different religion, because we marry for love, but the situation forced us to start our marriage on the term that other people set for us.
For our three years old daughter, however, we want her to find her own belief – or non-belief – through love. We encourage her to know many ways to peace. I meditate, we read Buddhist wisdom and listen to sermon. We also attended to several classes of “wise people”.
I often liken the sense of uniformity in faith to watching a children’s ballet recital, in which all the dancers wear pink tutus, when it would’ve been lovelier to see a spectrum of colors on the children.
A day after our daughter’s birthday party, our non-live-in domestic helper resigned from her job. She said she no longer felt at peace working in our household. I texted to tell her I was very sorry she felt that way, and that I hoped she found another place to work, knowing that she worked at two other places besides our house, and that she had no high school education. The next day, she texted back apologizing and said she was willing to go back to work under one condition: that for one hour a week I would “make time to learn Islam” with her, and that I would also have a religious teacher to assist me. I took me a while before I could respond to her text. I thought, so all the six months she was working with us, she did not understand who we are.
“Thank you,” I replied to her, “but we have a different view and belief. My family and I love God, Sang Widi, the universe and all in it. We are happy with our belief, so if you want to accept who we are, without any conditions attached, we would love you to come back to work for us.”
She replied to tell me her version of being a Muslim, and warned me I might be the best candidate for hell if I refused to learn Islam the proper way.
Her text got me thinking about my teacher in middle school, a public school, a fatherly figure with grey hair and mustache who taught us Quran verses and how to perform prayers. He talked eloquently and he had a charisma that reminded me of my grandfather but when he talked about hell, I always had goosebumps.
Hell is full of flame, according to him, and with dajjal (evil figure) and ugly people who are tortured for all the sins they have committed on earth. It’s not the first time I got this message; in the Islamic elementary school I attended, after religion class I always went straight to the mushola (prayer hall) to pray, because I was scared of going to hell. I was only seven years old.
On the contrary, my introduction to religion was much more peaceful. My father taught me to perform prayer in the nicest way – he never forced me. We attended a small Quran reading class with our neighbor, Pak Makhtur. He always laughed when teaching me and my older brother.
My maternal grandmother celebrated Christmas, so we went to her house to celebrate and exchange gifts. When my aunts got married, I was the flower girl in church. My other aunt married an ethnic Chinese man, so every Chinese New Year we came to hand out hong bao (monetary gifts) to the little ones. It was joyous.
This is the memory that I want to pass on to my child. The world is a big place with diverse culture. We may have the same religion, but our religious views could be different. In fact, you don't have even have to believe in any religion. What we can give to and preserve for the world is love, the language of better understanding that people are different. Our nation’s motto is unity in diversity; what a waste to only have one way to seeing or believing. After all, how boring it would be if all ballerinas only wear pink tutus?
Ashtra Effendy is a former journalist who tells stories through writing, and through still and motion pictures on haloibu.id, a website dedicated to celebrating the complexity and loving motherhood journey.