Interfaith Families, Interfaith Activists

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Women’s March, Washington DC, 2017                    Photo Susan Katz Miller

On Saturday, my daughter and I joined in the fierce and ecstatic experience of the Women’s March on Washington. Although my mother died four months ago, I felt we carried her with us–that we were marching for all three generations of women from our interfaith family.

I have always been an activist. I testify at city and county council meetings, I call elected officials, I support progressive non-profits, I march. For me, this work is spiritual work. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, after marching in Selma with Martin Luther King Jr., wrote that while he marched, “my feet were praying.”

But what does all this have to do with being from an interfaith family? Growing up in an interfaith family is a constant reminder that love wins. I’m talking here not about love in the abstract, but radical love between two individuals who are face to face and committed to engaging with each other for the long term. In an interfaith family–or an interracial or intercultural or LGBTQ family–we live with the idea that love vaults over boundaries, love challenges prejudice, love wins over hate.

Part of my work now involves amplifying the voices of people from interfaith families who are speaking out for love: interfaith leaders, interfaith peacemakers, interfaith activists. Our commitment to love comes from the gut, fueled by our most intimate full-time reality, informed by our family experiences.

Perhaps the idea of interfaith family members inspired to be interfaith activists sounds like a tiny niche platform to you. But this is #GenerationInterfaith. Pew Research recently found that one in five Americans grew up in an interfaith family, but that is just the start. If you live in a metropolitan area, and your family has been in the US for at least a generation, you probably have a partner, parent, child, sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent, step-grandparent, half-sibling, or beloved-neighbor-you-consider family, with a different set of religious beliefs or practices from your own. Not to mention the idea that every family is an interfaith family, in the sense that no two people have identical religious beliefs, practices, traditions, histories, or experiences. Even a partnership between two atheists is going to be informed by the plural religious histories of parents and grandparents, and by cultural traits derived from those various religious traditions.

In this sense, we are all from extended interfaith families. And we can all draw inspiration and motivation from those family ties. Those ties impel me to stand up against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, to stand up for refugees and immigrants, and to advocate for interfaith literacy. And by extension, because love wins, and because my interfaith lens helps me to become more aware of the complex intersectionality of identity, I stand up for other marginalized communities including LGBTQ people, people of all abilities, and #BlackLivesMatter.

And so, together, let us march.

 

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 @susankatzmiller.

 

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A Jewish Woman Who Says Inshallah

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The Tidjane Mosque in Kaoloack, Senegal, through the filter of red harmattan dust in 1989. Photo by Susan Katz Miller.

Once again this year, I am honored to be a part of #InterfaithRamadan, the month-long series of daily essays curated by interfaith activist Sarah Ager (@SaritaAgerman). Sarah is an English teacher living in Italy, a preacher’s kid. and a convert to Islam who describes herself as a “postmodern Anglo-Muslim hybrid.” She writes a blog called “A Hotchpotch Hijabi in Italy.” Two years ago, she posted an essay I wrote reflecting on my three-year sojourn in Senegal, a predominantly Sufi Muslim country. This year, partly in response to the toxic Islamophobic rhetoric in American political discourse right now, I wrote a new essay for #InterfaithRamadan, published yesterday, reflecting on why I say Inshallah and Alhamdulillah, and how this relates for me to the Jewish Shehecheyanu prayer. Hop over and check it out, and then browse through some of the many other wonderful #InterfaithRamadan essays there, and subscribe to Sarah’s blog.

My years in Senegal, the first years of my marriage, were formative in multiple ways. Immersion in a joyous, welcoming, progressive, and culturally rich Sufi Muslim culture permanently altered the way I see Islam and the world. As someone who has had the privilege to experience Senegal, I have written from this perspective on my own blog, again and again and again. As someone who grew up in an interfaith family, I see this as part of my role in the world: to build bridges as an interfaith activist, especially when intolerance is on the rise.

 

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.

My Parliament of the World’s Religions

Tibetan Buddhist monks make a sand mandala
Tibetan Buddhist monks make a sand mandala
Indigenous people getting ready for the opening procession
Indigenous people getting ready for the opening procession

For four days last week, I was immersed in an extraordinary community created by the Parliament of the World’s Religions: almost 10,000 people converged on Salt Lake City from around the world to learn about each other, pray for peace, and talk about saving the planet. The week was rich and dense with intercultural experiences. At dawn, I stood in a sacred circle with Ute people around a fire of wood and sage, gazing up at the Wasatch mountains beyond the highrises. I reclined on pillows with women in a conference room transformed into a red tent. And I learned a traditional Maori greeting from Grandmother Rose (Dr. Rangimarie Turuki Arikirangi Rose Pere), who came all the way from New Zealand to speak truth to power about corporate greed and climate change.

I heard inspiring speakers including Jane Goodall, Maryanne Williamson, Madea Benjamin, Joan Brown Campbell, Tariq Ramadan, Chief Arvol Lookinghorse, and Allan Boesak. And, I delighted in the inscrutable pop-up happenings that make the Parliament so much more lively and radically inclusive than an academic conference: the folks dressed in light-up angel wings, the young men in clown costumes dancing under a disco ball suspended on a long stick. The Parliament includes the sublime, and the ridiculous. Christian writer G. K. Chesterton gave it the snarky epithet: “a pantheon for pantheists.” But more accurately, it is an encounter of pantheists, monotheists, atheists, and everyone else.

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Langar with friends

One of the highlights of the Parliament for me occurred each day, when I took off my shoes, covered my head with my scarf, and enjoyed a free vegetarian meal served by the Sikh community in an extraordinary act of community service called langar, designed to uphold the principle of equality of all people. Whether sitting cross-legged on the floor at langar, or standing and watching the Tibetan Buddhist monks make a sand mandala, I got to meet people I never would have met otherwise, because at Parliament, everyone talks to everyone else in a spirit of openness. I also got to hang out with longtime friends who converged from my interfaith word (including emma’s revolution, Melody Fox Ahmed, Jackie Fuller, Katie Gordon, Victor Grezes, Katherine Rand, Sean Rose). And I finally met interfaith twitter buddies I had never met in person, including Vickie Garlock, Tahil Sharma, Simran Jeet Singh, Ellie Anders).

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Mormon Temple, Salt Lake City

Each Parliament is different, marked by time and place. Because we were in the Great Basin, this Parliament provided a strong opportunity to engage with indigenous American religious traditions from throughout the West and Canada. It also, of course, provided an opportunity to experience the center of the Mormon world. On my last day, suffering conference burnout, I stumbled out of the Salt Palace and walked up to Temple Square. There, I entered the 19th-century Assembly Hall and chatted with a young woman on her mission with the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (the LDS Church) as she explained her faith. Then, I headed into the spectacular Mormon Tabernacle to witness music and dance from a dozen different religious traditions on Sacred Music night. Judaism, my primary religion, was represented by a group of rabbis positioned all through the Tabernacle who blew long shofars together at the invocation, and by a multi-faith choir of local children who led thousands of people in singing a Shlomo Carlebach nigun (a mystical wordless tune).

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Multi-faith children’s choir in the Mormon Tabernacle

You never really know when or where you will have a Parliament experience again. So far, only a handful have been held (Chicago 1893, Chicago 1993, Cape Town 1999, Barcelona 2004, and Melbourne 2009). Parliament organizers announced their intention to hold the next one in two years, although we don’t yet know where. Wherever it is, whenever it is, I don’t intend to miss it.

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

Interfaith Ramadan: Jewish and Christian Meets Muslim

Beads I collected in Senegal, Mauritania and Mali.      Photo: Susan Katz Miller
Beads collected in Senegal, Mauritania, Mali and Benin. Photo: Susan Katz Miller

One of the great joys of writing Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family has been the opportunity to develop relationships with interfaith activists who are Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, and more. While acknowledging our differences, we tend to share a belief that love can prevail over hate, and that life is richer and fuller with all of us in conversation, and working together.

My personal response to the continuing religious violence in the world is to transcend boundaries with love. As someone with a Jewish (and interfaith) identity, I seek out the progressive and feminist Muslim community in particular, mainly through the miracle of Twitter. Some of my favorite Muslim interfaith activists on Twitter include @ImtheQ, @MuslimahMontage, @MelodyFoxAhmed, @HindMakki, @NajeebaSyeed, @HiddenHeartFilm, @ChrisMusForum, @IslamicChaplain, @PearlBLawrence, @Ingrid Mattson, @EbooPatel, and @SaritaAgerman.

This is the month of Ramadan, and many of these interfaith activists have created great projects (including #RamadanReads and @TheBigIftar) to complement the introspection and community-building of this period of fasting. Sarah Ager (@SaritaAgerman), is a preacher’s kid and a convert to Islam who describes herself as a “postmodern Anglo-Muslim” and writes a blog called “A Hotchpotch Hijabi in Italy.” For Ramadan, she publishes an entire month’s worth of reflections from Muslims, and everyone else, on Ramadan, in a project called #InterfaithRamadan, and then tweets it out under @InterfaithRam.

Sarah had noticed some of my blog posts on my positive experiences with Islam (perhaps here, here, or here), and invited me to write a piece for #InterfaithRamadan this year. I started with a scene from my book, and then had a new epiphany about how growing up in an interfaith family prepared me to encounter those with other religions. Sarah also inspired me to go around my house, photographing some of my beloved objects from Senegal, for this post. Here’s the start to the essay…jump to her blog to read the rest:

I moved to Dakar, Senegal, just three days after getting married in 1987. When our plane landed on the other side of the Atlantic, I stepped into a new role as a Jewish girl from an interfaith family, married to a Protestant working for a Catholic organization, in a predominantly Muslim country.

Growing up in a small New England town, everyone I knew seemed to fall neatly into one of two religious boxes labeled Christian (the religious majority) or Jewish (the tiny religious minority). But on a deeper level, as the child of an interfaith marriage, this strict binary always felt forced. I knew that the religious world, and my own identity, had to be more complex…read the rest here.

 

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

 

 

Breakthrough! Interfaith Families, Interfaith Engagement

Dali Museum, Figueres, Spain, photo by Susan Katz Miller

For years now, I have been advocating for interfaith families to be included in interfaith activism and conversation. Since 9/11, an inspiring interfaith movement has been growing, including interfaith activism on campuses. And just in the past couple of years, atheists and agnostics and secular humanists have been welcomed by many of these interfaith organizations, in recognition of the growth of these communities, and the idea that you do not have to have a faith to want to join the interfaith movement. All of this is good—very, very good.

But for those of us from interfaith families, the new focus on interfaith activism has raised two tricky (and intertwined) issues. The first challenge is linguistic. Interfaith families have always used the word “interfaith” to describe who we are. The pioneering intermarriage of my parents occurred in 1960. And since at least the 1980s, some of us have been raising interfaith children with both religions, and some of those children use “interfaith” as an identity label. So the word “interfaith” is being used both at a macro level to describe engagement between people of different faiths, and on a micro level to describe, well, engagement and marriage and identity in interfaith families. I don’t know if we should have or could have had different terminology to distinguish these two phenomena, but we don’t.

The second issue is that official interfaith conversations between representatives of different religious institutions have not always welcomed interfaith families and those with interfaith or dual-faith or multifaith identity. We represent a blurring of boundaries, and that ambiguity can sometimes make people uncomfortable.  And yet, people from interfaith families have skills to contribute to interfaith conversations and programs. We practice the art of communicating across religious divides, day and night, throughout our marriages, or throughout our lifetimes if we are born into interfaith families.

This week, I felt like I witnessed a breakthrough. I was invited by interfaith activist Sana Saeed to co-sponsor a twitter chat, alongside a group of interfaith organizers, leading up to a DC Young Adult Faith Leaders Summit tomorrow, organized by Faith in Action DC.  (Note: You can follow the Summit on twitter at #DCFaith). I started to buzz with excitement when I saw that the Summit will include people who “belong to traditional religious institutions, have multiple affiliations, no affiliations, or are somewhere in-between.” In other words, the summit is inclusive, on a whole new level.

In the twitter chat, I dove in and asked two questions: What can people from interfaith families, or who claim more than one religion, bring to interfaith activism and conversation? And, what are the challenges of including people with dual-faith or multiple-faith identities in interfaith conversation?

It was thrilling to read the responses from people who work full-time on interfaith engagement. Usra Ghazi of the Interfaith Youth Core tweeted that “interfaith families are like religiously diverse communities: great places for interfaith literacy.” Bud Heckman of Religions for Peace USA agreed that people from interfaith families bring their “lived daily experience” to the conversation, “But also assumptions/positions that are threatening to ‘single faith’ others. Benefit & barrier.”

And so, on to those challenges. Ghazi tweeted that interfaith conversations “tend to put people in a box. You can’t do that with ‘seekers’ and multi-faith identities.” InterfaithYouthCore responded that people with dual-faith or multifaith identities challenge “the norm that certain faiths are exclusive of others.” Faith in Action DC confided that, while organizing tomorrow’s Summit, they had the “challenge of placing multifaith participants. Which group are they in? So we created “Multi” category! #simple!” I am not sure everyone will find it that simple. But this chat felt like the beginning of a beautiful, and radically inclusive, conversation.

(Note: Some twitter abbreviations have been expanded in this post, to ensure greater comprehension by those over 30)

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.

Are Interfaith Children the Key to Interfaith Dialogue?

 

I would never have had the chutzpah (a word famously mispronounced by Michele Bachmann this week) to posit that interfaith children are actually THE key to interfaith dialogue. This week, I wrote an essay for Huffington Post and gave it the more modest title  “Why Include Interfaith Children in Interfaith Dialogue.” I made the case that interfaith families, and in particular, adult interfaith children, are “natural experts” in bridging cultures and religions, and that it would benefit the interfaith dialogue movement to reach out to interfaith families, rather than avoiding them. Huffington Post then tweeted a link to my essay, asking if interfaith children are the key to interfaith dialogue. Who knows? We won’t know into they are invited to participate. It’s certainly a grand vision. But my more modest point was to urge the organizers of interfaith conferences and programs to at least begin to include, rather than fear, interfaith families and children.

I have written before about the awkward semantic overlap of “interfaith families” and “interfaith dialogue,” and the way the word “interfaith” describes two independent concepts. But are they so different, really? On Huffington this week, I gave in to the classic bridge-building urge of many interfaith children, and attempted to span the gap between the interfaith families movement and the interfaith dialogue movement.

After posting to Huffington, I had an email conversation with religion (emeritus) professor Ned Rosenbaum, co-author (with wife Mary Helene Rosenbaum) of the seminal Celebrating Our Differences: Living Two Faiths in One Marriage. He has also noticed the uneasy relationship between interfaith dialogue and interfaith families. He describes the speakers at many interfaith dialogue conferences as like “parallel lines in Euclidean geometry, never meeting.” And adds,  “If they ever wanted to see what happens when interfaith paths cross like strands of DNA” he and Mary are available. And so are the adult interfaith children who embody those intertwined strands.