It's Easier than you Think
Living Life as an Interfaith Family
by Vicki Garlock
I often tell people that I have the easiest interfaith job in the world because I work with kids. It’s easy to assume that kids are too young to wonder about life’s “big questions,” but my experience suggests the opposite. Kids frequently have lots of thoughts about how the world came to be, about the nature of the Divine, and about how one might begin to understand and connect with the Great Mystery. Moreover, they do not have the same political and cultural baggage we adults have. They are notoriously open-hearted and open-minded, which makes it easy to share information from across the faith traditions.
Luckily, you do not need an undergraduate course on world religions. In fact, when it comes to living life as an interfaith family, that level of knowledge might even be detrimental. After all, we are not trying to create mini-religious scholars; we’re trying to meet kids where they are – cognitively and socio-emotionally. They are constantly exploring the world around them. As their caregivers, we simply need to overcome our own feelings of inadequacy, or even fear, so we can explore with them.
Here are a few quick and easy methods for doing that.
Honor the Holidays
When talking to caregivers from various faith traditions, one quickly learns that faith-based practices are routinely passed on to the next generation through holiday rituals. For example, Buddhists celebrate the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death on Vesak, as well as the miracles in the bamboo grove at the Magha Puja festival. Muslims celebrate the two Eids – Eid al-Fitr, at the beginning of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, marking Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God. Jews have Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover, but Purim and Sukkot are probably the most kid-friendly holy days in that tradition. Hinduism is well-known for its frequent holidays, including Holi, Diwali, Raksha Bandhan (which honors sibling relationships), and a host of birthdays, including Krishna, Hanuman, and Ganesha. As Jimmy Buffet once said, “It’s five o’clock somewhere.” In the interfaith world, we can offer, “It’s always a holy day somewhere.”
Start by simply mentioning the holidays and what they commemorate. It reminds kids that others are celebrating something important, even if it seems like an ordinary day in your family. It also familiarizes them with certain vocabulary words they should probably know as educated world citizens. You could always go all-out. Your local library will have plenty of books on most major holy days, and the internet is full of craft ideas. Simply being more aware is a great start and requires very little time or effort.
Two free on-line interfaith calendars help you find the dates for a tradition’s holy days and festivals in any given year, Calendar Labs and Interfaith Calendar, though they provide no descriptions. But all major holy days have a Wikipedia page, a good place to start learning about a new holy day. Remember, different traditions in different countries celebrate their festivals on different days. Protestants and Catholics, for instance, celebrate Easter on a different day than Orthodox Christians. The Islamic calendar is lunar, so dates move “up” from year-to-year, relative to the Gregorian calendar. Jewish and Muslim holidays start at sunset on the day before the date listed. But don’t sweat the calendar details. Kids do not care, and young children don’t have a well-developed sense of time anyway. Keep in mind that your overall goal is promoting awareness, and don’t be afraid to learn as you go.
Most of the world’s Indigenous traditions (e.g., Native American, Australian Aboriginal) focus on nature, so paying attention to the natural world buzzing all around us is a great step toward living an interfaith life. Fostering respect for our animal friends, engaging in nature-based community service projects, gazing at the stars, watching a storm roll in, or planting a small garden are all good starting points.
Recognizing the changing of the seasons is also important. The Wheel of the Year, followed by many modern Pagans, marks the solstices, the equinoxes, and the cross-quarter holidays (the days half-way between the solstice/equinoxes). It’s fun to look for – and find – the earliest signs of the changing seasons. Even though many religious traditions fail to mention their relationship with nature explicitly, it’s there. Holidays from a variety of traditions often cluster around certain seasonal milestones, and you will begin to notice those connections quite readily. The winter solstice and the start of spring are two notable examples.
In our family, we pay attention to moon cycles. Many Buddhist holidays are celebrated on full-moon days, and American Indians in New England and the Midwest named the full moons. This year’s Farmer’s Almanac has a wonderful description of Indigenous full-moon names. In the Jewish and Islamic traditions, calendrical months begin on new moons. So, simply paying attention to the moon as it changes over the course of a month can be an easy way to bring an interfaith perspective to your household.
Visit Houses of Worship
Attending worship services at synagogues, mosques, or temples is always an option, though this can be an intimidating first step for many families. Consider starting with something a bit easier. Here are some ideas to inspire you:
Food Festivals: In our town, both the Greek Orthodox church and the Jewish community host annual food festivals. These events often include dancing, cooking classes, music, vendors, and games/activities for the kids. Also, if the event is on-site, the worship space is often open for visits, tours, or just a quick peek inside.
Purim and Sukkot: These are two of the family-friendly holidays in the Jewish tradition. Find out if your local synagogues are offering kid-friendly carnivals with games and snacks. Be sure to eat hamantaschen, a sweet pastry, for Purim!
Vesak: Many Buddhist sanghas offer fun-filled celebrations for the Buddha’s birthday. Kids make flower decorations, light candles, and pour tea/milk over statues of the baby Buddha. Most families celebrate kids’ birthdays, and even secular Christians celebrate Christmas, so it’s easy to make connections with already-familiar holidays.
Iftar: Iftar is the evening meal that breaks the daily fast during Ramadan, and it’s a tradition to share that meal with family and friends. Many Islamic centers now offer an interfaith iftar – where they welcome non-Muslims from the local community – at least once during the month. Ramadan goes from the end of May to the end of June this year, so check out the web sites of your local mosques to see what they might offer.
Take Advantage of Everyday Opportunities
As the world becomes increasingly diverse, you will find easy opportunities to share interfaith tidbits while shopping at your local supermarket, driving through the school parking lot, or simply walking down the street. Religious attire is a good place to start. When you see a Jewish man in a yarmulke, a Muslim woman in a hijab (the traditional head-scarf worn by many Muslim women), a baptized member of the Sikh community in a turban, or a member of the Christian clergy, go ahead and politely point that out to your kids. You can even ask the person if they have time to share something about their practice with you. People who wear religious attire do so intentionally and consciously. They know people notice; that’s partly why they do it. In my experience, sincere interest and respectful questions are always welcome.
Other potential opportunities include stopping by the Religion section the next time you’re at the bookstore to peruse copies of other sacred texts (e.g., Qur’an, Tao Te Ching). I have met many adults who have never seen a Qur’an. This needs to change. Shopping in specialty stores can also be fun. Synagogues often have small shops where you can find dreidels, shofars, or other Judaica. Buddhist sanghas, particularly those affiliated with Tibetan Buddhism, offer an analogous array of ritual objects from their tradition (e.g., incense, water bowls, Buddhist statues, prayer flags). You don’t even have to purchase anything, as store staff are usually happy to share some of their knowledge, especially with kids.
As with anything in life, there’s always more you could do. But families are busy with lots going on, so it might make more sense to embody the interfaith life by simply making it a part of how you live. In many ways, religious differences are a subset of cultural differences. When viewed in that way, it becomes fairly easy to enjoy the process of learning about faith-based traditions different from our own and to honor the similarities and differences across practices.