Interfaith Zoom Life in Pandemic Times

I have always loved February. My parents had their interfaith wedding in a blizzard on February 13th. So I love the deep February snow when it comes. And I love the chocolate hearts, since the first day for my parents as a married interfaith couple was Valentine’s Day, a day devoted to love. During the six years of my life when I lived on the equator in Senegal and Brazil, I missed the snow (and Valentine’s Day). But in the Brazil years, the joy of Carnaval in February was the highlight of the cultural calendar, and a peak life experience for me, creating a new layer of love for February.

This year, February feels grey and icy cold indeed, as our isolation from each other goes on, and on. We are marking our first pandemic February, closing in on a full year living with masks, and distancing, and the loss of almost 2.5 million lives to COVID-19 worldwide (and almost half a million lives in the US). All of us are mourning. All of us are traumatized. And I wonder at times whether it is relevant, or appropriate, to carry on with my work making space for interfaith families and interfaith identities, or any other kind of “non-essential” work.

But the light is returning, more people are getting vaccinated, and we have hope that we will emerge eventually into a new normal. The story of my parents teaches me that love, combined with persistence and empathy, is essential. And so, I still get joy from supporting interfaith couples and families. So here is an update on what I’ve been up to during these pandemic times.

My work with interfaith families now takes place entirely on zoom, podcasts, telephone, and the internet, which has created the ability to support people anywhere, in any time zone. I have acted as a resource this year for undergraduate students, graduate students, and divinity students, all studying interfaith families, on several countries. This gives me great hope that there will be more academic literature soon, telling the diverse stories of interfaith families, across the globe.

I can zoom into religious studies classrooms anywhere now, without the travel expense. I am honored to be the guest this week, talking about interfaith families and interfaith identities, on Array of Faith. I am interviewed on this podcast by J. Dana Trent, who wrote The Saffron Cross, a book describing her own Christian and Hindu interfaith marriage. Now she has taken pandemic classroom guests to the next level. For the students in her Introduction to World Religions course, she and her husband created the Array of Faith podcast to host speakers with various religious identities.

And in honor of Valentine’s Day this week, I was invited back to State of Belief, the long-running radio show hosted by Rev. Welton Gaddy and the Interfaith Alliance. You can hear me there this week, chatting about interfaith love, interfaith families, and what has changed since I last appeared on the show eight years ago. Welton hosts the show from Monroe, Louisiana, which is one of the towns my rabbi great-grandfather served as he made his way up and down the Mississippi in the 19th century.

Another highlight of my professional year in the pandemic was a zoom keynote at The Guibord Center in LA, in conjunction with an expert on mixed race families, in which we addressed the intersection of these two rich and complex worlds. There is a significant overlap of interfaith families, interracial families, and LGBTQ+ families, and I hope to engage more with these synergies, going forward.

Meanwhile, the support networks I created online have become a refuge, where we can engage with each other without masks or fear of contagion. For interfaith families practicing two religions (any two or more religions or secular identities), join the private Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG) on facebook. And for adult interfaith kids, I recently started up the People of Interfaith Family Heritage private group on facebook. More on that project soon!

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Mardi Gras and Carnival: Joyful Interfaith Syncretism

We have arrived at my favorite moment in what I think of as the syncretic calendar:  the cycle of celebrations around the world acknowledging that religions collide, intertwine, hybridize, just as human beings in interfaith families do. This moment is called Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnaval in Brazil, and Carnival in Haiti and many parts of the Catholic world. Pre-Lenten revelry has roots in Christian Europe, nourished by pre-Christian pagan traditions, and then by indigenous and African religions in the Americas. I find particular resonance in the inclusive nature of Carnival, a time for playing with and vaulting over traditional boundaries of gender, race, and religion.

Experiencing Carnaval in Brazil contributed to my own fluid religious identity. I was born into an interfaith Jewish/Christian family with roots in New Orleans, predisposed to noticing religious interplay. As a young adult, I spent three formative years in Senegal, a progressive Muslim country built on African religious traditions and Catholic colonial history. Then, as a young mother, I spent three crucial years in Brazil,  a progressive Catholic country built on African and Amerindian traditions.

Brazil’s population is just as wildly diverse as ours: indigenous cultures, Africans, Japanese farmers, Germans and Italians and Arabs, Jews who arrived with the first European explorers. The entire country (except for disapproving evangelical Protestant sects) feels the right to celebrate together during Carnaval.

The time of revelry comes to a peak this week with Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. In Brazil, each day of this week entails a vast, complex, and region-specific universe of rituals, songs, dances, stories and costumes melding Catholicism, Yoruba rites from West Africa, and indigenous traditions. In my beloved city of Recife, there is a night of drumming, frevo dancing with umbrellas, spangled Afro-Brazilian Maracatu dancers clenching flowers in their teeth, masked revelers recalling the origins of Carnival in Europe.

Living in the cold (dare I say frigid?) north, we are deprived of Carnival, and I feel weltzschmertz, a world-sadness, when, instead, I am trapped in a March landscape of ice and dormant grey trees. On Fat Tuesday, our children go to school as if it were any other day (in Brazil they would have the week off). Perhaps on Ash Wednesday they notice ashes on the forehead of a Catholic friend or two, or perhaps not. Our culture seems only vaguely aware that Lent is upon us. I miss the warmth and daring of Carnival. I miss the feeling of a whole country celebrating together for a week, reveling in the joyful syncretism of Mardi Gras.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Tuned to the “Bothness” Frequency

As I write this morning, I’m also watching the Wold Cup match between Japan and Cameroon. I was living in West Africa in 1990 when Cameroon emerged as the first African team to make it to the quarter-finals. I became a lifelong soccer fan in those moments when the entire continent would go silent, huddled around televisions powered by car batteries, and then cheer in unison at each goal.

Why am I writing about soccer? Because no matter what I’m doing, I seem to be inadvertently tuned in to a frequency broadcasting the growing “bothness” of our world. Just now, I heard the announcers mention that one of the Ghanaian players is half-German. He’s both. And one of the Japanese players was born in the soccer-obsessed nation of Brazil. He’s both too. Increasingly, we’re all on the bothness spectrum, whether through intermarriage, immigration, adoption or simply through choosing to ally ourselves in new ways, through purposeful. global recombination.

Also this week, I tuned in to the “bothness frequency” when Diane Ives and Jon Lickerman, my fellow members of the Interfaith Families Project, got a letter published in the Washington Post testifying to the strength of interfaith marriages and families supported by our community and to the exuberant “bothness” of their son.

And also this week, I attended the Network of Spiritual Progressives conference in Washington, and tuned in to the bothness frequency as I heard speaker after speaker testify to the importance of “breaking down boundaries,” “crossing borders” and “embracing the other.” While not everyone engaged in interfaith dialogue likes to acknowledge this, interfaith families walk this walk every day. The proliferation of official interfaith conferences and organizations creates a constant hum on the bothness frequency, even though many do not (want to) understand what they hear this way.

Earlier this month, the bothness frequency came in loud and clear as I read the bewildered response of a Jewish blogger to Orthodox Rabbi Brad Hirschfeld’s realistic and open-hearted acknowledgement of families raising their children with both religions. The blogger notes with discomfort the Rabbi’s “relaxed attitude towards syncretism,” as if all religions were not, by nature and throughout history, inherently syncretic. The fact is that more and more members of the clergy are beginning to understand that interfaith communities are not going away, and may even have some merit.

Finally, one of my favorite bloggers, MaNishtana, wrote a powerful post this week about his own bothness: he is an African-American, and a Jew. His words reflect and amplify and resonate for all of us who are both, in all of our many ways of being both. He’s broadcasting loud and clear on the bothness frequency. Check it out.