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.
What if I told you that almost 10,000 people converged on Salt Lake City for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, to engage in interfaith activism, interfaith education and interfaith bridge-building? And what if I reminded you that more than a third of all Americans who are married or living with a partner are in interfaith or mixed-denomination relationships according to Pew Research? Given these two pieces of information, you might expect robust discussion at this Parliament on the role of interfaith families as interfaith educators and peacemakers. Am I right?
The Parliament can be overwhelming: it helps to have a thread, a focus, to organize your days. I approached the Parliament through my own lens, that of an adult interfaith child who claims a complex religious identity. So on my first day in the Salt Palace Convention Center, I went looking for the stories of people from interfaith families inspired to become interfaith peacemakers. And of course, I found them, everywhere.
But not in the official program. The official program included some 1800 presenters, and there was exactly one presenter on interfaith families. That would be me. Why only one? Like so many other old-school interfaith organizations, the Parliament has traditionally been dominated by older men–I witnessed a panel composed entirely of men in dark suits at the opening plenary–and by religious institutions interested in keeping everyone in a “Box A or Box B or Box C” model of religious affiliation.
Those of us who blur boundaries, who claim Buddhism and Christianity, or Judaism and Paganism, or create families that transgress the invisible religious borders–we make religious leaders nervous. We are disruptors, even at a conference as radically inclusive as the Parliament. We are seen as marginal, even while we are now the majority in some religious communities, even while millennials are fleeing from “either/or” identities, and from religious litmus tests, and dogma, and membership criteria.
So, I woke up early on my first full day at the Parliament (thanks to East Coast jet lag) and set out to find my interfaith family people. And in the very first session into which I wandered, Buyondo Micheal was explaining The Peace Drum Initiative, a project in which he teaches Muslim, Christian, and Hindu schoolchildren in Uganda to drum together, under the auspices of his Faiths Together Uganda program. As he began explaining how he ended up creating this program, he described his own interfaith education as part of an interfaith family, in which he shifted back and forth from Christian to Muslim schools throughout his childhood. Lo and behold, the very first presenter I heard at the Parliament turned out to be someone from an interfaith family, inspired by this background to do interfaith peacemaking.
Next, I lined up for langar, the lunch served by the Sikh community each day, and ended up sitting on the floor eating with a local woman who was volunteering at the Parliament, from a Mormon and Catholic interfaith family. (In the langar line on another day, I ran into a friend from my online interfaith activism world, from a Hindu and Sikh interfaith family). Each day while waiting in the langar line, I watched the sand mandala made by the Tibetan Buddhist monks slowly taking shape. The intricate patterns seemed to reflect the complexity of the interfaith world, and my own interfaith identity.
After curried potatoes, spicy cauliflower and chai tea at langar, I went to give my talk on interfaith families as interfaith peacemakers. During the discussion, the young woman who was randomly assigned as a volunteer to our session, who was there to make sure the projector worked, raised her hand tentatively. She said, “I didn’t even know what this session was going to be about. But I’m an interfaith child. My parents are Mormon and Baha’i. And I’ve never heard anyone talk about it in this way before. I thought I was the only one. So I just wanted to thank you.” That moment, right there, made the trip to Salt Lake City worthwhile.
Each of these Parliament participants born into an interfaith family was motivated to walk through the doors of the Salt Palace because of, not in spite of, their experiences as interfaith bridge-builders in their own families. But I only got a glimpse of these inspiring stories in the liminal spaces—in the lunch line conversations, and as tangents. At the next Parliament, we need to hear about the rich complexity of interfaith family life in multiple panels, and in the plenary sessions.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
The tragic death of 21-year-old college student Andrew Pochter, killed during protests in Egypt last Friday, hit close to home for more than one reason. Pochter was from the Maryland suburbs of DC, and attended schools in the same school system as my college-aged daughter. But also, like me, he was the child of a Christian mother and a Jewish father. I believe Pochter displayed the positive hallmarks of that interfaith heritage: he devoted his life to building metaphorical bridges. He had the desire and ability to immerse himself in the experience of the “other.” According to friends and family, he had extraordinary empathy, a drive to transcend boundaries, and a gift for seeing connections.
Pochter had studied Arabic while living in Morocco, and had intended to acquire additional Arabic dialects in Egypt and Jordan. On a Facebook memorial page, his family writes of Pochter’s plans to live and work in the Middle East “in the pursuit of peace and understanding.”
Meanwhile, I am shaking my head as I watch a familiar process of media confusion over his religious identity unfold. Do they label him Jewish? Christian? Here is how Kenyon College, where Pochter would have been a junior in the fall, described his religious journey: “Raised a Christian, he was reared in a home with both Christian and Jewish parents, said his mother, Elizabeth Pochter, and he had become interested in his Jewish heritage.” It did not surprise me at all to learn that Pochter was a religious studies major, or that he had become a leader in Kenyon’s Hillel House. In reporting on children raised in interfaith families for my upcoming book, I noted a tendency for interfaith children to explore and study religion at the university level.
In some Jewish media, Pochter is now being described as Jewish, with no reference to his interfaith family. At the same time, the all-too familiar bullying comments immediately cropped up in the comment sections, denying that a patrilineal Jew can be Jewish, or opining that if he was Jewish he should have been studying Hebrew, not Arabic.
I don’t find it odd. Perhaps the New York Times did not want to reduce Pochter’s complexity to a single religious label of “Jewish” when he is no longer here to declare or describe his own identity. The identity of people from interfaith families can be fluid, flexible, multi-layered, vibrant. Sadly, we will never learn where Andrew Pochter’s journey might have taken him, geographically and spiritually. What we know is that he was not afraid to reach across the divides between religions, between countries, between people. May his memory be for a blessing, and inspire us all to work harder for peace and reconciliation around the world.
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)
This week, I attempted to take a break from writing my book on interfaith identity, in order to celebrate my daugher’s graduation from high school on a family trip to Spain. But I cannot help myself now from seeing the world through my interfaith lens. Everywhere I go, I see the evidence that around the globe, and throughout history, people fall in love across the lines of race and religion and tribe. As long as we treat these love stories as transgressive and problematic, they will remain transgressive and problematic. When we accept them as natural, as sources of creativity and inspiration, as good for humanity, we will come closer to achieving that reality.
The Cardona castle overlooks a Roman-era salt mine which provided the wealth to build the garrison and ramparts and towers over many centuries. Wilfred the Hairy began the castle construction in 886 CE. (Orson Welles chose this castle as the main setting for his Shakespearean film “The Chimes of Midnight.”) The most celebrated and iconic section of the castle is the cylindrical 11th century “Torre de la Minyona” or Maiden’s Tower. I climbed the tower, looking mainly for a view through a bright cloudless sky over the Catalonion countryside. But after stopping to read the historical plaque about the tower, the rolling landscape took on a strange and gloomy cast.
“…in the very early days of the castle, Adelaida, the lovely daughter of the count, fell in love with a Muslim jailor from a neighboring town. Despite the fact that the young man planned to convert to Christianity, the maiden’s parents sentenced her to be locked up in the tower, where she was attended only by a mute maid. Tradition tells that the suitor even built a cross using stones from the river to demonstrate how fervently he embraced his new faith. However, the lords would not give in and the young girl’s health deteriorated from her suffering. She died in captivity.”
The curators of the castle point out that this tale is legend, not history, and that the origins of the story are “lost in the mists of time.” Over the centuries, many versions of the tale have circulated in Catalonia. Some say the lover was a prince named Abdullah, and that the forbidden love affair caused a protracted war between the Christians and Moors. In this version, Adelaida draws a cross with the blood of her own fingers before dying to prove that she has never renounced her Christianity. Others say Adelaida’s brothers imprisoned her, in part because she converted to Islam. It is said that her father relented on his deathbed and called for her release, but that Adelaida died just before he arrived, or at the moment she was freed. Many believe that her ghost now haunts the castle, as does a ghost of Abdullah, who rides up to the castle every evening at the hour when the lovers first met.
Haunted parapets, star-crossed lovers, religious passion. I am sure these ingredients help to engage the tourists who come to stay at the castle, and I plead guilty to being one of them. But for me, the Legend of the Tower of the Maiden of Cardona serves as a poignant reminder of the stubborn, ongoing resistance to interfaith love. In the 21st century, interfaith couples still face family members who attempt to sabotage their relationships, religious communities that expect outrageous proof of fidelity from those who dare to intermarry, and states ready to do battle over religious difference.
I cannot help musing about how the history of Cardona might have been different if Adelaida and Abdullah had been united. In one version of the tale, the storyteller has Abdullah describe this vision to Adelaida: “I say we hope for the future together, a sunny future that will allow children with brown skin and blue eyes to run through this castle, enjoying the scenery of this homeland, as seen from this tower. I pray that you have faith, please.”
I would like to think we are closer to the time when Abdullah’s vision can become a reality. I have faith that creating interfaith families will help to build peace and understanding on the most intimate level, with global repurcussions. Inspired by Abdullah and Adelaida, let us break free from our towers of isolation, make love not war, and help to make the 21st century a time of unprecedented harmony.