Immersion: Interfaith Families and Unitarian Universalism

Mount Hood, Oregon
Dramatic arrival in Portland for the UUA General Assembly

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.

UU banners, UUAGA Portland 2015
UU congregational banners, UUAGA Portland 2015

New Year’s Interfaith Gratitude: 9 Shout-Outs

Being Both Car Magnet

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 Both reviews 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.

6. The great city of New York. The birthplace of the original Interfaith Community for interfaith families, New York has supported this movement, and Being Both, from the beginning. In March, I’ll be in The City for panels at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, and at Union Theological Seminary uptown. Be sure to check the susankatzmiller.com event page for updates.

7. The great city of Chicago. My trip to Chicago this year to celebrate Being Both with the Interfaith Family School and The Union School for Interfaith Families strengthened my bonds with the other major city providing interfaith education for interfaith children. In Chicagoland, I also loved interacting with Rabbi Ari Moffic and interfaithfamily.com, with David Dault and the Things Not Seen podcast, and with Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation.

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.

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Three New Year’s Resolutions: Interfaith Mom

Entering the New Year, wearing the glittering, particoloured hat of an interfaith mom, I have three main goals for 2012:

1) Gracefully release my first child into the world. My daughter’s about to turn 18; she will leave for college this year. I have spent much of the past few months interviewing college students and young adults who graduated from interfaith education programs like ours, as part of the research for my book. I am examining the role religion plays in their lives once they are outside the protective bubble of an independent interfaith community. As she leaves our family, and, effectively, leaves the Interfaith Families Project in which she has been raised, I give my daughter this advice: continue to study and explore religion, deepening your knowledge, seeking the forms of spirituality that work best for you. Take advantage of the opportunities provided on campus to connect with both sides of your religious heritage. But also, feel empowered to create an independent space on campus for interfaith children to come together and support each other: to replicate in miniature the interfaith community that nurtured you. And also, feel empowered to explain the particular skills and experience you bring, as someone raised in an interfaith community, to interfaith dialogue and interfaith activism efforts such as the campus-based Interfaith Youth Core.

2) Figure out what an interfaith community will mean to me in my “post-mom” phase. I still have a son just starting high school, but he has finished his formal Sunday School training in our interfaith community. So far, I find that even without children in the program, I continue to be drawn to our community on Sunday mornings–to the songs and reflections, to the chance to celebrate joys and mourn losses together, to the deep friendships I have made in our thriving community, to the lively adult discussion group, and to the tempting yoga class our community provides.

3) Finish the book! This fall, I recorded dozens of final interviews with interfaith parents, interfaith children, and clergy working with interfaith families. Over the next six months, I will wrestle this new material, and my hundreds of survey responses from interfaith parents and children, into a book with the working title, The Joy of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Family. I cannot wait to bring you these new voices and stories from the emerging movement of interfaith families raising children with two religions. Next year, inshallah, the book will reach your bookstore and your e-reader, thanks to Beacon Press.

Want to help? I am still seeking to interview more families raising children in two religions other than the Jewish/Christian combination (i.e. Muslim/Protestant, Buddhist/Jewish, Pagan/UU, Hindu/humanist, etc.). Please contact me at susan@onbeingboth.com.

Being Both: The Book

Recently, I hopped into a cab at Boston’s Logan airport and asked the driver to drop me at the corner of Charles and Revere, on Beacon Hill. Once there, I stood gazing up at the windows of the apartment where I spent my first five years, where my parents started their pioneering interfaith marriage some 50 years ago. As it happens, they met when they shared a taxi from Logan airport to Beacon Hill. I wandered into the  antique shop on the ground floor of our old building, and pulled up distant memories of this hushed emporium filled with magical objects and dusty golden light. I selected a small totem to bring me luck at the start of an ambitious new adventure. Then, I dragged my roll-on bag over the cobblestone crest of the Hill, to the venerable Beacon Press, to meet my editor.

Yes, my editor. I am thrilled to announce that in 2013, Beacon Press will publish my book on interfaith life. The working title is The Joy of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

I want to thank you, my readers, for speaking out in your comments on this blog, and in your daily conversations, about the joys and challenges of creating an interfaith future together. You have pushed my thinking and helped me to hone my description of this novel pathway. I see my job, on this blog and now in the book, as chronicling your efforts to create a place in the world for families celebrating more than one religion. All of you–blog readers, twitter followers–helped to demonstrate that this vision merits publication in book form.

The book will depict the independent interfaith families movement, based on original reporting and surveys I have been conducting for years now with families who have chosen both religions, and with adult and teen interfaith children raised with two religions.

After meeting with my fearless editor, I continued on to the home of my parents, who are still happily intermarried after 50 years. I told them of my pilgrimage to our old apartment, and unwrapped my antique-shop purchase. What appeared, to me, to be an elegant but mysterious object, they recognized immediately as an ink blotter. My dad then retold his famous story of getting in trouble in grammar school when he reached out and grabbed the pigtail of the girl who sat in front of him, and dipped it into an inkwell.

The world has changed dramatically in my father’s lifetime. Interfaith families have far more options than they did when my parents married. But also, I don’t use any form of ink at all, as I write on a laptop. I am grateful that my publishers will use ink to print the book–that they continue to resist the idea that books made from paper pulp are becoming as antiquated as quill pens and ink blotters.

I plan to keep my ink blotter within sight as I write over the next year. I will take inspiration from my chosen ritual object: from the fine craftsmanship, the pleasing form, the useful nature, the connection to history and to my own autobiography.

Again, thanks to all of you for speaking out on both the needs of interfaith families, and the creative energy we draw from our interfaith experience. And thank you for virtually demanding the documentation of this experience in the form of a book.

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