In Which One Interfaith Family Sings Gospel…

All four members of my family got up onstage at an outdoor Roots Festival in West Baltimore recently and sang some flat-out gospel numbers. We had joined up with about a hundred other singers to help the Alternate Roots organization stimulate healing in a neighborhood ravaged by bad urban planning (including the notorious “Highway to Nowhere“).  The dynamic Tony Winston, of Payne Memorial AME church, led us in the gospel numbers. We also sang African songs (led by  Fred Onovwerosuoke) a labor song (led by Charm City Labor Choir Director Darryl! L.C. Moch), and peace, love and understanding songs (led by Elise Witt, who happens to hail from a Jewish/Christian interfaith family, which was somehow no surprise to me, since she’s a classic bridge-builder). With only two rehearsals, we had more enthusiasm than precision, and were very thankful that Tony Winston brought in some ringers from his choir.

My husband grew up in an undemonstrative brand of northeastern Episcopalianism, and I grew up in a rather dry and cerebral form of Reform Judaism (despite my interfaith background). Neither of us were prepared from youth to stand up in the middle of an African-American neighborhood and sing gospel, though my husband went to a majority-black public school for awhile, and actually has sung in his gospel choir at work in Baltimore. I credit my years of immersion in an interfaith families community with allowing me to become comfortable enough with talking (or singing) about Jesus. I have also vowed, in choosing to teach my children about both Judaism and Christianity, to seek out opportunities for them to access this kind of authentic experience with progressive, social-justice-minded Christian believers.

I should also note that after living in Baltimore and Washington, and in Africa, I came to respect the important role that Christianity, and Jesus, plays in the African-American community. I want my children to experience this part of their community, to feel comfortable in West Baltimore. So in a spirit of cross-cultural encounter, it made sense to me to sing out in this temporary semi-gospel choir, and not hold myself apart somehow. I am secure enough in my own connection to Judaism (though others might see me as imperiled by my interfaith pedigree) that I did not feel threatened in any way by participating.

So there we were. My teenage son ended up drumming with the corps of djembe-players, my husband was off at the other end of the huge stage somewhere in the bass section, and my teenage daughter and I sang our hearts out. We danced and sang to the African chants, we urged an end to war, racism, sexism, homophobia. And when Tony Winston got up, in his elegant white suit, we sang “Total Praise” and “He is an Awesome God” and even “Jesus paid the price, now I’m free from sin. I am souled out…” In fact, this last song, while it does not reflect my own beliefs directly, has been stuck in my head for weeks now. It reminds me of the joy on my daughter’s face, singing next to me on stage, when she finally shed her exquisite teenage self-consciousness and got caught up in the spirit of the experience.

For me, part of the opportunity of being in an intefaith family, is the special role and responsibility we feel to reach out and truly embrace the other, even when it means stretching a bit and singing about Jesus. I believe that religion can be a force for good in the world (as well as an excuse for wrongdoing), and I want my children to believe this. But good does not happen spontaneously. We make it happen. And one way we can make it happen is to participate in deep encounters like the one we had in West Baltimore.

Ten Things I Love About Christianity

Rio de Janeiro, 1996, photo Susan Katz millerRecently, someone asked me what I get out of Christianity: why not stick to calling myself Jewish? It is sometimes hard for Jews to understand, after a long history of oppression and conflict, why Christianity holds any appeal for interfaith children. Above and beyond our own Christian parents (Mom, you are of course the number one thing I love about Christianity!), here are ten random Christian things I appreciate:

Soup Kitchens. The life of Jesus, the way he tended to the poor and the sick, inspires hands-on grappling with poverty. From the international aid agencies run by Christians, to the urban clinics and shelters, these “ministries” may have begun as missionary work, but most aid workers have no such ulterior motives. For me, cooking a meal and serving it to the women at Luther Place involves a kind of border-crossing that does not occur when I simply send off a check.

The Gospels. My rabbi tells me that Jews believed in physical resurrection, even before the time of Jesus. But this story—complete with politics, betrayal, murder—was perfected by the Gospel writers. Whether it’s refracted through the Wizard of Oz, the tales of Narnia, ET, Godspell  or Kazantzakis, the story of Jesus moves me. And it’s not important to me whether it “really happened” or not.

Bishop John Shelby Spong. The former Episcopal Bishop of Newark, Jack Spong, came to speak to our interfaith families group—he’s probably the most senior Protestant theologian willing to be seen with us. He rejects the literal interpretation of Virgin birth and physical resurrection, he ordained openly gay priests. Spong is radically amazing.

The Music. Imagine a world without Gregorian chants, the liturgical music of Bach and Handel, Gospel, bluegrass and Johnny Cash. My Jewish dad and I both love to sit down and pound out Protestant hymns on the piano.

The Renaissance. I love  Cathedrals, embroidered vestments, illuminated manuscripts, religious paintings, oh, just about everything in Italy I guess…

Nuns and Priests. Many of the nuns and priests I have known working in the developing world (some of them giving out condoms on the frontlines of the AIDS epidemic) have been champions of local languages and culture, lovely souls, peace-builders. I also have a thing for Jesuit intellectuals who question in a way I recognize as “Jewish.”

Liberation Theology. In Latin America, the Catholic church often provided the only counterweight to oppressive military regimes. The current Pope continues to try to dismantle the remnants of liberation theology. But many who fought for justice drew on Catholic social teaching: among them Dorothy Day, Paolo Freire, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero.

The Abolitionists. The abolitionists represent a high point in the Protestant influence on US history: the Bible inspired Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Tubman.

Simplicity. The Quakers were instrumental in the anti-slavery movement. And while I love the ornate ritual of a Cathedral mass, as a New Englander I also love the simplicity of the Puritan, Shaker and Quaker esthetic: the white steeples, the wood furniture, the closeness to the land and farm, the quiet, the simplicity.

Christmas in New England. Singing carols on the town green, the snow piling deep and soft, a brass quintet, and yes, yes, the tree. My parents, the only interfaith couple on the street, hosted a Christmas party for the neighborhood every year of my childhood, with my Jewish dad at the piano leading carols fueled by a killer punch made of sauterne and champagne. My friend Ian Spatz, father of interfaith children, has a tongue-in-cheek theory that Jews actually intermarry because of Christmas envy. There may be something to it.


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