Where do My Interfaith Teens Fit In? As Activists!

Rev. Brian Merritt, Rabbi Harold White, Rev. Julia Jarvis

Every religion, every denomination, bemoans the fact that it can be hard to keep teenagers engaged in thinking about religion. They’re busy thinking about, well, other stuff. But yesterday was different. Yesterday, my two teens had a transformative educational, political, spiritual experience at Occupy DC, through the lens of their interfaithness.

Today, the police will start enforcing a “no camping” rule, prohibiting the activists at Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square from sleeping in the Occupy tents. So yesterday was a tense and busy day at Occupy DC. Nevertheless, our intrepid spiritual leaders, the rabbi and the minister who guide our interfaith community, Reverend Julia Jarvis and Rabbi Harold White, took a group of our teens down to McPherson Square to meet Reverend Brian Merritt of Occupy Faith DC, to learn more about the role that clergy and religious communities are playing in the Occupy Movement.

At Occupy DC, they were able to witness a General Assembly, explore the library filled with political and spiritual books, drop off some pumpkin muffins at the kitchen, and bring home copies of The Occupied Washington Times. Now, our interfaith kids want to return to sleep there. We’ll see if that is even feasible, after today.

So why does this post belong on a blog about interfaith families? I find it moving and inspiring that my teens were able to have this experience with both their minister and their rabbi (a rabbi who was deeply engaged alongside Christian clergy in the civil rights movement in the 1960s). As interfaith families, our microcosm of respect and engagement and learning has to be a helpful model for non-violent interfaith interaction in the larger world. And while my kids understand that there are differences between their two family religions, between any two religions, they also know that the thirst for social justice is something that Jews and Christians shared in the civil rights movement, and that they share now in the quest for more equitable taxation, and for voting rights for DC.

This Thursday, my radically-inclusive rabbi and my radically-inclusive minister will go together to the People’s Prayer Breakfast, a progressive alternative to the National Prayer Breakfast, organized by Occupy Faith DC. All are invited. In fact, I am tempted to pull my kids out of school to attend.

Occupy Interfaith Families: The Metaphor

Recently, I wandered through the tent community at Occupy DC, admiring the boisterous, particolored arrival of the people into the mute, monumental grey canyons of the federal city. I knew I felt some personal harmonic resonance, but until this morning, I could not clearly articulate how or why the Occupy movement seemed especially relevant to interfaith families.

Then, I read a brilliant reflection on “Occupy’s Sacred Mob” by Vincent Gonzalez, a doctoral student in religious studies. Like most other religion writers and theologians, Gonzalez has been pondering “what is “religious” about the Occupy Wall Street movement.” And although this was not his intent, his analysis, on the website Religious Dispatches, spoke directly to me as an interfaith child and parent.

Inspired by the writings of French intellectual Roger Caillois, Gonzalez analyzes religion in the Occupy movement in the context of a vision of the sacred “characterized by organic complexity rather than spiritual singularity.” Of course, as someone born into a state of religious double-belonging, I am immediately drawn to any analysis that privileges complexity over singularity.

Gonzalez goes on to describe how “the intimacy of life in a park or along a sidewalk is causing traditions to do something more than “coexist” plurally. Religions are colluding and combining.” And this is exactly how traditions behave in interfaith families: they go beyond safe and ephemeral “interfaith dialogue” and commit to living together and combining into families, not in temporary encampments but in permanent dwellings. Beyond the parallel play of pluralism, interfaith families are swapping ritual genes and spiritual memes.

In the Occupy tent cities, Gonzalez identifies the natural emergence of “sites of religious conjunction” (meditation spaces and improvised shrines where images of Buddha, Ghandi and Christ coexist). This cross-pollination, he admits, may “repel” some, and clearly it inflames the religious right.

In interfaith families, we are all too familiar with the idea that we have gone too far, that such hybridization is unseemly, or even perilous. We wrestle with those who wish that interfaith families did not exist, or that all such families can and should be somehow absorbed back into religious singularity. Instead, many of us insist on reveling in our organic complexity, our embodiment of religious conjunction. We are gathering to drum our polyrhythms in cities across America, building new communities in which to explore the rich synergy of our interfaith existence.

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