In the coming weeks, I am excited about visiting two states new for me as a speaker: Washington state, and North Carolina.
First up is the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly (UUAGA) in Spokane, where I will host a Story Slam at 3pm, and sign books in the Exhibit Hall at 4:30pm, this Thursday June 20th. In part because both of my books are published by UU presses (Beacon Press, and Skinner House), I look forward to meeting up with longtime colleagues in the UU world. And I get a warm fuzzy feeling anytime I’m invited to speak in a UU environment. So, invite me to your UU community!
Often these days, I find the story slam format fulfilling. This is how it works: I give over much of my allotted time to the audience, and encourage people to describe the rich complexity of the benefits and challenges of being in an interfaith family, or claiming more than one religious or spiritual tradition. My intention has always been to foment rather than lead a movement, and to encourage others to write and speak from anywhere in the gorgeous constellation of complex religious, spiritual and secular families and identities. By sharing the literal stage, and inviting guest bloggers onto this virtual platform, I get to do that.
My next gig is in July, at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina, outside Asheville. Wild Goose, originally inspired by the Greenbelt festival in the UK, has been compared to Burning Man, Woodstock, and an old-fashioned tent revival. The week-long festival draws thousands (many of them camping out) and includes music, art, craft brews, and top speakers (this year including Rev. William Barber–perhaps the greatest civil rights speaker of our time, the tattooed Lutheran firebrand Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, and mystic Presidential candidate Marianne Williamson). Wild Goose is open to all, but was founded by and appeals to socially progressive Christians, often allied with what was the post-evangelical “emergent church” world. I am excited to immerse myself in this world for the first time, and introduce festival-goers to Being Both and The Interfaith Family Journal.
I’ll report back from these points west and south, and look forward to hearing from you as I line up more Interfaith Story Slams and other book talks and teaching gigs for the fall, and into 2020.
We are still fighting the myth that interfaith children grow up to be lost and confused. Rev. Erik Martínez Resly is an interfaith child who grew up to become an inspired community leader. I met Erik at the Parliament of the World’s Religions this year, and recently interviewed him about his work as Lead Organizer of The Sanctuaries, a racially and religiously diverse arts community in Washington, DC.–SKM
1. How would you describe your own religious family history and journey?
I grew up in a mixed religious family, Jewish and Christian, both practicing. My parents embraced the tension, encouraged me to experience both ritualistic worlds, find my own place of commitment and conviction. Living overseas in Germany, we attended the Unitarische Freie Religionsgemeinde, a free-religious community that served mixed families like our own, some Muslim-Christian, others cross-cultural in non-religious ways. As a teenager, I was “religious but not spiritual,” in the sense that I attended services but didn’t necessarily identify with the beliefs and practices in an intimate and immediate way.
However, in my last years of high school, all of that changed during a particularly difficult struggle with chronic illness. I was stretched and shoved to my physical and spiritual limits, and forced to make a decision about how to face death. I chose life, in the sense that I came to appreciate the small moments of rupture and revolution, the seeds of the spirit that broke through the pain and hardship. I will never forget the one time I was in great pain wrapped in covers on my hospital bed, and I all of a sudden had this urge to pray. I don’t know where it came from! I neither really knew how to pray, nor whom I would be praying to. My illness didn’t magically heal, but I felt the power of something or someone holding me up, giving me the strength and courage and resilience to push on. “Maybe that’s God,” I thought to myself, intentionally leaving the question open. It was a question that I would carry with me for many years, and one that I continue to live with to this day.
2. What inspired you to found The Sanctuaries?
After flirting with a career in international politics, I came to realize that institutions are only as humane as the people behind them. So I decided to devote my life to supporting the people behind them — empowering people to live as their best selves. I sought graduate training in religious pluralism at Harvard Divinity School, and was ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister.
At the same time, I quickly realized that our inherited forms of organized religious community needed to shift to catch up with the changing realities of what it means to be a younger person in the economic context and cultural worlds that we find ourselves in. As an artist and activist, I found this to be even more pronounced within circles of creative and conscious people, who too often described organized religion as something that burned or bored them. Let me be clear: I have deep respect for more traditional religious communities. Nevertheless, there is an ever-growing population of younger people who do not feel connected to or well served by these institutions. And so, I felt that we needed to broaden the bandwidth on what a spiritual community could look like.
Towards the end of 2012, I spent six months meeting with people — at cafes, bars, gallery openings, music shows, and everything in between. I wanted to know what type of community they would value, what would be worth their time, what was missing in their lives. The Sanctuaries was born in 2013 as a collective response to those questions.
People told me that they sought a community that truly reflected the racial and religious diversity that exists in this city, and an opportunity to build lasting friendships with people they otherwise wouldn’t meet. People also told me that they yearned for a spiritual community that would welcome them as they are, without drama or judgment, and that would celebrate their questions, curiosities, and doubts. It would be a place where devout Muslims and committed Christians could grow spiritually alongside people who do not claim a specific tradition, but who still strive to live a life of meaning and purpose. Lastly, people told me that they wanted to help build a creative community that encouraged personal creative expression and artistic collaboration, across mediums, in service of a higher cause. A place where art and soul fuel social change.
3. So what does this work at The Sanctuaries end up looking like?
The Sanctuaries hosted more than 60 gatherings last year. One highlight was being invited to perform at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City, a gathering of over 10,000 people from around the world, last fall. Another highlight was working with fifteen of our artists of diverse racial and religious backgrounds to record a seven-track album, “The Mixtape,” that sold out its first pressing. The album fuses hip hop and soul with folk and classical Indian ragas, incorporating spoken word poetry, thumping beats, soaring vocals. It’s raw, and sacred.
4. Where do you see The Sanctuaries heading next?
We’re about to launch our Collective, which will equip engaged citizens to harness the power of their creative and spiritual lives to promote social change in their own communities. We’ll host a three-month pilot this spring, free of charge, where ten creative people of diverse backgrounds and mediums will form a community, and receive studio space and supplies, tools for deepening their spiritual voice and artistic craft, and the opportunity to learn from and contribute to a local justice campaign. Applications are open now and will close on Friday, January 15th.
The Collective is part of our larger mission to bring new perspectives to the social problems that we face. The world desperately needs creative leaders of diverse backgrounds who are spiritually grounded and socially conscious.
5. What do you think makes this kind of community powerful for those from younger generations who have no interest in traditional religious institutions?
The Sanctuaries is an unapologetically inclusive and relevant community. It’s real and raw — a space to creatively explore what organizer Osa Obaseki, Co-Founder of our Collective, calls “spiritual gangsta shyt.” There’s an appreciation for the wisdom of ancient traditions, alongside a desire to figure out what it means to live well in the here and now.
Members of our community often tell me that this is the first community they’ve found that welcomes their whole selves — the creative and the spiritual, the questions and the convictions, the successes and the shortcomings. We don’t need to look alike or think alike to love alike.
Let me also say: partnership is powerful. It’s a form of support without suffocation. It’s a way to mutually commit to a shared cause, and collaboratively work towards a shared vision. I prize the partnerships we have with local religious institutions, as well as with small businesses, arts organizations, and justice campaigns in the area. They don’t try to do what we do, and we don’t try to do what they do. Rather, we share stories, learn from each other, find ways to share resources and celebrate shared successes. I truly believe: we’re better together.
6. How do you think growing up in an interfaith family helped to form your approach to religion and the world?
My family taught me to appreciate difference and embrace contradiction. Sometimes you can’t come to a resolution that pleases everyone. Sometimes life is just too complicated for easy answers. Rather than fight these impasses, I’ve learned to welcome them.
So often, finding an answer closes down curiosity. It stops a journey of inquiry, and sends everyone home, puffed up and proud. Points of difference, on the other hand, open up new questions and demand new perspectives. They force us to look at things differently. They stretch our minds. They expand us.
That’s not to say that answers are unimportant. They’re guideposts along the journey. But growing up in an interfaith family, I came to know a God who refuses to be put into a box, to be mobilized to reinforce our sectarian divisions, to be reduced to our human prejudices.
Technically, I am not a Unitarian-Universalist (UU), but I spend a lot of time interacting with and thinking about UUs. I sometimes claim the labels of UU wannabe, fauxnitarian, or UU ally. In part, this feels like fate, because I was born on Beacon Hill, the birthplace of American UUism. And my book, Being Both, was published by Beacon Press, the venerable yet feisty publishing house founded by Unitarians in 1854. Theologically, I am both a unitarian (I see the mystery some call God as one, not as a trinity), and a universalist (I don’t believe anyone is going to hell). And the intentional interfaith families communities I chronicle share most if not all of the UU principles. (Check out “So Why Aren’t You a Unitarian?”).
But both my appreciation of, and education in, the UUniverse reached a new level this week when I had the tremendous honor of speaking about interfaith families at the Sophia Fahs Lecture at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly (UUAGA), in Portland, Oregon. With more than 4000 UUs at the UUAGA, I spent many hours engaged with thoughtful UU leaders and educators and clergy, both in the Professional Development workshop for Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA), and at my lecture, and in coffee shop conversations.
It was a great joy to finally meet some of my favorite intellectual and spiritual colleagues and fellow disruptors from the UU twitterverse. And it was an ecstatic moment to get to celebrate the Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage for all, in a community of thousands of people who worked hard for this decision, most recently through the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, a campaign with great resonance for interfaith families.
All week in Portland, I gathered perspectives and stories from UU leaders who also live in interfaith families. We talked about both the synergies and the challenges of being an interfaith family in the UU world, or in any specific religious community. Here are some of the take-aways so far:
1. Unitarian Univeralism has long provided a welcoming spiritual home for interfaith families, often in times and places where no one else would welcome them, for which we are all profoundly grateful.
2. Individual UU congregations vary greatly in the degree to which they use Christian frameworks and language. Those that emphasize words and concepts including church, ministry, and mission, create higher barriers for interfaith families who might be interested in Unitarian Universalism.
3. To a certain extent, even committed UUs who come from Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Pagan or secular humanist backgrounds still sometimes see UUism as Protestant in its esthetics and form, even while it emphasizes “radical hospitality.” And at times, they can feel like guests of this hospitality, rather than hosts.
4. There is a (creative) tension between the desire to affirm the unifying importance of specific UU identity, and the desire to affirm the role of interfaith families in UU communities and the complexity of interfaith identities.
5. As an advocate, I strive to help all interfaith children, in any and every community, to feel positive about interfaithness as an enriching rather than a problematic component of identity. This means I encourage any and all religious communities to draw on the knowledge and interfaith dialogue skills of the interfaith families in their midst, rather than politely ignoring interfaith heritage.
6. Unitarian Universalism has been on the forefront of inclusion for people of all genders, all sexual orientations, all abilities, all races, all cultures. And drawing on wisdom of many religions is explicit in the UU principles.
7. Extending this history of radical inclusion to explicitly affirm the experience of interfaith families inside and outside of UU communities helps to ensure that these families feel that they are part of the creative energy at the core of UUism, and not simply at the periphery.
This week, together with UU leaders from across the country, we talked about specific strategies for appreciating interfaith families as a resource and inspiration. I am deeply grateful that Unitarian Universalists thought this topic was so important that they brought me to Portland to engage in this conversation. And I look forward to continuing this work in collaboration with UU colleagues.
Today, I’m excited to announce the launch of the Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG, prounounced “niff-gee”). This network will help interfaith families who want interfaith education for their children to find each other, across the country, and the globe. For now, you can find NIFG in the form of a facebook group created by and for interfaith families celebrating more than one family religion.
It’s all very well to live in one of the big American cities with a vibrant community of interfaith families providing interfaith education for interfaith children. But what if you are an interfaith couple in New Hampshire or Nevada or Alabama, or Europe or Latin America or Asia? What if you just want to find one or two or ten other families in your region who are celebrating both family religions?
Many interfaith families seek me out because they would love to have a community designed by and for interfaith families, like the ones described in Being Both, but don’t know where to begin. In the book, I outline several ways to start a new interfaith families community. But the first step, finding a few other interfaith families who want to join you for a Shabbat meal or a holiday celebration, can seem like a big hurdle.
The new NIFG facebook group is designed to help any and all of these families find each other, or find existing groups. (Note, this network is for groups that are either independent of religious institutions, or have links to institutions and clergy representing both religions, not for groups sponsored by one religion only). One uploaded file has a list of links to existing groups (this list is also on my blog and on my author website). The other uploaded file has a new list of people willing to be the contact person in geographic areas that do not currently have active interfaith family communities—so far, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Seattle.
So, if you know anyone in those three cities that might be interested in meeting other interfaith families interested in interfaith education, please forward them this post, and the link to the facebook group. If you live in a different geographic area and want to meet other interfaith families doing both near you, let me know and I will add your name and email to the uploaded file at the NIFG group.
Remember, by adding your name to this file, you don’t have to commit to running a new organization all by yourself. You might just connect to a few other couples (with or without children), and get together for brunch to talk about interfaith life, or share resources about which local congregations are the most welcoming. While most interfaith couples in formal interfaith family communities are Jewish and Christian, maybe you are looking for other Hindu and Jewish couples, or atheist and Christian couples. Maybe you need to find local clergy to help with a wedding or baby-welcoming. Maybe you just want to make some new friends who understand your interfaith approach. Or maybe you want to launch a one-room interfaith education schoolhouse in the fall. The idea is that the NIFG facebook group can facilitate all of these conversations and connections.
P.S. If you’re in the Washington DC area, be sure to join me on Sunday at 6:30pm at Busboys and Poets, Takoma, for a very special Generation Interfaith event. I’ll be in conversation with one of the young adults portrayed in Being Both, a graduate of the interfaith education experience.
In this New Year, at the start of 2015, I want to try to thank everyone who supported Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family in 2014, the first full year since publication and the year of the paperback launch. In particular, I want to thank the following (overlapping) nine communities for engaging with interfaith families celebrating more than one religion:
1. Jewish Communities. When I began work on Being Both ten years ago, almost no one in Jewish leadership wanted to acknowledge families providing interfaith education to interfaith children. But this year, I was invited to explain Being Both in more than one synagogue and Jewish Community Center and in multiple Jewish media outlets. And I became one of the respondents for the Jewish Daily Forward‘s interfaith advice column. I also had the privilege of addressing two groups of rabbis (in Chicago and Maryland), who listened intently, asked hard questions, and I hope went away understanding how Jewish communities could benefit from engaging with the 25% of Jews in interfaith marriages who have chosen to raise children in both family religions. One rabbi told me, “Fifty percent of the interfaith couples I marry now say they plan to do both. Your book represents the reality we are facing–we are only just beginning to figure out how to grapple with this.”
2. Unitarian-Universalist (UU) Communities. I was so very fortunate to be published by Beacon Press, a venerable non-profit press promoting “freedom of speech and thought; diversity, religious pluralism, and anti-racism; and respect for diversity in all areas of life.” Not everyone realizes that Beacon Press is affiliated with the Unitarian-Universalist Association (UUA). I often say that no other press, religious or commercial, was brave enough to publish my book. Historically, many interfaith families have found community in UU congregations, and this year, I began speaking at UU communities. I look forward to attending the UU General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, next June.
3. Muslim and Hindu allies. While Being Both is primarily about Jewish and Christian interfaith families, it also includes Muslims and Hindus in interfaith marriages, and I hope it will be helpful to people of all religions, going forward. This year, I have really enjoyed interacting with interfaith activists of many religions and worldviews on Twitter, and at conferences. Specifically, I want to shout out here to those who have engaged with or reviewed Being Both, including Muslim interfaith parent Reza Aslan, Hindu interfaith spouse Fred Eaker, Shailaja Rao who advocates for Hindu/Muslim couples and other interfaith families in Asia, and several Muslimah interfaith activists who posted Being Bothreviews or features.
4. Atheist and secular humanist allies. Marriages between religious and nonreligious people are a growing cohort. I share the perspective with many humanist writers that it is possible and even beneficial to expose children to more than one religion and worldview, realizing that all children grow up to make their own decisions about belief and affiliation. This year, I particularly appreciated interactions with Humanistic Rabbi Adam Chalom, Faithiest author Chris Stedman, and In Faith and In Doubt author Dale McGowan. I look forward to speaking in the coming year at Ethical Society, Sunday Assembly, Humanistic Jewish, and college organizations such as the Secular Student Alliance, about the overlapping experiences of humanists and people from interfaith families.
5. My home, greater Washington DC. I am so grateful to live in a book-loving city, the kind of city that hosted a packed Being Both launch event at Politics & Prose. I’m also grateful to live in a city where families who want interfaith education for their interfaith children have the support of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington. Coming up this year in greater DC, look for a talk in March at the venerable Bethesda Writer’s Center. There’s always space on the calendar for local talks, so contact me if your DC-area university, community, or book group wants to host a Being Both event.
8. The great state of California. On the West Coast, I loved reconnecting with the founders of the original interfaith families community in the Bay Area including Oscar Rosenbloom and Alicia Torre, meeting the staff at the charming Book Passage in Marin, catching up with longtime friend and author Julia Flynn Siler, and interacting with interfaithfamily.com San Francisco, the Silicon Valley JCC, and Claremont School of Theology friends who study complex religious identity. On January 10th, I’ll be back in Claremont CA to speak at Claremont Lincoln University. Join me!
9. And finally, to my extended interfaith family, including my husband, my two interfaith kids, my pioneering interfaith parents, and my siblings, in-laws, nieces, nephews and cousins, whether Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Quaker, Buddhist, atheist, or all, or none, of the above. Thank you, once again, for demonstrating what a big, loving, interfaith family can be.
I’m very pleased to announce that Being Both is the December selection for the #UUreads program. I wrote this piece for Beacon Broadside, the marvelous blog from my publisher, Beacon Press. To read it on that blog, click here.
After our family Thanksgiving, set in the muffling silence of eternal snow in northeastern Pennsylvania, I sent my daughter back to her sunny California college with a care package to remind her of all the Christmases, and all the Hanukkahs, of her childhood. I tucked into her bag an Advent calendar, and tiny Hanukkah presents wrapped in tissue paper, numbered for each of the nights until she comes home for winter break.
As interfaith parents in 21st century America, we have the freedom to choose the labels we bestow on our children. A Jewish and Christian couple may raise children as Jewish, or Christian, or Unitarian-Universalist, or Quaker, or Buddhist, or secular humanist, or interfaith, or on two or more of these pathways simultaneously. No single choice is going to work for every interfaith family.
As an interfaith child who was raised Jewish, I have come to believe that interfaith children know they are interfaith children, no matter which formal religious label we provide for them. In part, this is because interfaith children inevitably experience formative interfaith moments, especially during the holiday season in December, with grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. And that’s a good thing.
For me, Hanukkah resonates deeply because I have Jewish family. And at the same time, Christmas resonates deeply because I have Christian family. In raising my children with both family religions, my intent was to give them permission to explore, and feel, and understand both religions, and this time of year, that means participating in both holidays. After experiencing both the “choose one” pathway as a child, and the “choose both” pathway as a parent, my contention is that there is no way to exclusively raise a child with one religion in an extended interfaith family. I agree that for some interfaith families, it makes sense to choose a singular religious label and formal religious education in just one religion. But family is family, and in the end, a claim that we are raising children exclusively in one religion means trying to exclude the emotional weight and sensory memories of the family traditions we experience together.
And so, an interfaith child may be raised with only a Jewish education, but she is still going to smell gingerbread in a grandmother’s kitchen, see the heirloom ornaments sparkling on a cousin’s tree, and feel a thrill when she hears cousins belt out the Hallelujah chorus in Handel’s Messiah. An interfaith child may be raised with only a Christian education, but he is still going to crave Bubbe’s latkes with apple sauce, sense a connection during that one dreidel song at the school holiday concert, and feel a thrill when he hears cousins belt out “tyrants disappearing” while singing around the menorah. Children learn, and form identities, through these experiences as much as through their formal religious educations.
In the coming weeks, in her dorm room thousands of miles away, each day my daughter will open the cardboard windows adorned with faeries and mushrooms on her Advent calendar. And each night she will snap the glow sticks and insert them into her fire-safe, dorm-approved, plexiglass menorah for Hanukkah, emitting a multicolored luminescence. Then, she will sleep in the close and holy darkness, and dream of returning to her extended interfaith family for the final days of both holidays.
This year, I posted my annual roundup of communities that welcome interfaith families over on my Huffington Post blog, in order to reach more interfaith families looking for comfortable spiritual or religious or secular homes. I hope you’ll take a look. It includes mention of Jewish, Humanistic Jewish, Ethical Society, Unitarian-Univeralist and interfaith family communities…
Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky are about to become interfaith parents. And as interfaith parents, they are about to face an ongoing series of decisions about the religious affiliation and education of their interfaith children. This time of year, with the nip of autumn in the air to remind us of the passage of time, and the Jewish High Holidays fast approaching (September 24th and October 3rd), many interfaith families are making the annual decision on whether to affiliate with a church, a synagogue, or neither. Or both… Click here to continue