Interfaith Kids in Conversation: Q&A with Tahil Sharma

Tahil Sharma and Susan Katz Miller
Tahil and Susan at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City

Tahil Sharma and I have been engaged in an ongoing conversation for years now, both on social media and in person, on navigating the world as interfaith activists from interfaith families. Tahil is currently an Interfaith Minister in Residence with the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, and a Board Member of the Southern California Committee for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. The two of us will appear together this summer at the Reimagining Interfaith conference, July 29th to August 1st in Washington DC. Come on out and join us! Below, I provide a sneak peek in the form of a Q&A.  –Susan Katz Miller

SKM: I was born into a Jewish and Christian interfaith family, and that fact, and those life experiences, have inspired and informed my work as as an author. speaker, and interfaith activist. One of my goals is to create space for people from interfaith families to be interfaith leaders and peacemakers. And at the same time, I am working for recognition that those of us from interfaith families are already serving as interfaith leaders and innovators, but do not necessarily feel we can be open about claiming our interfaith family stories in the context of interfaith “dialogue” or activism. As part of this work, I’ve been keeping a mental list of other “interfaith kids” working as interfaith peacemakers, and you’re at the top of that list. Tahil, why don’t you start by telling us a bit about your background, and your experiences as part of an interfaith family.

TS: I was born in Los Angeles to a Hindu father from a business family and a Sikh mother from an Army background. Both of them immigrated from India in the 1980s and settled in Southern California, trying to figure out how to make their American dream a reality. I started learning about Hinduism and Sikhism from my family, then really began to explore these traditions for myself. This was just the beginning of a weird childhood as I got exposed to friends who were Muslim, Jewish, atheist, all sorts of Christian, and diverse in every other sense of the word. My parents encouraged me to love others as myself, and to learn about what makes other people thrive and understand the world around them. I’ve attended so many different kinds of religious services and events and they all contributed to my understanding of finding bliss and sanity in a consistently chaotic world. I looked back to my own traditions, even learning the languages of the sacred texts (Sanskrit and Gurmukhi) to enunciate and understand what my faith was all about. It made me curious about why we’re all so different yet so able to share a world with one another.

SKM: Your story sounds familiar to me as a fellow interfaith kid, even though we come from different religious and cultural backgrounds. You know, preachers’ kids refer to themselves as PKs. The idea behind that identity is that they share certain formative experiences, whether their parents are ministers or rabbis or imams. And people who grow up in one country but are citizens of another country call themselves TCKs, or Third Culture Kids, and they share certain formative experiences, whether they are military kids or diplomatic corps kids or displaced people or immigrants. So I’m going to refer to us as IKs (that’s “eye kays” not “icks”) for Interfaith Kids. I claim this as part of my identity because I feel we share certain formative experiences of religious complexity. Does that idea resonate for you?

TS: I am totally an IK. We’re a growing demographic around the world thanks to diverse parents creating unions that are unconditional and inclusive. If you had asked me about this 10 years ago, I’d probably have a different understanding of how my interfaith upbringing had an impact on my life. As someone who was always driven by service, I wanted to become a doctor for as long as I could remember. Then I considered being a lawyer for a little while, then a translator. But then came August 5th, 2012. I was in India visiting family when my cousin had told me that a shooting had taken place at a gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Oak Creek, WI. A white supremacist walked into the temple during services and began to shoot blindly, killing 6 people and wounding others, including a police officer who was shot 15 times and survived. This sent my world into a spiral of chaos and confusion, trying to make sense of an injustice towards a coexisting and loving community. Then I reflected on history and the travesties it had produced; injustice was not normal to me, but it was frequent enough to be normal for others. My anger and disappointment instilled a lot of fear until I remembered a word from the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scriptures) that referred to the Divine as The One who is Without Fear and Hatred Towards Creation.

I had an epiphany. I could not let this happen to my community ever again. But, in that selfish righteousness, I also remembered that the responsibility falls on the laps of all able individuals to bend the arc of the world towards justice and equity. If I would fight for the rights of anyone, it would be for the right of everyone. That decision led to 5 years of introspection and service that set a precedent in my life to strive for the well-being (sarbat da bhalla) of others because everyone was a part of my universal family (vasudhaiva kutumbakam).

The complexity of my religious identity is not just about ownership and understanding; my faith traditions were the sails on my lifeboat. The journey is tumultuous. but filled with the lessons and beauty reminding me of the splendor and majesty of the Divine. If I can help others do the same, then I know I will have left this world in better shape than when I was born into it.

SKM: Those of us raised in interfaith households, even though we are a growing demographic, are not well understood. In part this is because we haven’t had many opportunities to speak out and shape our own narratives. So, how do you respond to people who challenge the idea that you can claim or benefit from more than one religious heritage? 

TS: That’s simple. I challenge them to recognize themselves by a single identity. The human experience cannot be simplified to represent itself in a monolithic way. The plethora of belief systems around the world have experienced changes and mixtures that have withstood the test of time. Culturally, Hinduism and Sikhism do share some roots coming from South Asia even though they differ from one another. I don’t blink just one eye, I blink both at the same time. I don’t just love my mother or my father, I love them both equally. As such, I have been given the privilege of two blessed visions of the Divine that integrate with every part of my life.

SKM: So, we know that, throughout history and in particular as a result of colonization, entire communities, regions, and countries have practiced more than one religion simultaneously. And anywhere you have two religions sharing geographic space, you are going to have some form of mutual interaction, and some interfaith families. And yet, the topic of multiple religious practice, and of interfaith families, has often been excluded from traditional “interfaith dialogue” programming. Often, each participant has been asked to represent a single religious practice, so as not to “muddy the waters.” How do we work to convince those who are organizing and funding interfaith programming to include those with complex religious identities?

TS: It hasn’t been easy. I didn’t have a crisis of identity so much as I had a crisis of validity. Going around to different people and having to explain that my identity can exist, let alone trying to normalize it in multi-religious settings, is so challenging. There’s a lesser-known quote from Dr. King that speaks about the validity of identity that continues to resonate with me and the struggle for equity and justice: “I’m tired of marching…Tired of marching for something that should’ve been mine at birth.” For the growing number of people who identify with intersectional and multiple identities who march, the struggle continues.

I’ve had people tell me that I’m confused and misled for not choosing a path, or that I’m cherry picking from the religion buffet to suit my needs. But the fact of the matter is, I have adapted my life to grow and transform myself within two traditions that have given me solace and inner peace. So I don’t ask for validity anymore: I make an equal spot for myself at the table.

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. She and Tahil Sharma are both interfaith activists, speakers, and consultants. You can find them on twitter at @susankatzmiller and @InterfaithMan.

 

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.

 

Seeking Interfaith Families…at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

99 Names Project
99 Names Project. Artist, Andrew Kosorok. Parliament art exhibit.

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?

Registration Hall, Salt Palace Convention Center, Parliament of the World's Religions
Registration Hall, Salt Palace Convention Center, Parliament of the World’s Religions

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.

Labyrinth, Parliament of the World's Religions
Labyrinth, Salt Palace Convention Center, at the Parliament

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.

Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala, Registration Hall, Salt Palace Convention Center
Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala, Registration Hall, Salt Palace Convention Center

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.

Assembly Hall, Temple Square, Salt Lake City
Assembly Hall, Temple Square, Salt Lake City

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.