Interfaith Families in the Pews: Q & A with Reverend Vicky Eastland

 

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Photo: Susan Katz Miller

 

 

While reporting my recent article in The Washington Post on Brookville’s Multifaith Campus on Long Island, I ended up with a lot of material that did not make it into the story. As an unofficial historian of the interfaith family communities movement, one of my goals is to record and preserve as much of our ongoing story as possible. Below, I share an extended interview with the minister at Brookville Church, Reverend Vicky Eastland. Here, she discusses her role as a Reformed Church in America minister, in the context of Brookville’s Multifaith Campus—a joint project of the Brookville Church, The New Synagogue of Long Island, the Muslim Reformed Movement Organization, and the Interfaith Family Community of Long Island.

 

Susan Katz Miller (SKM): When the search committee first contacted you about coming to Brookville as the new pastor, the Interfaith Community already had a close relationship with the church there. What was your first impression of this relationship?

Rev. Vicky Eastland (VE): Initially, one of the reasons Brookville was interested in me was because I was one of the founding members of an interfaith council in upstate New York where I was pastoring a church at the time: we met to do community service and events together. When I heard the word interfaith, that’s what I thought of. It wasn’t until I received a series of questions the church wanted me to answer on paper that I realized it was about interfaith families. I still had no idea what this interfaith families community was, that was connected to the church.

SKM: I know Pam Gawley (co-founder with Sarah Cirker of the Interfaith Community of Long Island) has said she may be the only Jewish woman to serve on a church search committee for a new pastor.

VE: When I showed up for my second interview, I was really quite surprised because the search team of the church stepped aside and let Pam and Sarah lead the interview. It ended up being a great experience for all of us. I remember one of the search team members saying something that has stayed with me: “We’re not just looking for the next pastor, we’re looking for someone to take us further in our relationship with the Interfaith Community.” This was an integral part of helping them decide who the next pastor would be.

SKM: The Interfaith Community of Long Island, which was founded to support Jewish and Christian interfaith families, now holds their interfaith Sunday School at Brookville, and these interfaith families attend the church service at Brookville on a specific Sunday each month, as part of their interfaith education program. Do the theological differences between Judaism and Christianity pose a challenge for you in those services?

VE: The most challenging aspect for me since I’ve been at Brookville is surrounding the Sacrament of Communion. Personally, I don’t think we should turn anyone away from an experience with God, so I understand opening the communion table to non-Christians. But the wording in the Reformed Church in  America (RCA) liturgy is very Christocentric. I was using that liturgy, and I had a Catholic woman ask me, “Can you please not use those words? My husband who is Jewish feels like all Christians are blaming him for the crucifixion of Christ.” There were Sundays when I left the service, and I started crying because I felt like something I said was offensive to someone from IFC. But then there was pushback from other Christians who were saying, “We don’t want you to take those words out.” But for a while I did, because I don’t think anything should be excluding people who want to be there.

In my second year, we moved IFC Sunday to a non-communion Sunday, and I’ve gone back to the RCA language for communion. Pam Gawley, who is Jewish, told me, “We want this to be authentically Christian.” We’re all on this journey together. And the Catholic woman who was worried about how her Jewish husband feels? That husband actually participates now in communion.

Last Sunday was Easter Sunday. I was very Christocentric in my sermon–but its hard not to be on Resurrection Sunday. That cognitive dissonance that I had in the first year, I don’t  have so much anymore. In the service I said, “I know there are people who are with us today that aren’t Christian, and don’t believe what we’re saying here, and that’s okay.” A Jewish mom came up to me afterwards in tears, and said she was so moved to be acknowledged. It was not planned: it just came out of me.

SKM: I know the Muslim study group had been meeting at Brookville Church on Sunday afternoons for many years, but how did it become integrated into the Multifaith Campus?

VE: When I got there in the fall of 2013, I realized the rabbi, Rabbi Stuart Paris, had never met the Muslim leader, Dr. Sultan Abdulhameed. I started doing introductions, friendships formed, and we realized our individual missions were so similar–we all wanted to bring reform to our specific faiths. None of our groups is exclusive, anyone is welcome at any of the groups. Then we said let’s do something together, around a holiday not based on any of our faiths.

That first Thanksgiving together was the highlight of my entire ministry career. We started out with our new Brookville Multifaith Campus sign dedication, on the lawn of the church. One of the members from the Muslim community did the call to prayer in Arabic  outside on the PA system. We had about 200 people, the maximum we can fit into the chapel, and there wasn’t a dry eye. Dr. Sultan said he’d been to a lot of these interfaith Thanksgiving services where the representatives each preach from their own holy scripture, and it feels almost like a competitive situation. So he suggested that instead we preach from each other’s holy scriptures. I ended up preaching from the Quran, Dr Sultan from the Torah, and Rabbi Stuart from the New Testament. That’s what we’ve done ever  since—this year was our third Thanksgiving together.

Since that first Thanksgiving, I have traveled to the Sultanate of  Oman, a Muslim majority nation in the Middle East , and I have  had a lot more exposure to the Muslim faith. The Quran has come alive to me in ways I never would have imagined. We’ve been talking with the IFC about how to add an Islamic unit to the interfaith Sunday School curriculum. For now, we’ve decided to wait until there are more young Muslim interfaith families in the IFC community.

SKM: As the Brookville Multifaith Campus becomes established, do you see this as a template for other communities?

VE: We’re now at the point where I’m starting to form a team with people from members of all four communities, to work on becoming a 501c3 (non-profit institution). The long-range hope is that that this will turn into a model that will change the makeup of our church. I believe that’s the direction all houses of faith should move in. I think it’s a model that everyone should look at.

Many churches, here and across the country, have been shrinking, even closing. Recently, I met with a group of clergy from Long Island. They came to learn about what we’re doing–how it’s working, why it’s working, and what we’re doing that’s making it so successful. We all need to wake up and realize that we’re becoming a more integrated society. How is that going to play out in our houses of  faith? Clergy can no longer bury their heads in the sand and pretend that the needs of interfaith families are not important. We have to find ways to meet their spiritual needs. Ours is a model that others can follow.

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @beingboth.

 

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Interfaith Sunday School, on NPR

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I was glad to add my voice to an important piece this week on NPR’s All Things Considered, entitled “With Interfaith Sunday Schools, Parents Don’t Have To Choose One Religion.” Introduced by my favorite host, Michel Martin, the story was reported by Rami Ayyub, who visited the Sunday School at the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP) in order to talk to staff, parents, and students. He also stopped by my house to record an interview.

Rami comes from a background that includes Muslim and Christian family members, and he wanted to explore whether the model for educating Jewish and Christian interfaith children could be extended to other religions. For this story, he also interviewed Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University (and a friend and colleague of IFFP’s late beloved rabbi, Harold White, who was the Jewish chaplain at Georgetown). Imam Hendi said that as often as once a month, an interfaith couple asks him if there is some kind of Muslim and Christian, or Muslim and Jewish, interfaith education program for interfaith children.

The answer is, not yet. But as I told Rami, if you build it, they will come. Traditional religious institutions are not going to create dual-faith religious education programs for children. They are still urging parents to restrict religious education and identity labels for children to a single faith. And yet, as Being Both documents, parents are voting with their feet, creating ways to give interfaith children broader interfaith education, even if it means moving away from traditional religious institutions that disapprove of this pathway.

As for Muslim and Christian interfaith families, I know that there are already communities for these families in England, Scotland and France , and a couples group in Chicago. But as of yet, I don’t know of any interfaith education program devoted to children from Muslim and Christian interfaith families. In my book, the Muslim and Christian interfaith couples I interviewed were either planning to essentially home-school for interfaith education, and/or alternating or combining single-faith Muslim and Christian education programs. It is interesting to note that in England, all students are required to get some interfaith religious education in government-funded schools. As a result, interfaith family community leaders there have told me they feel less pressure to provide interfaith education for interfaith children.

The NPR piece considers whether the existing dual-faith programs in the US, such as IFFP, could or should become tri-faith programs. In his piece, Rami quotes IFFP’s Spiritual Director Julia Jarvis (our minister) as saying that she hopes that in 20 years, groups like IFFP will have opened the door to the third Abrahamic religion (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share the story of Abraham as patriarch).

But I want to suggest another way of looking at this. It is true that many of us have been pushing the existing Jewish and Christian interfaith education programs to work on ways to incorporate more education about Islam, because all Americans need more education about Islam in order to combat Islamobophia. But I do not foresee all of these dual-faith programs becoming tri-faith programs. To be frank, interfaith family communities have their hands full trying to teach children about two religions, and disproving the idea that what they teach is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” They work hard to explain the great depth created when teaching the historical, theological and cultural points of connection between these two religions.

The way I see it, interfaith family programs teaching Judaism and Christianity have created a template that is available, to everyone, of any religion (or none), not in 20 years, but right now. As early as tomorrow, five Muslim and Christian families could come together and decide to build a dual-faith education program for their children. The experts in Jewish and Christian interfaith education for interfaith children stand ready to share experiences and resources on how to do this with interfaith families from Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or any other worldview.

All of us have agency–have the power to create community. Each of us can envision new ways to help our children to integrate their complex identities. Anyone has the freedom to create interfaith education programs in order to help our children to see themselves as interfaith peacemakers. We do not have to wait for permission. We do not have to wait for any door to open. The door is already open.

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @beingboth.

 

A Catholic, a Muslim, a Jewish Education, an Interfaith Family

Kristen & Ilyas
Kristen & Ilyas

Interfaith families continue to build bridges–quietly, peacefully, steadily, around the world. For today’s post, I invited guest blogger Kristen to write about her Catholic and Muslim relationship, and why she intends to raise her children with both family religions.

Ilyas and I got to know each other when we found ourselves living in the same neighborhood as college students. A Muslim who emigrated from Algeria as a child, Ilyas has no accent and lots of American friends. He seamlessly fits into both worlds, and I found him both interesting and easy to relate to. I am a Catholic of European descent who loves to travel and learn. Ilyas has said that my blue eyes drew him in, and that my kindness and optimism brought him closer. We both agreed that being together felt right in a way that no relationship ever had. Just the right amount of interesting and familiar, we were soon inseparable and completely in love.

As the relationship progressed, Ilyas and I began to think about what the future might hold. We didn’t have everything figured out yet, but we knew that our futures would include each other, and so we decided to get married. Religion had never been an issue between the two of us–he occasionally goes to church with me, and I will attend some events at the mosque with him.   We both value our religions, and respect each other’s beliefs and right to form our family’s identity. Even so, we felt it was important to discuss how to handle religion when we decide to have children. Most Muslim sources say that the kids have to be raised as Muslims, and most Catholic ones say that the kids should be raised as Catholic. We found ourselves in a conundrum.

The predominant view seems to be that interfaith couples should choose one faith for their children, but neither of us felt comfortable with the idea. Religion, culture, and identity are inextricably linked. How could either of us sacrifice the influence of our religion, the right to be a part of forming the religious and cultural identity of our children, without losing ourselves and our heritage in the process? Almost every family get-together, every memorable event of both of our childhoods, is linked to the things we celebrated as a result of our families’ religious identities. We feared that not sharing in either of those identities would isolate our children from the “out” parent’s side of the family because they would not be celebrated as an insider, and a member of the community. Ilyas and I were both concerned that we, and our future children, would feel such a loss very strongly, and we could not imagine asking each other to make such a sacrifice. We were sure that our marriage would not work if we chose one faith, so we chose both.

Although I am from a Christian family, I actually attended a Jewish preschool and elementary school, and I participated in the plays and Jewish celebrations. My parents thought that the smaller classes and rigor of the Jewish private school would help create a more challenging environment than any other local schools. I found it to be a really wonderful experience that taught me the value of interfaith knowledge and understanding. It definitely influenced the positive way that I view the idea of exposing children to more than one religion. Looking back on his years of celebrating Christian holidays with my family, Ilyas agreed.

The more we talked about it, the more clearly Ilyas and I saw what we believe. We believe that it is a human right to help shape the religious and cultural identity of one’s children, for both the mother and the father. It would be devastating for either of us to be excluded from that right, and so being both–raising our future children attending church and the mosque, fully part of both of our religious communities– is essential for us. We both value our religions and find profound and substantial similarities between our faiths that we feel will unite our future family.

We plan to explain the differences in our beliefs by telling our children that God, so amazing that he created this universe and more out of nothing, is just too great for any human to fully understand, and so people differ in beliefs in their effort to try. We aren’t diluting our faiths–we are teaching everything about both. We feel that we will be giving our future children a religious heritage that is accurate and complete by refusing to ignore either side of their family’s background. It may not work for every family, but we are confident that we are making the right decision for our family, and that we will have no regrets.

 Kristen is an Ohio native who loves British TV, good books, and the Buckeyes.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

A Millennial Perspective on Interfaith Marriage: When Unchurched Meets Unmosqued

Frank and Medina
Frank and Medina

 

 

(Note: Today I’m pleased to share this space with guest blogger Frank Fredericks.)

I recently read Susan Katz Miller’s Being Both, which is a practical, story-based guide on the many options interfaith couples have, with a particular focus on the feasibility of raising children in more than one faith tradition.

Being in an interfaith marriage of my own as a Millennial, I was fascinated by the different approaches offered, but at times felt like the discourse within its pages was for Gen X’ers, who are now raising children, whether toddlers or teens, and Boomers, the generation before them.  The challenges presented to them as interfaith couples include communal acceptance, birth and coming of age rituals, and ultimately identity in adulthood.  I believe Millennials will be facing slightly different challenges.

While reading, I reflected on my own marriage with Medina, who is a Muslim of Afghan and Mexican descent, and grew up in an interfaith household.  We are Millennials, both practicing in our respective faith traditions, but not particularly tied to specific congregations.  We believe, but our community of social interaction is wider than our religious community.  We both strongly identify with our religious communities, I as an evangelical Christian and Medina as a Muslim, but we are both extremely wary of institutions who claim to represent us.  We’re thus taking stock of what we want to give to our children when we begin, and what we’ll leave behind.

Reflecting on our own childhoods, I attended church, Christian schools, and even played guitar on worship team for both, while Medina attended mosque with her mother, and went to Islamic school after the regular school-day.  We both grew up fairly entrenched in our own traditions, but as adults no longer seek congregational life to experience the fruits of our religious traditions.

And it appears that Medina and I are representative of a larger trend of Millennials and religious practice. While the headlines often highlight the trend towards the growing non-religious identity among Millennials, there’s something else that’s equally telling: While two-thirds of Millennials identify with a religious tradition, only 22% of millennials actually attend weekly religious services.  In other words, the majority of Millennials religiously identify but do not belong to or regularly attend services with a congregation.  This has been referred to as the “unchurched” or the “unmosqued” movements, with a similar parallel for young Jews as well (granted, with a completely different construct for religious identity).

As a result, we’re not troubled by the same things Gen X interfaith and Boomer interfaith couples are.  We really don’t care at all about congregational acceptance. And like many people outside mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish congregations, birth and coming of age rituals are simply not a part of our religious traditions.  Granted, some of this is denominational, but as interfaith relationships become more widespread, Millennials in interfaith couples will be much more likely to come from communities beyond Jews, Catholics and mainline Protestants, including my own evangelical tradition, which although the largest religious group in America, has historically been more insular.

But one can argue, all this non-institutional Millennial hogwash might simply be a phase.  Perhaps we too as a generation will return to the pews and prayer rugs when our firstborns shock us with the life-changing initiation to parenthood.  Interestingly, the research hints that some of us may never do so. In American Grace, by Robert Putnam and Joseph Campbell, they outline how not only are Millennials attending weekly religious services less than those belonging to older generations, but they are also attending at a lower rate than those generations did at the same age. Essentially, this means that though one’s likelihood to attend a house of worship increases as you get older, each subsequent generation is attending less frequently, even when adjusted for age. The big question is how close to the pattern Millennials will stay, once they become parents.

Even if Millennials in interfaith relationships stay out of congregations even after entering parenthood, we still face plenty of challenges. Like the generations before us, we must grapple with identity, family acceptance, and family tradition. In fact, in the absence of congregational liturgy, the challenge of feeling “authentic” in individual worship, balanced with shared family ritual, may be even more difficult to navigate.

So when Medina and I have our first child, we may not be able to take wholesale all of the wisdom from the interfaith generations before us. But we can learn from how they created new religious responses to a changing landscape, to forge the religious practices of the 21st Century. I’m sure more of Being Both will become relevant as those of us in my generation become parents. And I pray that our children will find our innovations on religious life applicable for them, when they too face a changing religious landscape, just as we learned from the generations before us.

 

Frank Fredericks is the founder of World Faith, a global interfaith development organization, and Mean Communications, a digital strategy firm. He’s the shockingly fortunate spouse of the wildly intelligent and beautiful Medina Fredericks. He tweets at @frankiefreds

“Being Both” in Ten Minutes: A Video Chat with Susan Katz Miller

Being Both book

If you haven’t had a chance to hear a Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family talk, here’s a video chat I had recently with Aslan Media. (Aslan Media founder Reza Aslan and his wife Jessica Jackley are one of the Muslim/Christian couples featured in Being Both).

Catch upcoming talks in MD, CT, PA and CA (go to susankatzmiller.com and click “Events” for dates). Contact me at susan@onbeingboth.com to set up a talk at your college, seminary, house of worship, library, or community center.

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

“Partly Jewish”: The Study, and the Book

A box full of Being Both books arrives on my porch.
A box full of Being Both books arrives on my porch.

You may be wondering what I thought of the new national study from Pew, entitled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” which found 25% of intermarried Jewish parents raising children “partly Jewish and partly in another religion.” In short, I was not surprised. In researching Being Both, I found data on many individual cities (including Chicago, San Diego and Philadelphia) where 25% or more of such parents are raising kids with two religions. The Pew study confirms that our grassroots movement is important on a national scale. And now, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family will provide the first glimpse of the first generation of teens and young adults to grow up in dual-faith education programs.

Meanwhile, the publication day for Being Both is just two weeks away, and the first big box of books just arrived on my porch. As I make final preparations for the book tour, you can help spread the word by posting the Facebook event pages for the readings at Politics & Prose in Washington, and at Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side in New York. I’ll be continuing on to Boston, Connecticut and California. Stay tuned for more book tour stops, coming soon.

Here’s how the American Library Association’s Booklist, a resource for librarians, described Being Both last week:

Beginning with the story of her family of origin, Miller surveys the burgeoning phenomenon of families who observe two religious faiths. Her Jewish father married an Episcopalian…So began a multigenerational interfaith reality, which Susan continued as another Jew married to a Christian, this time in a ceremony that honored both religions. Four years later, the couple joined the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP) of Washington, D.C., whose mission is to raise member families’ children as Jewish and Christian. From the members, clergy, and teachers of IFFP and similar organizations elsewhere, Miller gathered the stories of how these families successfully raised children who are happily interfaith and intend to raise interfaith children themselves. Miller concludes this fine resource with a look at the next wave of, this time, Christian-Muslim and Christian-Hindu interfaith families.

Successful Interfaith Marriage: Reza Aslan and Jessica Jackley

Zealot

Reza Aslan’s newest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, had already reached the bestseller list when a video clip of the author went viral this week. The religion scholar appeared on Fox news to explain his latest work, but the host repeatedly questioned why a Muslim would be writing a book about Jesus.

Aslan–the acclaimed author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam–demonstrated extraordinary grace and patience on the show, explaining over and over that religion scholars write as academics, not as adherents. Buzzfeed asked if this was “The Most Embarrassing Interview that Fox News Has Ever Done?” Meanwhile, in the course of the interview, Aslan mentioned that his wife and mother are both Christians.

As it happens, I tell the story of this high-profile interfaith family in my book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. About a year ago, Aslan tweeted: “I’m in a blissful interfaith marriage with my Christian wife. We are raising our children to respect all faiths and choose 1 for themselves.” When I read that tweet, I contacted him, and he and his wife agreed to be interviewed for my book chapter entitled “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists: The Next Interfaith Wave.”

Aslan’s wife Jessica Jackley is prominent in her own field, as the co-founder of Kiva, the pioneering microfinance non-profit. But Aslan’s engagement with Christianity did not begin with marriage. In Being Both, he describes his own journey as the child of a family of Iranian refugees who were “cultural Muslims,” to a period of evangelical Christian zeal beginning in high school (during which he converted his own mother to Christianity), to rediscovery of Islam while a student of religions.

One of my themes is how being part of an interfaith family can inspire deeper understanding of one’s own religion(s), in the religion of a partner, and ultimately in the religions of the world. In describing their courtship and marriage, Jackley, who comes from an evangelical Christian family, told me, “He knows the Bible better than I do. He’s writing a book right now on Jesus. He understood my life better than most Christians.” That book eventually became Zealot.

Aslan and Jackley are now raising their twin sons with the values shared by both family religions, and with stories from diverse traditions. “What we’re going to teach our kids is the values, the beliefs, the activism, the worldview,” Aslan told me. “And when it comes to the stories, we’ll give them all of them.”

Being Both includes more on the marriage of Aslan and Jackley, the reaction of their interfaith families, and how they are raising their sons. They are two, perhaps the most prominent two, out of the hundreds of people who entrusted me with their interfaith family stories. Aslan, who received an advanced copy, calls the book, “A gorgeous and inspiring testament to the power of love to not only transcend the divides of faith and tradition, but to bring faiths together and create wholly new traditions.”

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.