All religious traditions want to have their stories told,
particularly when they see that you value their stories and their
place in the community of faiths. Therefore, you can feel at ease in
requesting a group visit to a house of worship because virtually
every religious community is welcoming to visitors.
Before booking a group visit, visit the facility to insure that it
includes the kind of features, activities and community that you
want to emphasize to your visiting group.
Become familiar with the locations of proper entrances/exits,
worship hall, washrooms, coat racks, shoe shelves and other places
in the facility that your group will need. When a visiting group
enters unfamiliar space, its comfort level is raised if it knows
that the space is already familiar to you, the organizer.
If you would like the visitors to observe a worship service,
ritual or ceremony as part of their visit, you may want to attend
such a service in advance to make sure it is appropriate for your
time schedule, purposes and audience.
Clarify with your host to what extent guests are free to
participate in rituals, if at all. Such involvement can range from
full participation (without restriction) to simple observation only.
Avoid requesting group visits on holy days, festivals or
"busy" days. For example, Sunday is not the best day for a
group visit to a Christian facility, nor Friday to a mosque, nor
Saturday to a synagogue, nor the festival of Diwali to a Hindu
Request the site visit at least a month in
advance of the anticipated visitation date. It may take several days
for the house of worship to inform the appropriate faith leaders who
will speak to your group.
3. Developing relationships
If possible, periodically attend services at the houses of worship
on occasions other than the time of your group visits. This gesture
serves to develop a relationship with the religious leaders and
members of the chosen site; it also increases your levels of
comfort, knowledge and cooperation with respect to the host
Send greetings (cards or notes) to hosts,
guides, lecturers, clergy or the general congregation of the house
of worship on special holy days or festivals.
4. Making arrangements
In your first effort to contact the house of worship, speak to
the contact person directly - face-to-face, if at all possible.
E-mail or over-the-phone conversations are risky unless you know
personally the individual whom you are contacting. Person-to-person
encounters are vital in building interfaith relationships. Once a
relationship has been established over a period of time,
phone/e-mail arrangements may be more reliable.
Give a clear explanation to your host regarding your expectations.
For example, during the visit, what would you, as the organizer,
like to have happen and what would you like the host to do?
Generally, I find the following four components helpful for a
A brief introduction to the faith tradition.
A tour of the facility with an explanation of what the
visitors are viewing (altars, images, objects, etc.) and what
roles such altars/images/objects play in the worship setting.
A personal statement/explanation of how being a member of the
host tradition shapes one's worldview. In other words, what does
it mean to be Sikh, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, etc. and
how does this particular faith orientation affect the way one
lives one's life?
A period for questions from the audience.
Clarify for the host the age/gender/grade/knowledge level of the
visitors so the presentation can be tailored to the group's needs.
Confirm that the facilities are able to accommodate the size of
your group and can meet the requirements of any special needs
If time is an issue, be clear on time requirements when booking
the visit. As a general rule, approximately one hour is a
comfortable length of time for a site visit.
Clarify the length of the visit again when confirming the
booking and again upon arrival at the site. Accordingly, the
speaker will be clear on the length of her or his talk and thus
allow time for a tour of the building and a question period.
Ask about etiquette. For example, is a head covering
required? If so, what is appropriate? Are head coverings provided in
sufficient numbers or should guests bring their own? Should shoes be
removed? If so, at what point in the building? Don't be shy to ask
about these and other etiquette issues.
Ask if there are specific areas where the guests should sit or if
men and women should sit in different areas. This consideration may
or may not be an issue with a simple visit, but may be more
important if the visit includes a ritual.
Clarify as to what fees are expected, if any. Some facilities have
a set fee. Others have no set fee. And still others are not allowed
to accept money. Inquire about how the fee may be paid (e.g. If by
cheque, payable to whom? Should fees be given to someone or placed
in a donation box?)
Confirm the visit two or three days before the date, reviewing
schedule and expectations with your host.
Acquire the name of the person to whom you spoke in making the
arrangements as well as the name of the person
who will meet you as host on the day of the visit.
Etiquette and expectations vary from site to site. To avoid an
uncomfortable situation, ask rather than assume.
5. Preparing the visiting group
Inform visitors about issues of modesty and appropriate dress.
Dress should be respectful. Remember, these are sacred spaces,
not tourist attractions. Short pants and sleeveless shirts are not
acceptable for either men or women. Short skirts are not
acceptable for women. Modesty should be maintained when sitting on
the floor (e.g. school girls should not wear school uniform kilts to
sites where guests sit on the floor.)
T-shirts should be free of advertisements or slogans that may be
offensive or uncomfortable to others, even if they are not offensive
to the wearer.
Remind guests that modesty codes are more defined and formal in
some cultures. For example, certain physical gestures such as
handshakes or embraces are foreign to people of some cultural and
religious backgrounds. In some cultures it is inappropriate for men
and women to touch. Accordingly, it is better that guests allow
members of the host site to take the initiative in terms of gestures
such as handshakes or other forms of touching.
To avoid embarrassment, guests should refrain from physical
displays of affection or excessive friendliness toward each other
(e.g. holding hands, leaning against one another, arms across one
another's shoulders, etc.) This guideline applies even for husbands
With the visiting group, review etiquette issues that may be
unique to a particular site visit, for example, the prohibition from
sitting with one's feet pointing toward the deities in a Hindu
temple, member-only communion in some Christian churches, head
coverings, shoes on/off, etc.) If you are unfamiliar with particular
points of etiquette in a given house of worship, clarify these when
booking the visit.
Smoking is absolutely prohibited at all site visits. The trip
should be considered a smoke-free day, similar to other
settings with equivalent expectations (e.g. extended plane trips,
Guests are encouraged to ask questions. Any question is acceptable
so long as it is asked respectfully.
Hosts at some sites may ask guests to participate in specific ways
in the culture of the host faith group, for example, by learning how
to pronounce specific words or phrases in an unfamiliar language, by
engaging in meditation or other exercises, etc.) Alert guests to
these possibilities and inform them of the expectation to
participate. On the other hand, it should be emphasized that any
individual visitor has the right to decline participation in any
practice, meditation, ritual or exercise.
Occasionally, a meal or snack may be provided by the house of
worship. Because wasting the food of a host tradition is impolite,
advise guests to take only what they are prepared to eat and make
every effort to eat what they take. It is acceptable to decline food
It is very important that all individuals remain with the larger
group as the tour moves through the building. Otherwise, there is a
risk of individuals becoming separated from the group and thus
delaying the tour.
Because sitting on the floor may produce an inclination to lean
back or recline, remind guests that in a house of worship such a
casual posture may be seen as disrespectful.
Ask the visitors to be respectful of and attentive to the host by
not talking amongst themselves during the talk or presentation.
Encourage guests to take a washroom break before departing for the
house of worship.
Above all, keep in mind that the primary
intent of the site visit is that the guests enjoy a day of learning
6. Getting there
A bus is by far the best mode of transportation for a site visit.
Car pools are problematic but are sometimes necessary. In the case
of carpooling, provide each driver (or designated navigator)
with clear maps (drawn and written directions.) www.maps.google.com
provides excellent maps.
It is helpful if each car has at least one passenger with a cell
phone - this is vital in case of emergencies or delays; the cell
phone is also helpful if a vehicle takes a wrong turn or gets lost
Out of courtesy, phone the host of the site if you are going to be
more than a few minutes late.
If you are uncertain of the location of the house of worship, drive
to the facility in advance of the visit in order to determine the
best route; this preparatory research will alert you to the
locale of the entrance and parking lots as well
as to the presence of one-way streets or construction in the area.
Familiarizing yourself with these logistics is particularly
important when the visiting group is travelling by bus.
7. During the visit
Encourage the visitors to enter the site with respect and quiet
Be prepared, as the organizer, to ask questions during the
presentation that move the discussion to topics that the class or
group has reviewed previously or may have questions about.
Accordingly, if the lecturer wanders off topic, you can gently and
non-threateningly guide the discussion back on track by raising a
Ask permission of the host before taking photos or making
audio/video recordings. Ask if there are specific times or places
when it is inappropriate to take photos. Sometimes, visitors are
allowed to take photos that do not require a flash. Clarify all
these issues in advance. Do not assume that you are permitted to
Some traditions have a prohibition against eating in the house of
worship (apart from sanctioned food as a part of a ritual). Chewing
gum, candy, breath mints, even cough drops qualify as food. Visitors
should dispose of such items before entering the house of worship.
Instruct guests to turn off all cell phones, beepers, pagers,
wristwatch alarms and other electronic devices that may sound during
Earphones from iPods and other electronic devices should be
Inform the facility host if there are individuals in your group
who are unable to sit on the floor. In such a case, a chair is quite
appropriate and will be gladly provided.
Encourage the members of your group to stand or sit close to the
host so they can clearly see and hear.
Although you should encourage guests to take a washroom break
before departing for the house of worship, washrooms will still be
needed by your group when you arrive. Upon arrival, point out the
locale of the restrooms and provide an opportunity for washroom
visits before the program begins. This discipline serves to avoid
disruptions later in the program. You may want to invite use of the
washroom as you leave the site to avoid making a washroom visit the
first requirement at the next site visit.
When visiting a facility that requires visitors to remove their
shoes, keep in mind that shoes should be worn in the washroom.
Some facilities may permit the wearing of one's regular street shoes
in the washroom; others may require the wearing of flip-flops or
other sandal-type shoes which are provided and located outside the
washroom doors. To avoid an awkward situation, clarify these issues
with the host in advance of the visit.
As organizer of the visit, you need to keep in mind that the tour
is for the group's benefit, not your own. Therefore, position
yourself at the back of the group or at some other vantage point
where you may unobtrusively monitor behaviour and the program so as
to facilitate a pleasant experience for both host and guests.
Make sure that the group remains together as a body as it moves
throughout the site.
Be vigilant about your time schedule. You may need to express
politely appreciation for the host's time and contribution
and then respectfully explain that the visit must end, particularly
if the group is expected at another site visit where another host is
Once you have left the facility, it is helpful to provide a time
and locale for the group to debrief and evaluate the experience.
This process enables the members of the group to clarify questions,
identify major learning points and discuss any uncomfortable issues
raised by the visit.
You may want to provide your group with an address or website of
the house of worship so that individuals can visit again on their
own or learn more about the tradition.
At some point following the visit, have a brief conversation with
the host to determine how future visits can be made even more
Express your appreciation to the host. A phone call, a voicemail
message, an e-mail message or note of thanks (signed
by yourself or the entire group) directed to the host is always
appreciated and is good preparation for the next visit.
9. About the author
JW Windland is a comparative mythologist and founder of the Encounter
World Religions Centre in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. The Encounter Centre
is an internationally recognized educational organization designated as
a "Gift Of Service To The World" by the Parliament of World
Religions. JW has more than 40 years of experience in the study,
teaching and first-hand experience of world religions. In addition to
his academic background in religious studies, JW regularly attends
mosques, synagogues, gurdwaras, churches and temples as a testimony to
his appreciation of world religions. This background gives him a
perspective that is unique and tangible. He has genuine friendships with
the practitioners of these traditions, joins in their rituals and
introduces thousands of people to the winnowed wisdom of diverse
communities. JW is a specialist in interreligious dialogue and in
creating comfort across religious and cultural borders. He lectures
internationally to universities, churches, and service and professional
organizations. JW brings a familiarity and a deep knowledge of the many
religious traditions that make up the North American mosaic.
If you would like to learn more about the Encounter Center, here is
the contact information:
10. Permission to reprint this document in print or electronic
Scarboro Missions encourages the reproduction and use of this
document for educational purposes for limited distribution. For
permission to reproduce this document for commercial use or large-scale
distribution, contact JW Windland at tel. 519-822-0099 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Scarboro Missions and
Interfaith Unity are grateful for the skilful efforts of JW
Windland and his willingness to post this useful multifaith document on
the Scarboro Missions website and the Interfaith Unity Website.