A Steep Mountain: Interfaith Life in a Pandemic

In my Easter bonnet. On mute.

We made it through Holy Week and Passover. Dayenu.

Dayenu is everyone’s favorite song at the Seder. It means, “it would have been enough.” We use it to express gratitude. Even in this harrowing time, we need gratitude. (We also need big helpings of courage, and righteous anger, and passion for social justice, all themes of the seder).

Since I last posted here, the pandemic has gotten very close and real. I know people who have died, are sick, were separated from dying loved ones, have not been able to mourn these losses with traditional ritual.

We are locked down. We are masked. We are anxious, depressed, at times terrified.

Pot by Martha Legg Katz. Photo by Aimee Miller

Still, I have the privilege of being able to feel gratitude:

For the cherry blossoms and daffodils. Dayenu.

For the mourning doves nesting on our front porch in a ceramic pot my mother made. Dayenu.

For the sweet antics of the rescue puppy we adopted just before the pandemic hit DC. Dayenu.

For my years spent in Brazil cultivating a love for rice and beans, which help me live from my pantry now. Dayenu.

For my sister who runs a homeless healthcare clinic in New York City, and all the other workers risking themselves to try to save others. Dayenu.

And for Tony Fauci, that brilliant mensch, whom I interviewed many times while covering the HIV/AIDS epidemic during my years as a science reporter. Dayenu.

And, now more than ever, I feel deep gratitude for my interfaith families community. Just as Holy Week and Passover and the Sikh holiday of Vaisakhi and Ramadan were approaching, we were forced to scramble to make the transition to online religious and spiritual gatherings. Clergy now have to be tech wizards, innovating to conjure up the sounds and smells and tastes of these holidays, while attempting to maintain a sense of community for people in tiny pixellated squares. (Teachers, including my daughter, are faced with the same awesome task and steep learning curve right now).

2020 seder plate with some pandemic substitutions

One silver lining of our abrupt and forced transition to online religious and spiritual community, is that anyone with a computer or smartphone and the link can join in. As someone who loves ritual, I was able to zoom into many different communities in the past week, experiencing different seders, and different Holy Week services. At each of those celebrations, we were joined by people from across the country and the globe for the first time. Dayenu. And I had these diverse Jewish and Christian experiences, without having to drive to the homes of relatives in multiple states (as much as I fervently wish I could do that right now).

Historically, I have not always found Easter and Holy Week comfortable, as a Jew. More like, complicated. But once again this year, celebrating with the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC, in a service created by and for interfaith families, felt glorious. I could relax the part of my brain on alert for supersessionist ideas or language. Instead, the beauty of Easter’s metaphor, of renewal, of resurrection, shone through in the time of the pandemic, with over 100 families zooming in. In our community, Easter traditions include singing Morning Has Broken (with music by a Christian who became a Muslim), and Lord of the Dance (a Christian song inspired in part by a Hindu deity), as well as more traditional Easter hymns.

Among academics of religion today, the trend has been to repudiate the idea–the metaphor–that all religions are different paths up the same mountain. Instead, the dominant paradigm now is that each religion is a separate mountain, with different goals. I am glad I am not trying to earn tenure right now, because every time I experience interfaith community, I disagree with my heart and soul. I feel we share the mountain, just as we share the globe.

The mountain is the human condition. And on this shared mountain, the slope feels particularly steep right now. How do we persevere through pandemics and plagues? How do we cultivate community and compassion? Each religion and culture develops different strategies, different rituals, different liturgies. (For those in academia, yes, I am forever #TeamHustonSmith, #TeamKarenArmstrong. Apologies to friends on #TeamStephenProthero). No one said all religions are the same–or anyways not Huston Smith, not Karen Armstrong, and not me. If they were all the same, why would I need a life enriched by both religions in my heritage, the sibling religions of Judaism and Christianity?

Both Passover and Easter include the egg as a symbol. The mourning dove lays exactly two eggs. On my front porch, which represents the edge of the permissible world for us right now in lockdown, those eggs are due to hatch any day. Mourning seems appropriate in a pandemic. And doves feel like a hopeful sign, as they were for Noah. The doves (the male and female take turns on the nest) are hunkered down. They have adapted to us walking inches from their home, and even to the bark of our untamed puppy. When they hatch, I will feel another small moment of Dayenu.

It will have to be enough.

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.

Interfaith Generation: Rev. Erik Martínez Resly

The Sanctuaries, DC.   Photo, Erik Martínez Resly

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.

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Rev. Erik Martinez Resly    Photo, Julio Jimenez

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.

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The Sanctuaries at the Parliament.      Photo, Erik Martínez Resly

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.

 

2014 song and video by The Sanctuaries, DC.

 

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.

Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Interfaith Families, 2015

autumn image

(Each year, I adapt this post with new links to upcoming High Holiday services for interfaith families.–SKM)

Shofar blast! The Days of Awe (the Jewish High Holidays) begin early this year. Rosh Hashanah starts on the evening of September 13th, and Yom Kippur on the evening of September 22nd. Autumn sends many interfaith families in search of a spiritual home. Jewish communities are becoming more inclusive and welcoming to interfaith families, with the help of national programs like the new #ChooseLove campaign. And at the same time, independent and intentional interfaith communities for families practicing and teaching both Judaism and Christianity are growing. To connect with other families in your area celebrating both religions, you can now join the Network of Interfaith Family Groups.

The High Holiday services these interfaith family communities provide, or the Jewish services they attend as a group, are not a mixture of the two religions. They are traditional services, chosen or designed to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible, and celebrated by interfaith families together as a group sharing profound respect for both religions.

In New York, intermarried couples first designed their own High Holiday services led by interfaith families in Manhattan in the 1980s, and those services continue today. Now, families from the Interfaith Community affiliated programs in Manhattan, Long Island, Westchester, Orange/Bergen/Rockland Counties, Danbury, Connecticut will gather for the holidays both at their own events, and with local Jewish communities. The Long Island Interfaith Community meets at a unique Multifaith Campus (Muslim, Jewish, Interfaith, and Christian communities all sharing space). They will have services for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In Chicago, Jewish and Catholic families have been teaching children both religions since 1993. In downtown Chicago, families from the Interfaith Family School gather together at local synagogues for the High Holy Days. This year, Rabbi Allen Secher, the beloved original rabbi affiliated with the Family School, will be returning to Chicago to lead services at Makom Shalom, the Jewish Renewal synagogue he founded, where many interfaith families will gather to observe the Days of Awe together. In the Chicago suburbs, many interfaith families from the Union School for Interfaith Families, and the Interfaith Union, will gather in Mount Prospect to worship together with Congregation Am Chai.

In Washington DC, my own community, the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP), is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. IFFP now hosts five progressive High Holiday services, specifically designed by and for interfaith families, led by our new rabbi, Rabbi Rain Zohav. We also have two separate Children’s Services (on the mornings of both holidays).

And in the Philadelphia area, the Interfaith Families of Greater Philadelphia, founded by an IFFP family who moved to Philly, will again celebrate Rosh Hashanah this year with an apple-picking trip. Growing up, my family always went apple-picking on Rosh Hashanah, to usher in the sweet New Year.

Each fall provides a new chance to connect with other interfaith families, to begin religious education for your children, to discover or rediscover the beauty of the Jewish holidays. As the days grow shorter, return, renew, rejoice in the many options for interfaith families.

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.

Rabbi Celebrates Second Bar Mitzvah with Interfaith Community

Rabbi Harold White @stephaniewilliamsimages
Rabbi Harold White @stephaniewilliamsimages

Two rabbis, two cantors, a minister, a Catholic priest, a gospel choir, a klezmer band, and an interfaith families community walk into a synagogue to celebrate a bar mitzvah. I’m not joking here. Last Saturday afternoon, my beloved rabbi, Rabbi Harold Saul White, a civil rights and interfaith family rights pioneer, in his eighties and on the verge of retirement, became a man. Again!

Rabbi White lives life to the fullest. He is always seeking to experience what his teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel called radical amazement. Or to put it another way, he likes to pray what writer Anne Lamott calls the one-word “Wow!” prayer.  So with the Rabbi retiring this year as Spiritual Advisor to the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC, we knew we wanted to honor him in a way that would go well beyond a typical sheet-cake-and-paperweight kind of retirement party.

Rabbi White came up with the idea of celebrating his second bar mitzvah with us. The relatively recent custom of a second bar mitzvah is based on the idea in Psalm 90 that “three score years and ten” (70) is a full lifetime, and thus we start over with a new life at age 70. That makes age 83 (70 plus 13) the time to mark a new coming-of-age. (Although many have noted that you become a bar mitzvah at 13, obligated to follow the commandments, whether or not you chant from the Torah or have a celebration. So even if you chant your portion again at age 83, calling it a bar mitzvah could be considered a misnomer).

Rabbi White’s actual bar mitzvah in 1945 was a more solemn affair. Neither of his older brothers could be there: one was fighting in the Pacific, the other on a destroyer in the Atlantic. And on that very day, April 15, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was being laid to rest in Hyde Park. Rabbi White recalls that his haftorah portion was interrupted by air raid sirens signaling a 15 minute period of silence for mourning, and the congregation wept. It was a meaningful day for the young Harold, but, as he recalled on Saturday, “I didn’t get to choose the music!” And so here’s the wonderful thing about a bar mitzvah that occurs after 40 years as a chaplain at Georgetown, after leading congregations everywhere from Ireland to the Eastern Shore, after teaching and traveling with Muslims and Christians and Jews of all stripes, after officiating at thousands of lifecycle ceremonies. After all that, you have earned the right to choose all the music!

And so on Saturday we celebrated the Rabbi’s long and lively life with an unprecedented outpouring of interfaith harmony. The songs included many traditional Shabbat songs, but also Let it Be, You’ll Never Walk Alone (from the musical Carousel), The Prayer of St. Francis, and many more. Two rabbis read from the Torah, and two cantors chanted the Shabbat prayers. The service was led by Reverend Julia Jarvis, the Spiritual Leader of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, who was given the title “rabbi for a day” by Rabbi White. The Call to Worship was led by Father Michael Kelley, who estimated that he and Rabbi White have co-officiated at some 500 Catholic and Jewish interfaith weddings together, not to mention all of the baby-welcoming ceremonies and funerals on which they have collaborated.

Rabbi White likes to stop into Father Kelley’s church, Saint Martin of Tours in downtown DC, to hear their soulful Gospel Choir, with cantor Thomascena Nelson. So he invited the Gospel Choir to sing at his bar mitzvah, and they arrived with drums, bass, piano and a transcendent cornet player. Noted gospel singer Karen Somerville, the Rabbi’s dear friend from the Eastern Shore, also arrived to sing Precious Lord. At one of the many musical high points, a Jewish cantor traded choruses with the gospel choir on the traditional Shabbat hymn, Adon Olam. The house, packed with interfaith families, clapped along (on the beat or off) and made a joyful noise.

In the program for the service, Rabbi White mused about his path of “willful noncomformity.” I share that path, as someone born into an interfaith family who insisted on interfaith education for my children. And so I experienced an extraordinary sense of spiritual integration, witnessing Rabbi White up on the bimah, singing All Praise Unto God along with the gospel choir. And I felt it again, when a klezmer band began a hora tune, and the gospel choir kicked off their shoes and joined hands in the whirling circle of old and young, black and white, Jews and Christians, insisting on celebrating our wise and visionary elder and friend, together.

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.

High Holidays with an Interfaith Community: 2014 Edition

Fall Maple Leaves, photo Susan Katz Miller

Each year, I have taken to posting a set of links to Jewish High Holiday (or High Holy Day) services designed by and for interfaith families. Of course, many such families now feel welcome and included at progressive services in Jewish communities around the country. But there is still something different, and deeply moving for many of us, about gathering with an intentionally interfaith community. Of course, you don’t have to be in an interfaith family to attend these radically inclusive services. At our services in Washington DC, for instance, you will find curious people of other religions who aren’t even married to Jews, and entirely Jewish families just looking for accessible High Holidays. All are welcome!

The very first High Holiday services designed by and for interfaith families took place in Manhattan in the 1980s, and those services continue today. Now, families from the Interfaith Community chapters in Manhattan, Long Island, Westchester, Orange/Bergen/Rockland Counties, Danbury, Connecticut, and Boston gather to celebrate together, both at their own events, and with local Jewish communities.

In Chicago, Jewish and Catholic families have been teaching children both religions since 1993. In downtown Chicago, families from the Interfaith Family School and the Jewish Catholic Couples Dialogue Group, and suburban interfaith families from the Interfaith Union and Union School for Interfaith Families gather together at local synagogues for the High Holy Days.

And in Washington DC, my own community, the Interfaith Families Project provides a set of five traditional, progressive High Holy Day services (plus a break fast). The services are specifically designed by and for interfaith families, will be led once again by our rabbi, Rabbi Harold White, who is the retired chaplain of Georgetown University.

Each fall provides a new chance to connect with other interfaith families, to begin religious education for your children, to discover or rediscover the beauty of the Jewish holidays. As the days grow shorter–return, renew, rejoice in the many options for interfaith families.

Boston, and the Power of Interfaith Services

Swan Boats, Boston Public Garden

I’m a Bostonian. My first memories are of chasing pigeons and ducks in the Public Garden, and dropping coins to an organ-grinder from the balcony of our apartment on Charles Street. The Red Sox are my team. I do not follow any other team, or for that matter, any other sport.

Boston is world-famous. Watertown, on the other hand, was a quiet, working-class suburb, at least until this week. Yet Watertown also plays a central role in my family history. My father, a chemical engineer, worked his entire career for a water treatment company in Watertown. For my first summer job, I rose before dawn with him every morning, and ate breakfast at a diner in Watertown alongside contractors, plumbers and electricians. At the plant, I worked alongside local Armenian-Americans and Portuguese-Americans. At lunchtime, I would go out to explore the nearby shops in search of lahmejune, the addictive Armenian flatbread pizzas.

So last week, with the rest of the world, I watched coverage of the bombing of the Marathon, and then the gun battle, and then the Watertown manhunt, in a state of shock. It was surreal to see so much media attention trained on the humble and familiar streets of Watertown.

But even before the drama of the chase and capture of the second suspect, the residents of Boston, and people across the country, were organizing interfaith services and vigils in churches and temples. I cannot help myself: I see the world through an interfaith lens. And what struck me in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, and in Boston, is that we crave connection across the lines of religion, in the form of interfaith services. Our primal urge in times of crisis is to reaffirm our shared humanity, our ability to see beyond our differences, our desire to join hands across religious boundaries.

Twenty years ago, these services might have been ecumenical or interdenominational–interchurch rather than interfaith–still embedded in the subtext of a Christian America. Now, we reach out to the growing Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist populations. The tent continues to expand: when the secular humanists felt excluded this week, they spoke out, wanting to grieve with the rest of the Boston community.

We do not need to share a conception of God in order to comfort each other. No matter our religious beliefs or lack thereof, we can still pause to sing together, meditate together, hug each other.

I write as someone who chooses to live fulltime in this “interfaith space.” Interfaith families raising children with dual-faith education experience the benefits of interfaith celebration and contemplation and mourning–the synergy, the joy, the healing of reflecting together as an interfaith community–week in and week out. And as we model interfaith love, and radical inclusivity, we hope to play some small part in preventing intolerance, alienation and violence in the world.

Passover and Easter in Interfaith Families Communities

Egg.

This time of year, many interfaith family communities sponsor events for Passover, and for Easter. Below, I round up links for those who are seeking out ways to celebrate as interfaith families. Some of these events are designed to be educational and are often held before the actual holidays: a model Seder to teach the meaning behind the various rituals and readings, or a discussion of the various perspectives on Easter within interfaith families. Other events are celebrations, often identical to more traditional holidays, except that they are designed by and for interfaith families.

Many interfaith families, even those with children in interfaith religious education programs, continue to attend church and synagogue, and to celebrate important holidays with extended family. But they still also enjoy learning with, and celebrating with, a community made up entirely of interfaith families. For others, either because they live far from relatives, or because they have not found church or synagogue homes, celebrating with an interfaith family community provides a crucial way to stay connected to Judaism, and Christianity, in a context that is inclusive.

For those who live near an interfaith family community, here are some upcoming events. This Sunday morning, the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC will host a potluck community Seder. On that same morning, the Interfaith Families of Greater Philadelphia will host an early Easter gathering, with an egg hunt and egg dying. And in Suffern, NY, the Orange/Rockland/Bergen counties chapter of the Interfaith Community (IFC) will have an Easter and Holy Week event designed to share the meaning of the season and its traditions, followed by an Easter egg hunt and a bunny hop race. In the afternoon on Sunday, the Westchester chapter of IFC will hold also hold a model Seder and Holy Week event, in Larchmont, NY.

Next weekend, on Sunday March 24, the Long Island chapter of the Interfaith Community will have a Palm Sunday service in Brookville, NY. On Tuesday March 26 at 4pm, the same chapter will host a model Seder at 4pm.  During Passover, the Interfaith Families of Greater Philadelphia will have a Seder on Friday March 30. And the DC interfaith group will have an Easter service, and a pancake breakfast, on Easter itself, on March 31. Events in Boston and in lower Manhattan happened earlier this year, but if you live in those locations, contact them now so that you don’t miss the events next year.

For those who live elsewhere, you have at least two options. One is to find progressive religious institutions in your area that will welcome interfaith families. Most progressive churches welcome interfaith families, though very few provide specific programming for them. Many Jewish communities now welcome interfaith families (though they probably don’t approve of educating children in both religions), and many are holding community Seders. Check out Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) and Hillels (on college campuses) as well as synagogues and havurot (smaller, informal, or independent Jewish communities). Many Unitarian-Universalist communities have a also significant proportion of interfaith couples, and they may also be hosting holiday events you could join.

The second option is to build a new interfaith families community in your area. Inviting a few families for a Seder, or an Easter celebration, could be a great way to start.

 

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

On Mourning, Christmas, and Interfaith Community

Star Ornament

After the tragedy in Newtown, townsfolk gathered together at an interfaith service with Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Baha’i prayers. In this moment of great sorrow, we sought solace and inspiration in a gathering that reflects the complex religious pluralism of America in the 21st century.

We do not need to share a creed or dogma in order to share our burdens. Community provides a balm to the believer, the seeker, and the secularist alike in times of trouble. Sitting together, singing together, mourning together, despite theological differences, we are able to experience catharsis, and ephemeral hope.

I feel profoundly grateful to be part of an interfaith families community, a community that allows my family to feel the transcendence of interfaith gatherings on a regular basis. On Sunday, just two days after the Newtown tragedy, we attended the annual Lessons and Carols service for Advent and Christmas. My husband and I sing in the choir, so we found ourselves at the front of the room, looking out at hundreds of parents still in a state of shock, many with arms wrapped around small children bewildered by all of the tight hugging and extra kisses.

In the choir, I stumbled imperfectly through the alto harmonies, and closed my eyes to receive the poems by Mary Oliver and Madeleine L’Engle. But this year, the imagery in song and readings became almost unbearably poignant—the innocence of the baby, the mother destined to lose her son. At the emotional climax, Rich Shegogue, an extraordinary tenor, stood alone, as he does each year, to sing “O Holy Night.” The refrain of “Fall on your knees. Oh hear, the angel voices!” and the alternation of soaring and tender musical phrases, broke open the hearts of many parents. Gazing out through tears, I saw Christians and Jews alike weeping, including our choir director, Rich’s Jewish wife Marci, who must have heard Rich sing this carol hundreds of times before. But never before like this.

In the darkness of the solstice, in the darkness of tragedy, we crave community. For interfaith families, finding community has not always been easy. Some of us have found homes in churches or progressive synagogues, or in Unitarian-Universalist communities, or in the Ethical Society. Some of us have created our own interfaith families communities in order to teach both religions to our children. In an interfaith families community, both Christians and Jews have permission to take solace in the beauty of the story of the birth of Jesus, without having to agree on whether or not he was the messiah.

As Christians and Jews who married across religious boundaries, we each approach a service like the Lessons and Carols from our own personal theological perspective. Whether we understand the Christmas story as history, or metaphor, or myth, or mystery, we are glad to live in a time and place when we can experience it together, sharing both comfort and joy.

Atheist, Plays Well With Others…

Most of us are consumed with the election today. It also happens to be the publication date of a boundary-defying and yet somehow sweetly patriotic memoir from my publisher, Beacon Press, entitled Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. While still in his 20s, Chris Stedman has written a brave and moving account of how he became an evangelical Christian, realized he was gay, left Christianity for atheism, and now devotes himself to interfaith dialogue with religious people.

Faithiest will appeal to many interfaith families, as an intimate chronicle of an “atypical” religious (and non-religious) formation, illuminating the intertwining influences of family and society on religious identity. Stedman quotes my favorite Buddhist thinker, Thic Nhat Han: “If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors.” For those of us who are heirs to two or more family religions, this statement has deep resonance.

Stedman seems to have written one of the very first memoirs by anyone in his generation. So I was fascinated to note that the idea of being raised with both religions appears early on, and in a positive light. Stedman writes of his childhood friendship with a neighborhood girl who “…celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas, Passover and Easter, and maintained practices from both traditions…” He goes on to describe his own brief infatuation with Judaism as a result of this encounter.

A longing for community drives Stedman, as a tween, to a Christian youth group. The tension between evangelical Christianity and being gay eventually drives him away. But after he becomes an atheist, that same longing for community alienates him from the strident, anti-religious “New Atheism,” and eventually sends him into the arms of the kinder and gentler community of secular humanists.

Secular humanism has long provided a safe haven for interfaith families who agree to put aside the question of God. So Stedman’s description of his discovery of the benefits of humanism will interest many secular interfaith families.

More broadly, those of us in the movement to educate our children in both family religions find ourselves arrayed across the entire religious and non-religious spectrum: religious, spiritual but not religious, skeptics, agnostics, atheists.

Whether we identify with no religion, two religions, or many religions, those of us in interfaith families who do not belong to a synagogue or church find ourselves grouped with Stedman by demographers as part of the fast-growing “religious nones,” the statistical category for those without religious affiliation. As “religious nones,” we are a complex, rich, and varied group on the rise, just beginning to discover each other, and I am very pleased to share this space with a mensch like Chris Stedman.

By the end of his memoir, Stedman finds twin interwoven missions–convincing interfaith activists to welcome atheists, and convincing atheists to engage in interfaith activism, and join college campus groups (such as Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core) in performing community service together.

Stedman and others have achieved notable success in making a place for secularists, alongside Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others, at the interfaith roundtable. But is there a place at that table for intermarried people or interfaith children claiming our ties to more than one religion? Or is our presence so disturbing, our blurred boundaries so threatening, that we are left off the guest list?

The dogma of interfaith dialogue has long been that you cannot engage with the “other” unless and until you have a strong and singular religious identity. Stedman successfully makes the case that the non-religious should be exempt from this requirement. I am making the case that those who marry into or are born into a state of interfaithness should also be exempt, and welcomed as people with unique qualifications for interfaith dialogue.

Stedman writes, “Interfaith dialogue strives to usher in religious pluralism, and it is realized primarily through the personal stories of its practitioners.” Members of interfaith families in general, and adult interfaith children in particular, want to tell their stories, whether they currently identify with one, two, many or no religions. As people who engage deeply with the “other” on a daily basis, whether that “other” is a spouse or partner or sibling or parent or a part of our own being, we bring unique skills and perspectives to more formal interfaith encounters. We want to be part of the quest for greater interfaith understanding and an end to religious violence, through interfaith education. As members of interfaith families, we are already on that quest, whether or not our role is recognized by those from monofaith backgrounds. I am hoping that those of us from interfaith families can be as convincing as Chris Stedman in articulating our desire to be included in the movement for interfaith cooperation.

Saint Francis: Interfaith Peacemaker

Though the East Coast is still reeling from Hurricane Sandy, I could not let the season of All Saints and All Souls go by without note. And I wanted to describe how our community of interfaith families celebrated the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, who had his feast day recently.

Neither our rabbi nor our minister (who was raised as a Baptist) grew up celebrating the lives of the saints, and yet they co-officiated at this recent Gathering. About half of the Christians in our interfaith families community were raised Catholic, and we embrace Saint Francis as an interfaith peacemaker .

On the morning of our celebration, a simple wooden statue of the saint, with a bird balanced in his palm, stood at the front of the room. So, before a word was even uttered, some of us were working through interfaith issues. Such “graven images” present a challenge for some Jews (and Muslims) who grew up with only abstract religious art, based on Biblical and Qur’anic injunctions against idolatry. But for me, contemplating an image of a saint, while learning about his or her life and spiritual practice, is not the same thing as praying “to” or worshipping a saint.

As patron saint of animals and the environment, and as a man born wealthy who gave up all his worldly goods, Saint Francis holds tremendous appeal across the religious divides. Both Catholics and Anglicans (and thus Episcopalians) celebrate his feast day with a blessing of the animals, when parishioners actually bring animals to church. I find this idea tremendously appealing, perhaps because it breaches the usual human/animal divide, inviting nature into the sanctuary.

The life of Saint Francis has inspired many popular works of music and art.  Franco Zefferelli’s 1972 film Brother Sun, Sister Moon depicted Francis as a sort of flower child, with a soundtrack of sweet songs by Donovan. My favorite Saint Francis film is the less sentimental and rather surreal and even inscrutable Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Uccellacci e uccellini (or The Hawks and the Sparrows) a mystical political fable with a talking crow.

While many people associate Saint Francis with nature, not as many know the story of his voyage to the Muslim world as a peacemaker. At our gathering, an interfaith father raised Catholic told the story of the journey of Saint Francis in 1219, during the Fifth Crusade, to seek out the sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil. Two books devoted to this story came out in the wake of 9/11: The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace by journalist Peter Moses, and Saint Francis and the Sultan: The Curious History of a Christian-Muslim Encounter by religious historian John Tolan.

Apparently, Francis and the Sultan developed deep respect for each other during days of intense dialogue in the midst of war. The Sultan treated Francis as a guest rather than an enemy. And Francis arrived home urging Christians to take inspiration from Muslims, and live peacefully beside them.

At our celebration, we sang the Catholic hymn “Make Me an Instrument of Peace,” based on the Prayer of Saint Francis. The prayer (whether or not Francis had anything to do with writing it) has inspired many composers and has many tunes. I love this version by a rabbi and a Franciscan monk who harmonize. As our group sang (a different tune), I noticed that our house interfaith band that week included a Jewish keyboard player from England, a Jewish doumbek player from Morocco, and two Jewish singers. It’s not that we’re converting to Catholicism. All of us feel inspired by Francis, and enriched as members of interfaith families, and as individuals who yearn for peace, by spending a morning devoted to learning about his life.

 

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.