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.

Successful Interfaith Marriage: Thelma and Ralph, Facing the End

Ralph came from an evangelical Christian family, Thelma was Jewish. After 34 years of very successful interfaith marriage, Ralph was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004, at age 64, and died a year later. Thelma started a blog, Widowsphere, in loving memory of her husband, and to chronicle her journey as a widow. Recently, Thelma contacted me to point out that I had not devoted much attention on my blog to second marriages, or interfaith marriages later in life. I also know that I have barely begun to address all of the issues surrounding death, burial, and mourning in interfaith families. I appreciate this opportunity to appreciate the inspiring marriage of Thelma and Ralph, and to launch a conversation about facing the inevitable, natural ending in a happy interfaith marriage.

How long did you date your husband before marrying, and what were your thoughts about the benefits and challenges of interfaith marriage before the wedding?

We met at a party, my first foray into the singles world after a divorce.  He called the next day and asked if he could come by, then he asked me out.  What went through my mind was, “He’s not Jewish, but he’d be okay to practice on.”  By the time we married two years later, I was more comfortable with the fact that he wasn’t Jewish than with the fact that he was five years younger than me.

Who officiated at your wedding? How did your extended families respond to your interfaith marriage?

We were married by a justice of the peace, who deleted all Christian references from the ceremony at my request. My two children were nine and seven, Ralph’s son was five. I think my family was outwardly supportive but inwardly very upset.  His family was very accepting of me and my children but never quit hoping that I would convert to Christianity.  I have remained very close to them since Ralph’s death and will be visiting them next month.

After marrying, did you and your husband continue to practice your religions? Did you share any of the rituals or traditions with each other?

After we married, we joined my synagogue as a family. We always went to church when we visited his family. We celebrated Jewish holidays and we exchanged gifts at Christmas and had a dinner then because as the children got older, they were home from college at that time.  We did not have Christmas trees or any other decorations.

How did your interfaith marriage influence the children? How were they raised, religiously?

The children went to synagogue with us. I was not a particularly religious Jew, more of a cultural, ethnic Jew, although I did have a cousin who was a rabbi. Neither of us made any effort at converting the other.  We were what we were. Today, my children identify as Jewish; his son does not.

When your husband fell ill, did the interfaith nature of your marriage pose special challenges?

Just before he entered the hospital for a stem cell transplant, Ralph confided in me for the first time that he wanted to convert to Judaism. I don’t know if he shared this with his family. At the hospital he listed himself as Jewish and became great friends with the Jewish chaplain, but as he got sicker he returned to the faith of his childhood. His funeral and burial were in his hometown. The first time I visited Ralph’s grave, I brought a stone from our backyard garden, and explained this Jewish custom to his sisters who went with me. His family now puts stones on his grave when they visit.  We had a memorial service at the synagogue a few weeks later. I said Kaddish for him and observe Yahrzeit.

I think death is the greatest spiritual challenge and one that is rarely addressed when discussing interfaith marriage. For a long time, I felt abandoned by his return to Christianity, probably not logically.  I came to terms with it and realized he needed the comfort of Christianity as he faced death.

How do you feel when you read that the challenges of interfaith marriage are going to be too great for many couples to overcome?

My experience with interfaith marriage was a joyful one. I think the strength of our marriage came from commitment to one another and understanding and acceptance of each other’s backgrounds.

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.