Walking through the streets of Cape Coast, a mid-sized city propelled to existence by the fishing industry, it is obvious that people here take religion very seriously. Small, brightly colored wood and cinderblock shacks call themselves “Jesus My True Lord Will Fight For Me Electronics” and “Bathe Thyself in the Blood of Redemption Enterprises” – rhetorical tributes to a culture of religious fervor.
Most of the Ghanaians I have met seem to emanate Christian values such as honesty and modesty, and I appreciate the extent of their faith. Just yesterday, my Ghanaian hall mate Charlotte invited me to share some homemade fish stew and boiled plantains in her room after I mentioned that it smelled good; this is the level of hospitality I have come to expect here.
Charlotte and I chatted about school, work and life in Ghana for a while, and when a lull occurred in our conversation, she pulled out the kicker question: “Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?”
The thing is, I’m Jewish. I respect all faiths, but Jesus is simply not on my religious radar. Growing up in Georgia, others have asked me that same question a countless number of times, and usually stating my religion will sweep the issue under the rug; they bless my heart and move on. However, when I stated my faith to Charlotte, it quickly became apparent that she had never met a Jew.
“So you believe that Jesus suffered for your sins and is the son of God?” she asked.
“Jews don’t talk about Jesus,” I replied. “They believe he was a prophet, but since we only read the Old Testament, he just never comes up. So no, we don’t believe that he is our savior or the son of God.”
Unfortunately, that was the wrong answer. For the next hour, Charlotte insisted that “modern-day” Jewish practices of atoning for our sins, such as sacrificing a bull and ostracizing women while they are menstruating, are archaic and elitist, and the world would be a better place if we could all just accept Jesus instead. (I insisted that these are no longer practices, but because they are written in the Old Testament, she did not believe me.)
Perhaps it is true that the world would be better if everyone were a Christian, but the fact remains that there are hundreds of religions, none less valid than any other. My position here as the first and possibly only Jew that many Ghanaians will meet places me in a precarious situation – whatever I say and do to represent my faith is all that many people will ever know of Judaism. I already feel pressure to represent Americans in a positive way; this new role just adds to an existing sense of responsibility.
I hope that people here will be as accepting of my faith as I am of theirs, from the Christians to the Muslims to the Rastas who populate this city. Just as I was one of the only Jews in my hometown in Georgia, I will again be one of the only Jews in Cape Coast. The role is not new, just the location and cultural expectations. Although I don’t mind talking about my faith, I can’t help but to hope that the next time someone asks me to share some stew, he or she will leave religion out of the conversation.
Olivia Cohen is a junior at the College of Charleston studying Political Science and International Studies. She is studying abroad this semester in Cape Coast, Ghana through a bi-lateral exchange program.