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.

The Book of Mormon Girl: Mormon and Jewish

Few writers are chronicling the interfaith family journey from anything other than a “raising the kids Jewish” perspective. So, soon after I started this blog, I was thrilled to discover an essay written by Joanna Brooks about her Mormon and Jewish family. As she explained in that essay to her daughters, “You are what we all are: composite, recycled…You are a whole soul living in a divided world.”

Brooks, I soon learned, is an English professor who writes a blog called “Ask Mormon Girl,” in which she dispenses thoughtful advice and perceptive explanations to troubled Mormons, and curious non-Mormons. This year, she launched a self-published memoir, The Book of Mormon Girl, into the midst of the prolonged “Mormon moment” which has now reached an extended climax with the a Mormon candidate for President. During the run-up to the election, Brooks became the go-to media voice of progressive Mormonism, her memoir was picked up by a commercial publisher, and she even appeared with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

For Mormons, as for Jews, growing up as part of a misunderstood religious minority with distinct foodways and cultures exerts a powerful effect, even on those who move outside the formal borders of the community. In her memoir, Brooks chronicles her idyllic childhood as part of the Mormon community in southern California, her painful alienation over Mormon opposition to feminism and same-sex marriage, and her eventual, rather unorthodox return. She brings affection and charm and wry humor to her depiction of Mormonism, while also agonizing over how to confront the difficult realities of exclusion in her cradle religion.

Brooks displays her trademark bravery, independence and vision when she and her Jewish husband decide to raise their daughters with exposure to both Judaism and Mormonism, despite the usual advice from clergy to choose one religion. Her pioneering role as an interfaith parent plays only an oblique role in this memoir. And I admit I was disappointed that the topic did not come up during her appearance with Jon Stewart (another intermarried parent, since he is Jewish and married to a Catholic).  In the book, Brooks stands firm in the choice she and her husband have made. She writes, “…to put away either one of our stories, our families, our peoples, to hold back these huge parts of ourselves from our children seems more damaging than the confusion that well-meaning people grimly prognosticate.” These words will resonate with many of the parents on this blog—parents who have chosen to raise children with two religions.

Brooks has said that a publisher dissuaded her from making her Mormon and Jewish interfaith marriage the central element of her memoir, fearing such a combination would be too obscure. But as the election nears, Mormonism is no longer so obscure, and Brooks has become its most eloquent commentator, with the ideal “insider/outsider” viewpoint. I hope that her next book will continue her interfaith story, sharing more of her perspective as part of a growing movement of interfaith families raising children with more than one religion.

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