When a blessing isn't

Thirty years ago my father took a state university's extension course. At the closing ceremony, a chaplain blessed the gathering in Jesus' name. My father, feeling excluded because he was Jewish, asked for "equal time." To the astonishment of everyone assembled he recited a blessing over the meal in Hebrew, the language of Jewish prayer since ancient times.

Things haven't change much. Over the past few years, I've been among those blessed in Jesus' name at work (a public school), a Cub Scout dinner, a Baltimore City Community Relations Commission breakfast, even at a going-away party in my honor at a job I was leaving. All those doing the blessing were Protestant ministers. In both work situations the ministers knew I was Jewish and there was at least one other Jewish employee. One would hope that these clergymen, one of whom was seminary-trained, realized that being Jewish meant Jesus wasn't part of our religion.

My wife, who is Jewish, has had the same experience at the government agency workplace.

My reaction is, "Get a clue!" Let's put some perspective on the issue. The majority of people in the world - two-thirds - are not Christian. (I use this term broadly, to mean all people in whose religions Jesus Christ plays a central role.)

You may be asking what all this has to do with our country, where we know that the majority of people are Christian. True enough. But according to 1998 figures compiled by Encyclopedia Britannica, in North America (of which the United States accounts for 88 percent of the population) there are more than 44 million non-Christians - including Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus. Why are many of us being blessed in Jesus' name?

Christians reading this may be asking "What's the big deal? Aren't you being thin-skinned?"

Imagine you're living in a country that is predominantly Muslim, in which 1 out of every 7 people is Christian. You go to work or a secular event such as a community celebration. An imam blesses the gathering in Allah's name. Wouldn't you feel excluded or at least uncomfortable?

In the US, everyone is deluged with Christmas a couple of months a year. A few years ago I was doing errands with my son on Dec. 24. At the bank, two nice employees asked him if Santa was coming to his house. No comment. Same question at the barber shop where we were regular customers. Again, no comment. At age 8 he was unable to say what I could: "We're Jewish. Santa doesn't come to our house."

Non-Christian adults often find this assumption of Christianity anywhere from annoying to insulting. But for children, the results may be deeper. In 1992, researchers from California State University, Stanilaus, studied 222 public school students in Grades 4 to 6. Twenty-six percent of the non-Christian students felt excluded in their classrooms at Christmas time.

What do I suggest? If you're Christian, unless you're in church or speaking with someone you know is Christian, please don't assume they are. Don't bless us in Jesus' name.

But beyond that, we could all benefit by learning more about one another's religions or non-religiousness. If you have a friend, neighbor, or co-worker of another religion or even denomination, ask them questions. Read about various religions' beliefs, holidays, and practices. Visit another house of worship. Have yours sponsor an open house.

Am I arguing that we need to apply "multiculturalism" to yet another area of American life? Absolutely.

*Bob Jacobson is a social worker in the Baltimore, Md., city school system.

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