Stepping out of the echo chamber

Published 9:59 am Friday, August 5, 2016

On my first day of high school, I met my first atheist and my first Muslim.

Growing up in Southampton County, there were precious few individuals who did not believe or worship as I did.

Sure, there were some that didn’t attend church as regularly as my family, but I’d never met anyone who point-blank said that they didn’t believe in God.

I’d been taught that atheists would lead try to lead me astray and discourage my faith. I was shocked, then, when my friends that didn’t believe would ask me on Monday morning, “How was church?” and would ask about the sermon my pastor gave and my opinion of what he said.

As high school progressed, the biggest catalyst for my growing faith was engaging in friendly discussions with my atheist or agnostic friends about religion, or lack of, in our lives.

The same happened when I met the Egyptian foreign exchange student during my freshman year of high school.

I was five years old on 9/11. For as long as I could remember, the news media and the President had declared Islamic terrorists to be public enemy number one. Muslims hated us because the freedoms afforded us by our government, because American women were free to vote, hold office, have jobs or go outside uncovered.

Over time, the intricacies of the Islamic faith, culture and tradition have been simplified, muddled or erased to broadcast one ultimate equivalency: us good, Muslim bad.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my friend from Egypt reported that women there were not forced to wear the hijab or indeed any other type of traditional dress, and that many of the teachings of Islam dovetailed quite well with the sermons I heard in the front pew every Sunday at Newsoms United Methodist.

My appreciation for differing religious cultures was not cemented until college, when I met a Jewish person for the first time, and was encouraged to take an Arab Societies course.

Southampton County is a majority Christian community — as the most of the United States, so it’s easy to get stuck in the echo chamber, constantly repeating ideas and thoughts held by people who think just like you do, echoing on and on until we can’t hear differing opinions and ideas for the noise we make.

This can cripple us intellectually. Surrounding ourselves with unrelentingly likeminded people robs us of the capability of informed discussion and intercultural dialogue.

But exposing ourselves to different religions, philosophies, cultures and traditions, and engaging with them can broaden our understanding of our own. Kind of like why we take foreign languages in high school. Studying the grammar of another language teaches us more about English when we compare the two.

Learning about other religions doesn’t diminish one’s commitment to one’s own. In my experience, learning about the beliefs and tenets of the Islamic and Jewish traditions have made me reflect on and appreciate my own Christian upbringing and to grow in my faith.

It has also expanded my capability for empathy and compassion for those who don’t think, act, worship, love and believe exactly as I do. More importantly, it has helped me to understand why some populations behave the way they do and what I, as an individual can do to prevent negative interactions between ethnic and religious groups.

In light of today’s political and religious climate, it is my firm belief that there is no better cure for division and vitriol than compassion and understanding.

I encourage everyone to step out of the echo chamber. Open your heart and mind to differing opinions. Read a book written by a Muslim scholar. Go to temple with a Jewish friend. (Politely) discuss religion with a person who (politely) disagrees with you and commit to learning from one another.

Jesus told us to love our neighbors. And if we want to live up to His word, then our first step must be to develop empathy and compassion for our neighbors throughout the country and world — not just the ones that live in our echo chamber.

Walter Francis Jr. is a student at American University and is serving as an intern for The Tidewater News this summer. Email him at