By Claire Goodman
SUPPORTING COUPLES (AND THEIR FAMILIES) FROM DIFFERENT TRADITIONS
If my experience as an Interfaith minister and wedding officiant is any indicator, I’d say that interfaith and interspiritual marriages are certainly on the rise, along with a growing need to serve these couples and their families. Right now I have the honor of performing 80 to 90 ceremonies a year in a ministry that keeps three other officiants busy as well. I love what I do, which is to weave words and ritual that will stay true to the couple’s spirituality while making sure the family traditions are honored.
Many challenges come with creating a wedding celebration that honors everyone and leaves no one feeling disregarded or minimized. Individuals who marry out of their family’s faith, whether or not they are practicing it, or couples that develop their own unique and often evolving path that combines elements from several traditions, can lead to a host of anxieties for the families involved.
In most situations I find that the anxieties are minimized when I offer support in demystifying the “other” tradition through education and conversation. During the planning I subtly suggest a change of attitude and make sure that each and every element in the ceremony that is potentially “foreign” or unfamiliar is explained in a way that clearly highlights its significance and symbolism.
At one Christian/Jewish ceremony I included a multi-faceted explanation for the breaking of the glass at the end of the wedding, and then encouraged the guests to shout “Mazeltov!” when they heard the glass break. After the ceremony a Jewish uncle came up and thanked me for the explanation, saying, “Wow, I’ve been to lots of Jewish weddings but I didn’t know there were so many different reasons why we break the glass!” It was a lovely moment.
Working with the Parents
Spending time with the parents is an important part of what I do. When speaking with a parent whose son or daughter is marrying outside the family’s faith and/or culture, I always stress the joy and hopefulness of the joining. I encourage the view that this is an opportunity to create strong bonds between families through shared experience and education. Everyone in the couple’s circle of family and friends has an opportunity to learn and grow from the exposure to a new tradition. So much good can come of it! The ceremony that joins an interfaith or interspiritual couple can provide a small experience of what we hope will someday be possible for the whole world – living together in peace and harmony and accepting, appreciating, and even cherishing the differences that make our lives so much richer.
I often encourage a concerned parent to pick up a book or two to learn something about the incoming tradition. I also try to reach out to his or her counterpart, the other mother or father, since they are often experiencing similar anxieties. (By the way, different languages can be a significant barrier, making the wedding a bit more challenging!) Sometimes a parent’s openness can make a significant difference in a ceremony. For instance, at a Hindu/Christian wedding, the bride’s mother (Christian) met the groom (Hindu) as he entered the wedding festivities and gave him her blessing in the Hindu tradition – anointing his forehead with ash and waving a lit ghee lamp before him.
The bride’s mother had taken it upon herself to learn how she could fully participate and was happily tutored in this greeting tradition by the groom’s family. It was a great way of breaking the ice and getting to know each other! The result was a lovely sight, colorful and full of joy. This one mother’s embrace of the groom’s family traditions by participating in it so fully went a long way to opening the door of love and communication between these two families from such different traditions.
Some parents worry about the ceremony. They want to know what to expect so that they will act appropriately on the day of the event. Recently I spoke at length with a mother in Israel who was getting ready to travel to the United States for her son’s wedding. She knew nothing of American wedding protocol and was very concerned about how things would go and what would be expected of her. We spent 15 minutes on the phone going over the sequence of events on the wedding day with her – the processional, seating, ceremony elements, recessional, cocktail hour, and so forth. By then she felt much more relaxed, confident about her ability to participate in and enjoy her son’s wedding. As it turned out she had a wonderful time and enjoyed every moment of the “very strange” American ceremony and reception.
The Hurdles of Preparation
Not every couple is able to juggle the creation of a ceremony that contains both traditions. These couples choose instead to omit one tradition from the ceremony completely, hoping that, although the unrepresented family will be disappointed, at least the couple didn’t offend the parents by mixing or showing aspects from both backgrounds.
Sometimes parents worry about the issues that will come up after the ceremony. These parents come with many pre-conceived ‘difficulties.’ The list includes raising children and observing holidays and worship rituals. Often you find an either/or mentality when it comes to observing tradition. On the other hand, you can point out, these issues can be approached from an and/both place. The fear of the unknown can often be quelled with a little gentle education about the unfamiliar tradition and exposure to an Interfaith or interfaith-friendly officiant who can truly express a heartfelt joy at the possibility of this new family observing and enjoying the richness of both traditions.
Not every wedding ceremony is completely happy. I certainly do not mean to suggest that education, conversation, and a joyful attitude will be the cure for every situation. I have had entire families who essentially disowned their child because of his or her choice to marry outside their faith (or culture, or race). One wedding in particular brought tears to my eyes when the guests arrived at the venue and it was immediately apparent that no one from the bride’s family was going to be present; they disapproved of her beloved’s religion and ethnicity. As an Interfaith minister I am charged with accepting these realities with an open heart.
In the end, it is really all about love. I continue to help those who are struggling with interfaith marriage take a small step towards opening their hearts and minds to the joy and hopefulness that come into the world when a bride and groom in love come together from diverse backgrounds. There is nothing sweeter for me. I love what I do and how I serve.