All four members of my family got up onstage at an outdoor Roots Festival in West Baltimore recently and sang some flat-out gospel numbers. We had joined up with about a hundred other singers to help the Alternate Roots organization stimulate healing in a neighborhood ravaged by bad urban planning (including the notorious “Highway to Nowhere“). The dynamic Tony Winston, of Payne Memorial AME church, led us in the gospel numbers. We also sang African songs (led by Fred Onovwerosuoke) a labor song (led by Charm City Labor Choir Director Darryl! L.C. Moch), and peace, love and understanding songs (led by Elise Witt, who happens to hail from a Jewish/Christian interfaith family, which was somehow no surprise to me, since she’s a classic bridge-builder). With only two rehearsals, we had more enthusiasm than precision, and were very thankful that Tony Winston brought in some ringers from his choir.
My husband grew up in an undemonstrative brand of northeastern Episcopalianism, and I grew up in a rather dry and cerebral form of Reform Judaism (despite my interfaith background). Neither of us were prepared from youth to stand up in the middle of an African-American neighborhood and sing gospel, though my husband went to a majority-black public school for awhile, and actually has sung in his gospel choir at work in Baltimore. I credit my years of immersion in an interfaith families community with allowing me to become comfortable enough with talking (or singing) about Jesus. I have also vowed, in choosing to teach my children about both Judaism and Christianity, to seek out opportunities for them to access this kind of authentic experience with progressive, social-justice-minded Christian believers.
I should also note that after living in Baltimore and Washington, and in Africa, I came to respect the important role that Christianity, and Jesus, plays in the African-American community. I want my children to experience this part of their community, to feel comfortable in West Baltimore. So in a spirit of cross-cultural encounter, it made sense to me to sing out in this temporary semi-gospel choir, and not hold myself apart somehow. I am secure enough in my own connection to Judaism (though others might see me as imperiled by my interfaith pedigree) that I did not feel threatened in any way by participating.
So there we were. My teenage son ended up drumming with the corps of djembe-players, my husband was off at the other end of the huge stage somewhere in the bass section, and my teenage daughter and I sang our hearts out. We danced and sang to the African chants, we urged an end to war, racism, sexism, homophobia. And when Tony Winston got up, in his elegant white suit, we sang “Total Praise” and “He is an Awesome God” and even “Jesus paid the price, now I’m free from sin. I am souled out…” In fact, this last song, while it does not reflect my own beliefs directly, has been stuck in my head for weeks now. It reminds me of the joy on my daughter’s face, singing next to me on stage, when she finally shed her exquisite teenage self-consciousness and got caught up in the spirit of the experience.
For me, part of the opportunity of being in an intefaith family, is the special role and responsibility we feel to reach out and truly embrace the other, even when it means stretching a bit and singing about Jesus. I believe that religion can be a force for good in the world (as well as an excuse for wrongdoing), and I want my children to believe this. But good does not happen spontaneously. We make it happen. And one way we can make it happen is to participate in deep encounters like the one we had in West Baltimore.