I love seeing people from #GenInterfaith, those from interfaith families, or with complex religious affinities, taking their places as leaders in both interfaith activism and interfaith scholarship. It’s happening in organizations devoted to interfaith understanding, and in academia. So this year, I decided to create a space to celebrate our coming of age, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto.
The Parliament is, very simply, the biggest and liveliest interfaith tent of all. And I love that guarding of the tent flaps by dominant religious institutions is minimal. This was my second Parliament experience, and of all the interfaith events I have attended through the years, the Parliament is the best at decentering white Christian norms, and including a huge indigenous presence from the Americas and around the world. Where else would I get to hear a Yanomami elder from Roraima, Brazil, take white people to task for global warming, in his own language, before an audience of thousands?
I also love the Parliament because outside of the formal presentations, there are so many spaces to interact and get to know each other, from the daily langar meal provided by Sikhs, to the Red Tent space for women of all religions or none to recline on pillows together, to the stages filled with music and dance throughout the day. To my academic friends who skip the Parliament because it is not serious enough–you are missing the point! Especially for those who are struggling to elevate voices of women, indigenous people, and people of the African diaspora in academia, I highly recommend the Parliament.
So, in my second experience speaking at a Parliament, I knew what to do: hand over the mic, and listen. I used my speaking slot titled #GenInterfaith to encourage a roomful of people with complex religious bonds to talk about their own experiences and declare their own multiple religious affiliations or influences or ties. Having created a safe space for these stories, we heard from people with connections to African diaspora religions, atheism, Buddhism, traditional Chinese religions, Christianity, Hinduism, humanism, Islam, Judaism, Native American religions, Paganism, and Unitarianism. Many were speaking up about their complex religious lives for the first time in public. And they told me that this hour together was incandescent, empowering, and deeply moving.
While my first book, very frankly, drew primarily from the Jewish and Christian worlds of my childhood, my forthcoming book is designed to work for people from any and all religions (or none). The timing feels right. After five years of speaking to and about Jewish and Christian interfaith families, from coast to coast, I am ready to dwell in a larger tent. I will continue to commit my life to making space for interfaith families and people with complex religious practices. But whenever I can, wherever I can, I am determined to share my platform, and hand over the mic. So if you are inspired to tell your interfaith family story, or your story of complex religious practice, I invite you to write for this blog. Or better yet, let’s plan an event, and tell our stories together, in conversation.
On Saturday, on Shabbat, we experienced the most deadly attack on the Jewish community in US history, fueled by a climate of hatred coming from the White House itself. On Sunday morning, I was able to be with my community of interfaith families, mourning, but also embodying the idea that love can vault over boundaries and create peace. Today, I’m choosing to re-run the piece that Rorri Geller-Mohamed wrote for this blog in 2016, just before the last Presidential election. Rorri created a facebook page for Jewish-Muslim Families and also wrote this earlier essay for us on her Jewish and Muslim wedding. –Susan Katz Miller
(Dateline: August 2016) As we get closer to November, I feel myself becoming more and more worried and scared about what this election will mean for my interfaith family. I’m shocked that a candidate with such blatant hateful, racist, and xenophobic rhetoric has made it this far in the campaign. Recently, my newsfeed on facebook has had multiple posts on how such a hateful platform can actually win this election. The outcome of this election will have a severe impact on the safety, emotional well-being, and daily life of my interfaith family. I am Jewish and my husband is Muslim. We have a one-year-old son who is both Jewish and Muslim. And so, as a Jewish and interfaith mother, I must speak out and fight for the best outcome to this election.
I was raised as a Reform Jew. Growing up, I remember learning in Hebrew School about the Holocaust and why we must remember it to make sure history is never repeated. I remember a school trip to the Holocaust museum in D.C. where I felt alone in this experience traveling with my non-Jewish peers. I remember visiting a concentration camp in Germany and feeling overwhelmed with how this atrocity could have ever taken place. But now experiencing this election process I am starting to understand. Sometimes we don’t fight because it feels impossible that this could truly happen.
I shouldn’t have to fear that my family will have to register and be monitored by the government because of our religion, our last name, or how we look. I shouldn’t have to fear that white supremacy will prevent my son from feeling proud about his mixed heritage. I shouldn’t have to fear that my husband’s status as a US citizen who immigrated here as a child from Guyana in South America could ever be revoked. I shouldn’t have to worry that people could legally be allowed to attack my family. And yet, these are some of my fears that surfaced out of this hateful campaign. As a Jewish Muslim family, I look forward to opportunities for us to freely study, observe, and celebrate both religions together. I look forward to teaching my son about his unique heritage and our values of social justice. The Southern Poverty Law Center published a report that “…found that the campaign is producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom.” For us, and I’m sure for many other interfaith families, this is not the way we imagined raising our children.
As the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel stated “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” We must follow his teachings. I ask you to join me and respond to this call to action.
Here are some ways we can take action in the next three months before the election:
Make sure you vote for the candidate that at least isn’t leading a hateful, racist, and bigoted campaign, even if you don’t like the alternative.
Help people register to vote. Organize people in your synagogue, church, mosque, other religious institution, or any other organization you are part of to help people register to vote.
Talk to anyone in your life that you think might support a candidate who incites hate. Work to educate them and remind them about history. This is especially important for people who have family and friends in swing state areas. These conversations can be uncomfortable and challenging but remember what is at stake if we stay silent.
Donate money to organizations that are helping register and get people to the polls on Election Day, especially organizations that are working to end Voter ID laws and other obstacles that prevent people who are marginalized from voting.
Stay informed through progressive news and social media about new and creative ways to help influence the election.
Tahil Sharma and I have been engaged in an ongoing conversation for years now, both on social media and in person, on navigating the world as interfaith activists from interfaith families. Tahil is currently an Interfaith Minister in Residence with the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, and a Board Member of the Southern California Committee for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. The two of us will appear together this summer at the Reimagining Interfaith conference, July 29th to August 1st in Washington DC. Come on out and join us! Below, I provide a sneak peek in the form of a Q&A. –Susan Katz Miller
SKM: I was born into a Jewish and Christian interfaith family, and that fact, and those life experiences, have inspired and informed my work as as an author. speaker, and interfaith activist. One of my goals is to create space for people from interfaith families to be interfaith leaders and peacemakers. And at the same time, I am working for recognition that those of us from interfaith families are already serving as interfaith leaders and innovators, but do not necessarily feel we can be open about claiming our interfaith family stories in the context of interfaith “dialogue” or activism. As part of this work, I’ve been keeping a mental list of other “interfaith kids” working as interfaith peacemakers, and you’re at the top of that list. Tahil, why don’t you start by telling us a bit about your background, and your experiences as part of an interfaith family.
TS: I was born in Los Angeles to a Hindu father from a business family and a Sikh mother from an Army background. Both of them immigrated from India in the 1980s and settled in Southern California, trying to figure out how to make their American dream a reality. I started learning about Hinduism and Sikhism from my family, then really began to explore these traditions for myself. This was just the beginning of a weird childhood as I got exposed to friends who were Muslim, Jewish, atheist, all sorts of Christian, and diverse in every other sense of the word. My parents encouraged me to love others as myself, and to learn about what makes other people thrive and understand the world around them. I’ve attended so many different kinds of religious services and events and they all contributed to my understanding of finding bliss and sanity in a consistently chaotic world. I looked back to my own traditions, even learning the languages of the sacred texts (Sanskrit and Gurmukhi) to enunciate and understand what my faith was all about. It made me curious about why we’re all so different yet so able to share a world with one another.
SKM: Your story sounds familiar to me as a fellow interfaith kid, even though we come from different religious and cultural backgrounds. You know, preachers’ kids refer to themselves as PKs. The idea behind that identity is that they share certain formative experiences, whether their parents are ministers or rabbis or imams. And people who grow up in one country but are citizens of another country call themselves TCKs, or Third Culture Kids, and they share certain formative experiences, whether they are military kids or diplomatic corps kids or displaced people or immigrants. So I’m going to refer to us as IKs (that’s “eye kays” not “icks”) for Interfaith Kids. I claim this as part of my identity because I feel we share certain formative experiences of religious complexity. Does that idea resonate for you?
TS: I am totally an IK. We’re a growing demographic around the world thanks to diverse parents creating unions that are unconditional and inclusive. If you had asked me about this 10 years ago, I’d probably have a different understanding of how my interfaith upbringing had an impact on my life. As someone who was always driven by service, I wanted to become a doctor for as long as I could remember. Then I considered being a lawyer for a little while, then a translator. But then came August 5th, 2012. I was in India visiting family when my cousin had told me that a shooting had taken place at a gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Oak Creek, WI. A white supremacist walked into the temple during services and began to shoot blindly, killing 6 people and wounding others, including a police officer who was shot 15 times and survived. This sent my world into a spiral of chaos and confusion, trying to make sense of an injustice towards a coexisting and loving community. Then I reflected on history and the travesties it had produced; injustice was not normal to me, but it was frequent enough to be normal for others. My anger and disappointment instilled a lot of fear until I remembered a word from the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scriptures) that referred to the Divine asThe One who is Without Fear and Hatred Towards Creation.
I had an epiphany. I could not let this happen to my community ever again. But, in that selfish righteousness, I also remembered that the responsibility falls on the laps of all able individuals to bend the arc of the world towards justice and equity. If I would fight for the rights of anyone, it would be for the right of everyone. That decision led to 5 years of introspection and service that set a precedent in my life to strive for the well-being (sarbat da bhalla) of others because everyone was a part of my universal family (vasudhaiva kutumbakam).
The complexity of my religious identity is not just about ownership and understanding; my faith traditions were the sails on my lifeboat. The journey is tumultuous. but filled with the lessons and beauty reminding me of the splendor and majesty of the Divine. If I can help others do the same, then I know I will have left this world in better shape than when I was born into it.
SKM: Those of us raised in interfaith households, even though we are a growing demographic, are not well understood. In part this is because we haven’t had many opportunities to speak out and shape our own narratives. So, how do you respond to people who challenge the idea that you can claim or benefit from more than one religious heritage?
TS: That’s simple. I challenge them to recognize themselves by a single identity. The human experience cannot be simplified to represent itself in a monolithic way. The plethora of belief systems around the world have experienced changes and mixtures that have withstood the test of time. Culturally, Hinduism and Sikhism do share some roots coming from South Asia even though they differ from one another. I don’t blink just one eye, I blink both at the same time. I don’t just love my mother or my father, I love them both equally. As such, I have been given the privilege of two blessed visions of the Divine that integrate with every part of my life.
SKM: So, we know that, throughout history and in particular as a result of colonization, entire communities, regions, and countries have practiced more than one religion simultaneously. And anywhere you have two religions sharing geographic space, you are going to have some form of mutual interaction, and some interfaith families. And yet, the topic of multiple religious practice, and of interfaith families, has often been excluded from traditional “interfaith dialogue” programming. Often, each participant has been asked to represent a single religious practice, so as not to “muddy the waters.” How do we work to convince those who are organizing and funding interfaith programming to include those with complex religious identities?
TS: It hasn’t been easy. I didn’t have a crisis of identity so much as I had a crisis of validity. Going around to different people and having to explain that my identity can exist, let alone trying to normalize it in multi-religious settings, is so challenging. There’s a lesser-known quote from Dr. King that speaks about the validity of identity that continues to resonate with me and the struggle for equity and justice: “I’m tired of marching…Tired of marching for something that should’ve been mine at birth.” For the growing number of people who identify with intersectional and multiple identities who march, the struggle continues.
I’ve had people tell me that I’m confused and misled for not choosing a path, or that I’m cherry picking from the religion buffet to suit my needs. But the fact of the matter is, I have adapted my life to grow and transform myself within two traditions that have given me solace and inner peace. So I don’t ask for validity anymore: I make an equal spot for myself at the table.
On Saturday, my daughter and I joined in the fierce and ecstatic experience of the Women’s March on Washington. Although my mother died four months ago, I felt we carried her with us–that we were marching for all three generations of women from our interfaith family.
I have always been an activist. I testify at city and county council meetings, I call elected officials, I support progressive non-profits, I march. For me, this work is spiritual work. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, after marching in Selma with Martin Luther King Jr., wrote that while he marched, “my feet were praying.”
But what does all this have to do with being from an interfaith family? Growing up in an interfaith family is a constant reminder that love wins. I’m talking here not about love in the abstract, but radical love between two individuals who are face to face and committed to engaging with each other for the long term. In an interfaith family–or an interracial or intercultural or LGBTQ family–we live with the idea that love vaults over boundaries, love challenges prejudice, love wins over hate.
Part of my work now involves amplifying the voices of people from interfaith families who are speaking out for love: interfaith leaders, interfaith peacemakers, interfaith activists. Our commitment to love comes from the gut, fueled by our most intimate full-time reality, informed by our family experiences.
Perhaps the idea of interfaith family members inspired to be interfaith activists sounds like a tiny niche platform to you. But this is #GenerationInterfaith. Pew Research recently found that one in five Americans grew up in an interfaith family, but that is just the start. If you live in a metropolitan area, and your family has been in the US for at least a generation, you probably have a partner, parent, child, sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent, step-grandparent, half-sibling, or beloved-neighbor-you-consider family, with a different set of religious beliefs or practices from your own. Not to mention the idea that every family is an interfaith family, in the sense that no two people have identical religious beliefs, practices, traditions, histories, or experiences. Even a partnership between two atheists is going to be informed by the plural religious histories of parents and grandparents, and by cultural traits derived from those various religious traditions.
In this sense, we are all from extended interfaith families. And we can all draw inspiration and motivation from those family ties. Those ties impel me to stand up against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, to stand up for refugees and immigrants, and to advocate for interfaith literacy. And by extension, because love wins, and because my interfaith lens helps me to become more aware of the complex intersectionality of identity, I stand up for other marginalized communities including LGBTQ people, people of all abilities, and #BlackLivesMatter.