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I walked past a building labeled “prayer room” and knew I did not fit in. A Buddhist boy playing basketball in a Christian basketball league, I found myself walking through a parochial school on a Saturday in search of a gym.
I ambled through two doors emblazoned with a maroon cross and entered into something resembling more of a church than a basketball court. Red, blue, and yellow light entered the building through the stained glass windows that adorned the walls and came together to illuminate the image of what looked like a bible at center court. I was lost. Buddhist temples, which I didn’t even attend regularly, were much simpler: merely rooms with a statue of the Buddha centered at one end. Here in this ominous gym, it was as if God himself was in attendance. I was a fifth grader who went to a school where nobody seemed to be overly involved with religion at all. I wasn’t just blind to it; I was genuinely scared. I was scared of the symbols, I was scared of the institution, I was scared of the people. As my teammates and I finished our warm-up drills, we were called to center court to gather around the outer edge of the bible that glistened before us on the floor. I saw parents, I saw coaches, I saw not only members of the other team but my own teammates as well assemble into a circle and join hands. Not knowing what to do, I took the hand of one of my friends and that of a kid on the other team and stared on.
A man in a grey tracksuit bowed his head and began to speak. “Lord, we thank you for this game today,” he said. “We thank you for protecting our children and for shepherding them through the hardships that they have faced thus far.” He went on but my mind went blank. What was I supposed to do? I knew nothing of “the Lord.” I had never said a prayer, much less gotten into a prayer circle. I closed my eyes and tried to block out my surroundings, trying to isolate myself as an individual independent of my surroundings. After a very uncomfortable “amen,” that I said not knowing at all what it meant, I stepped out onto the court, ready to finally start the game. I found myself guarding the same boy I had earlier joined in prayer, the same boy who seemed to be an almost a direct source of my unease. No matter, that was in the past and this was now. Forget about it and move on right? However, with every post up, with every shot contest, with every box out for a rebound, I began to see similarities. We were both awkward, lanky kids trying to do our best to win. As the game wore on, with each layup and each crossover, I wanted to say something. I felt an obligation to make some sort of attempt to make up for my earlier misconceptions. Whereas earlier I had envisioned this kid as being something totally different, nothing close to a kid like me, I now saw us as one and the same. “Hey nice shot.” I told him. He looked at me, confused almost, seeming to have come to the same realization I had made moments earlier. With a simple “thanks man” we became equals.
My foolish notions of religion setting us apart as different people had been dashed in the mere time it took to shoot a free throw. Just because this kid prayed, said “amen,” and looked to God for guidance didn’t mean he was something so different. At the end of the day we both wanted to do our best and win. There was no reason for me to cast him off just because he was of a different religion. That day I learned that religion does not divide us as a society but instead shows us the many ways in which we can try to achieve our goals and get guidance in our lives.
I was no longer a Buddhist boy playing basketball in a Christian basketball league. I was a boy playing basketball in a league with kids just like me. Encountering these people with differing beliefs taught me to embrace the diversity of those around us. When I encounter people of differing beliefs today I don’t just shun them and try to find those who act like me, I keep an open mind and interact with them, understanding their viewpoints and sharing my own as well. It is this mixing of ideas and practices that spurs progress. If we talked only with those of similar beliefs we would merely keep the same beliefs forever and never have the chance to develop newer, better ones. Whether it was God’s plan or Karma, we lost the game that day, but looking back I learned perhaps the most important lesson of my life.
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