Chapter One: What Is Interfaith?
A Philosophy of the Heart
The spiritual visions of man confirm and illumine each other....Great poems in different languages have different values but they all are poetry, and the spiritual visions of man come all from One Light.
-- Juan Mascaro, introduction to the Bhagavad Gita
Interfaith is not a religion. It walks among the religions.
Interfaith begins when we create a bridge between one set of beliefs and traditions and another. We start by listening to one another, and to the humanity in all of us. Interfaith emphasizes the universal principles and spiritual compassion taught by all schools of divinity and ethics. Each religion is an instrument for the divine, and together the world's religions form a glorious symphony. Interfaith is the acceptance and celebration of humankind in all its magnificent faiths, colors, cultures, and traditions. It is the acknowledgment that there is but one light that burns brightly through each faith and within each heart. In its essence, this light is love. Interfaith does not take sides.
The idea is not new. The interfaith message of Sufism is twelve hundred years old. Humanism flowered in the Italian Renaissance. The Unitarian Universalist Association traces its origins to 1793; the Baha'i faith originated in 1844, the Theosophical Society in 1875, Ethical Culture the following year. The United Nations is an international, intercultural, interfaith assemblage. Indeed, the list of interfaith organizations in the United States and around the world grows longer each year.
"We are made for complementarity," says South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. "I have gifts you do not; and you have gifts that I do not. So we need each other to become fully human."
Learning to understand and appreciate our differences brings enrichment to our lives. It is love, after all, that breaks down the prejudice and fear between people of different faiths and cultures. That is the eternal, healing, magical presence that brings an interfaith couple together. "Think not that you can direct the course of love," wrote the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, "for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course."
Such is the case with interfaith couples. Listen to the story of Cecile and Lance:
Cecile is French-born, the Jewish daughter of a Holocaust survivor. She and Lance, a devout German Catholic, were getting married. She is a petite brunette, worldly and outspoken; he is tall, blond, and quietly direct. They had already undergone counseling and agreed that Lance would retain his religion, but their children would be raised Jewish.
As they plan for their wedding, couples who were raised in different religions or denominations, like Cecile and Lance, or even in the same faith but are not religious, often wish for a ceremony that is both personally meaningful and God-centered but without the dogma. A growing number of individuals feel comfortable creating their own personal theology and philosophy, and embracing a universal deity or power connecting all things.
They represent one aspect of what I see as a reshaping of religious life in America. I find that many people, perhaps searching for meaning in a complex world, are either becoming more religiously conservative or moving away from organized religion and toward spirituality in a universal sense. While some yearn for traditional religion and doctrine, others find it constricting. On the one hand, there are now some sixteen hundred religions and denominations in the United States, half of them established since 1965; membership in Evangelical churches, led by the Church of God in Christ and the Assemblies of God, has boomed in recent decades, as has the Muslim population in the United States. On the other hand, some traditional Protestant church memberships are in steep decline, nontheist Buddhism is the fastest growing Eastern religion in America, and spiritual self-help -- from Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson to Chicken Soup for the Soul -- is flourishing. At their best, of course, religion and spirituality overlap and reinforce each other.
Interfaith is a way all people can find common ground. It takes no position on any organized religion; rather, it rejoices in all. Interfaith calendars published by the National Conference for Community and Justice, for example, note the holidays and observances of all the world's religions. Interfaith offers freedom of choice, freedom to interpret, to question, to grow, to stay rooted in your own tradition, or to discover another and make it your own. It offers freedom to create something new; it allows you to be as you are. There is a place in God's universe for all God's children.
The Very Reverend James Parks Morton, head of the Interfaith Center of New York and former dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, says, "Most fundamentally, interfaith is respect. Respect for different traditions, different religions, different faiths. It is coming to understand them. And more, it is coming to love them. The recognition of the oneness in all its diversity of expression, that is the basis of interfaith."
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Joining Hands and Hearts is devoted to the interfaith wedding ceremony. What is that? It is a ceremony that completely reflects you as a couple -- your love, your relationship, your beliefs and values. It is a collaborative creation celebrating the traditions and beliefs of two people in a universal context, a ceremony that emphasizes spirituality over religion.
But an interfaith ceremony does not imply uniformity. "Never instead of, always in addition to" is the motto of Rabbi Joseph Gelberman, founder of the New Seminary and the All Faiths Seminary in New York City. We retain our own beliefs and philosophies and reach out to the beliefs and philosophies of another. In doing so, we expand. We become richer inside. We hear the essence within each of us, the essence that supports and sustains us all.
However, there can be great disparity between what a couple wishes and what the families may want in a ceremony. Even if the bride and groom have worked out their own issues, a wedding is a family affair and a public statement that parents or other relatives often care about deeply. Couples find themselves trying to coordinate their desires with those of their parents. Grandparents, siblings, and friends often become involved as well.
I know the questions that engaged couples ask themselves, for I have heard them many times. You may have some of the same: How do we have a wedding that is a reflection of us, our love and our relationship? How do we remain true to ourselves and still make our families happy? How can we create a ceremony that merges our religious, spiritual, cultural, and personal beliefs? Can we do this without offending anyone? What issues are likely to arise? How do we talk to and work with our parents? Which rituals do we include? Who will officiate at our ceremony? Where will it take place? What will it look like? What will people think? Has this been done before?
Joining Hands and Hearts will help you answer all of these questions. I hope you will be inspired and comforted by the stories of other interfaith couples. You are not alone! You are not the first! You'll read here the wedding traditions -- rituals, prayers, vows, blessings -- of many religions and cultures, and see how to adapt and combine them within a universal context. You will see how to honor your heritage in a ceremony that will joyously affect everyone present, particularly family members. You will learn how to create a ceremony that will remain alive within you always. Regardless of your backgrounds, the language of love and marriage is universal.
To return to the story of Cecile and Lance:
Cecile had a dream in which she and Lance were kneeling in a church; she woke up crying. I asked her how her family, particularly her father (the Holocaust survivor), felt about Lance. She said her father believed it was difficult enough to find someone you really love and care for; her father cared for Lance and had given his blessing. But Cecile's guilt remained. "Cecile," I asked, "do you feel you are betraying your father?" She began to cry. I asked, "Do you love this man? Do you know this with utter certainty?" Solemnly, she nodded yes. I continued, "Do you know this in the most inner core of your being, in your very cells?" Again, she nodded. I said, "Then God is on your side! Who do you think created this love in the first place?" I told her a Jewish legend that says spouses are chosen in heaven before they are born. It reflects the Jewish concept of b'shert. (We used that legend in Cecile and Lance's ceremony.) What is God if not love?
We began working on their wedding. Each ritual, prayer, and blessing was up for discussion. Lance wanted the lighting of candles; Cecile felt the symbolism too Christian. I assured her that candles are lit at many Catholic-Jewish weddings and no one gets offended, not even the rabbis. We could accompany the lighting with a rabbinic proverb or with music, or it could be carried out in silence. Cecile was reluctant, so I suggested she speak to her parents about it. Her mother thought it was "a beautiful idea!" When the ritual was explained to her, she loved the notion of lighting the side candle herself, symbolizing her giving life to her child. We had her blessing.
As the wedding date approached, Cecile's father came to me and said, "You have a very important job." I smiled. "Will you do a good job?" he asked. I told him I would try my very best. "Do you know our history?" he continued. I replied, "I do." His eyes were now fixed on mine, probing. "Are you our Rebbe?" I immediately answered, "Yes, I am!" He laughed, and we embraced. He and I were both well aware I was not a rabbi. He was really asking if I was there to serve his needs. At the ceremony, we spoke about the importance of rejoicing in our differences.
While interfaith celebrates our diversity, it also points to our oneness. Love and marriage are universal. Wedding legends spanning culture, era, race, and creed abound. Consider these:
The Jewish legend I described to Cecile says that forty days before a child is born, his or her spouse is selected in heaven. When these two souls are created, an angel cries out: "This man is made for that woman, that woman for this man. Should these two souls meet on earth and recognize one another for who they really are, they will fall in love. From that moment on, they shall become as one and no hardship can alter the strength of their enduring love."
A Chinese legend holds that two people are connected at their births by an invisible thread; the thread shrinks over the years until the two are brought together in marriage.
ardIn Islamic lore, when two people join in marriage, God himself opens wide the heavens and commands legions of angels to go forth and bear witness to the miraculous act: Two people have fallen in love, and the heavens sing and dance in celebration.
In the Hindu Kama Sutra, it is written that when the one man loves the one woman and the one woman loves the one man, the angels abandon heaven and go to sit in that house and sing for joy.
On a visit to the home of a former Catholic priest and nun, I noticed this saying from the Kama Sutra framed on their wall, with no indication of its origin. I asked the ex-priest where he got it. He answered promptly: "At a Catholic marriage encounter." (These are weekend-long programs for married couples sponsored by the Catholic Church.) I asked if he knew the saying's origin. He did not. When I told him that it was the Hindu love classic, the Kama Sutra, he said, "It may not be Christian in origin, but it is certainly Christian in spirit." I said, "It is interfaith. It is universal."
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As an interfaith minister who has been blessed to have officiated at a wide variety of interfaith, interdenominational, same-faith, and humanist weddings, I have seen again and again how a carefully crafted, lovingly designed interfaith ceremony is the perfect answer for so many couples. Interfaith appeals to all who want a ceremony completely reflective of themselves, their beliefs, their relationship. It attracts intercultural and interracial couples and their families.
An interfaith ceremony is the solution for those couples whose own religions forbid interfaith marriage. Even couples who have decided that their future children will follow one religion may feel their wedding needs to be the expression of both their backgrounds. An interfaith ceremony often is the only solution when divergent and competing families become involved.
Interfaith also appeals to same-faith or interdenominational couples with no active religious affiliation who don't want a very religious ceremony. These couples may wish for a deeply moving ceremony in which God, love, and family are emphasized with spirituality, not religious dogma. The focus is on our universal spiritual essence, what is in all of us and in all faiths, and on the couple and their relationship, family and friends, love and life, spiritual and ethical values.
Interfaith also draws in humanist, agnostic, and atheist couples. Often when one partner is an atheist or agnostic, the couple decide not to mention God during the ceremony. But where there is love, there is sanctity. Marriage is sacred. These couples want a humanist ceremony with heart. Although use of the word God is uncomfortable for them or simply not relevant to their belief system, their cultural traditions can still be celebrated. After all, many religious practices developed from or have merged with cultural traditions.
Interfaith appeals to those who have either willingly left or been rejected or unsupported by their religion -- divorced Catholics, for example, former fundamentalists or orthodoxes, or same-sex couples. Interfaith attracts couples who want an alternative to a civil ceremony, which they may find lacking in warmth and personal meaning.
The results of an interfaith union are deeply inspiring. Dealing with the preparation and creation of the wedding, however, can be quite a challenge. If you are from different faiths or cultures, you may embark on a very delicate navigation through unfamiliar waters. It is my hope that Joining Hands and Hearts will help you steer the course.
You will find here numerous examples of interfaith unions. I was privileged to perform their wedding ceremonies; each couple profiled went through extensive meetings with me, and most answered the probing questions in my questionnaire. Many of these brides and grooms confronted personal, cultural, and psychological challenges. You will see how together we worked through them. As they bridged their differences and celebrated their commonality, they enriched themselves and their extended families as well. I tell them, "Two traditions, twice blessed!" One bride and groom from Canada had been raised in three traditions and seven cultures. They were planning to teach their children the full range of their heritage. Ten times blessed!
How does a Born-Again Christian join with a Jew? A Moroccan Muslim with an African-American Protestant? A Greek Orthodox with a Lutheran? An African-American Baptist and a woman raised Protestant and Jewish; a Hindu and a Russian Orthodox; a Japanese Buddhist and a humanist from a Christian-Jewish home; a Mormon and a Catholic; an Iranian and a Jew who love their cultural traditions; divorced Catholics who could not marry in their church? All these stories and more are told in these pages.
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I have worked to make this a practical book, a how-to book, and a reference source for the interfaith-intercultural wedding. My questionnaire, which you will find in the following chapter, is key to the process. The couples I have worked with have benefited greatly from taking the time to answer the questionnaire, and I am certain it will help you focus on what you want and what is important to you.
I had just finished a wedding ceremony in a pavilion on the top of a mountain in upstate New York, a place of panoramic views and breathtaking beauty. A guest came toward me. He told me how moving the ceremony had been for him, and added, "I agree with your theology." I tilted my head in amusement. Theology? I was not aware that I had expressed any particular theology, especially because this had been a humanist ceremony with no mention of God. Putting my hand on his, I said, "It is a theology of the heart!"
My approach to a wedding falls somewhere between the traditional and the alternative. Couples, their families, and guests comment on how spiritual and personal my ceremonies are, how moving and inspirational. But the inspiration comes from the couples themselves -- and from something far greater than our understanding. The interweaving of traditions gives the assembled company a feeling of unity.
As you think about your responses to the questionnaire, and as you begin to give shape to your wedding, it will be helpful to understand what we mean generally by the religious, spiritual, cultural, and personal elements within a ceremony. The kind of ceremony you hope for, according to these broad categories, will guide many of your decisions -- from the celebrant you seek out to the readings or blessings you select. Explore the following four elements, and consider the meaning and importance of each to your life.
Religion is an organized system of beliefs, rites, and celebrations centered on divine power. The major religions all follow written scripture; Native American and tribal religions follow oral traditions. Most religions have functionaries -- priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, or shamans. In most religions there are ruling bodies that dictate codes of behavior and interpret doctrine. Religion provides tradition and order. There can be great fulfillment in being part of a religious community. It can give life meaning and a sense of cohesion.
Religious couples often come to me when they need help. They may be Greek Orthodox and Jewish, and discover that neither the priest nor the rabbi will perform their service. When one partner (or perhaps both) comes from a conservative religious background, the couple find themselves in the heartbreaking situation of not being able to be married in their faith. A civil ceremony is a possibility, but as religious individuals they are likely to find this option unacceptable. Viewing their pending marriage as sacred, they want a sacred event; they want God mentioned, they want blessings and prayers.
Each religion has a rite for marriage. Some are elaborate and ceremonial, such as the Hindu wedding ceremony, and some are reserved and formal, such as the Quaker ceremony. If either you or your partner is strongly religious, it's critical to ask yourselves if you wish to have an essentially religious ceremony. Which religious traditions do you wish to include?
Like many of the couples I work with, you may say that you have faith and believe in God, in something both greater than and part of yourselves -- but you don't consider yourself very religious. You may practice little or no organized religion. For you, a ceremony of a spiritual nature, in which God is acknowledged in a universal, inclusive way, may feel exactly right.
In an interfaith ceremony, it is crucial to focus on spirituality and to honor religious rituals in a universal manner, because the doctrine of one partner's religion may offend the sensibilities of the other. Celebrating our common spirituality, which is the essence of all religion, is the beauty and power of the interfaith ceremony. No one should feel alienated or offended.
Spirituality exists in and connects all religions. When you read about the ecstasies of Catholic or Hindu saints, Jewish or Sufi mystics, the experience described is the same. In his book The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell tells the story of a friend who attended an international meeting in Bangkok of the Roman Catholic meditative orders. While the Catholic and Buddhist clergy, the functionaries, in attendance had problems understanding one another, the contemplative monks from the two religions understood one another perfectly. That is because the mystical experience is the same for all; it is internal, nameless, and timeless, and derives from the source of all being. Those who experience it know it is beyond boundaries.
Mystical spirituality is distinct from everyday spirituality. While the former is transcendent, found by going inward -- often through meditation -- everyday spirituality is grounded in compassion for all humankind. This is the experience of God in the everyday life; its effect is kindness.
A friend of mine is a psychologist, a loving and faithful husband, an icon of a father, a brave cancer survivor, Jewish by heritage though completely unobservant, and a firm atheist. He lives by the laws of psychology and human kindness. He once said to me, "I am not a spiritual person at all." I looked directly at him and replied, "Why, Howard, I think of you as one of the most spiritual people I know!" He retorted, "I'm a complete atheist." "But you feel spiritual," I said. "Define spirituality," he demanded. I replied, "Connected to oneself, and therefore able to connect to others and to the world at large."
Howard, though an atheist, though never having had a mystical experience of God, has what I call everyday spirituality. He is rooted in his compassion and in his humanity, with a deep commitment to helping his fellow man. He tries to alleviate human suffering where and when he can. His view on life has much in common with Buddhist philosophy, though he is not knowledgeable of it. I relish that Howard and I, with different beliefs and faiths, can communicate openly and respectfully. I believe it is because we both value kindness and respect towards our fellow men and women; we share the philosophy of Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell: "Remember your humanity." We listen and learn from each other; we share spirituality.
The interfaith ceremony is founded on everyday spirituality; depending on the individuals involved, however, it can also mirror the mystical. When speaking of touching the mystical during an interfaith service, I am not referring to something so abstract and mysterious that one feels apart from it and unable to understand it. Rather, I am referring to a sense of the eternal in the present moment. Most of us have had such a feeling sometime in our lives. Some sense it when they are witnessing a glorious sunset; others have felt it upon holding their newborn child for the first time. Some have received the experience through crisis or at a near-death encounter. One groom described to me a time when he climbed an eighteen-thousand-foot mountain; standing at the summit after his arduous journey, he felt a oneness with the entire world. It's the sense of something bigger than yourself, yet grounded in yourself. You feel very much alive and connected.
Here is an example of the mystical in an interfaith ceremony. At the end of one wedding, an elderly woman hurried toward me. She had the face of one who had just experienced something she could not explain. Her eyes were wide open when she began to speak: "I just have to tell you what happened! Four months ago my husband died. In fact, I almost did not come tonight, but I did not want to disappoint Jamie [the groom]. We were married forty years, and everything you spoke about I had in my marriage. I have not been able to feel my husband's presence until now." She broke into tears. "When you were speaking, he was right beside me." She pointed to an empty chair and put her hand to her mouth. In her face I saw a combination of awe and gratitude. She began to thank me over and over. I took her hands in mine and said, "Thank you! Now I have something to tell you. Four months ago, my father died of lymphoma. And with each ceremony since, I have cried afterward." Through my own tears, I thanked her for the affirmation that my father was always with me.
I watched as she recounted her experience to others. Later the groom approached me. "You see that lady?" he said, pointing. "She and her husband had an amazing relationship. They were an incredible, unique couple. When her husband first laid eyes on her, he went up to her and said, 'Someday we are going to be married!' They were married a year later. They were an inspiration to all who knew them."
Some of the questions in my questionnaire are: Have you ever had a mystical experience? Do you believe in God? What do you hold sacred? Couples' responses help me understand their spiritual beliefs so that together we can create a ceremony that is relevant for them. In this way the ceremony speaks to their souls. Antonio, a Catholic from Portugal, and Susan, an American Protestant, had taken a trip during their courtship to Fatima in Portugal. In their answers on the questionnaire, each wrote about their mystical experiences during that trip. I spoke about it in their ceremony, reminding them of their shared experience. It was a clear reflection of the spiritual nature of their relationship.
Someone once told me he heard a priest describe a religious person as an individual who is looking for God, while a spiritual person is someone who has found God. While I think I understand what the priest was saying, I would put it differently, because many people are both spiritual and religious.
While religion and spirituality deal with theologies and cosmologies -- how we view divine order -- culture deals with people, their customs and lore. These are the practices generated by a tribe, region, nation, race, or community bound together by common language or lifestyle. "The great religions are by their very nature transnational and multicultural," writes the psychologist Joel Crohn in his book Mixed Matches. "Culture is more particular."
Of course, culture and religion overlap, but they are distinguishable. For the purposes of an interfaith ceremony, it is often important to make that distinction, especially when a prayer or ritual may offend any of the families involved. Many religious rites have roots in cultural customs. Cultures that converted later to a particular religion, in other words, often adapted or merged certain rituals with local customs.
If yours will be a cultural intermarriage, you may want to incorporate practices from your heritage in your wedding. Indeed, doing so can be an important tool in creating an interfaith ceremony, for honoring cultural traditions can go a long way toward healing family issues. When the celebrant explains the meaning and symbolism of the selected rituals, the experience is enlightening for all those present. In a Jewish-Hindu ceremony, for example, one can make a correlation between the Jewish tradition of circling and the Hindu Seven Steps. The Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics, believed that circling helps the bride and groom enter into the seven spheres of the soul. In Hinduism, the bride and groom circle the sacred fire seven times while taking seven sacred vows. Also, in Hinduism there are seven levels of consciousness, or seven chakras. Celebrating the customs of both families brings a sense of belonging and familiarity.
Bringing personal elements into your ceremony makes it come alive. It helps create a service that is reflective of who you are as people. This is a ceremony that will touch hearts, not only your own but also those of your families and friends. Think back to weddings you have attended: When were you most moved? Probably that feeling occurred when the bride and groom exchanged their vows, for that is a highly personal aspect of every wedding. Imagine having that feeling throughout your ceremony!
When a couple allows the personal to come into their ceremony, they give the gift of their spirits to all present. Everyone feels closer to the bride and groom, learns more about them and their relationship. All hearts open, and warmth resonates throughout the room.
Decide if you wish to incorporate personal elements in your ceremony, and to what extent. Some couples wish their wedding to be minimal and understated; others want it to be ceremonial and expressive. Your decision may stem from a cultural point of view. Through answering the questionnaire and through discussion with your partner, you will strike the perfect balance. It may take a bit of effort, but as most couples would agree: This is one of the most important days of your life! Among life's many profound events, the marriage rite is the most gloriously celebrated.
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The path of the human being is not simple. Myriad elements shape one's life and beliefs. Some people need religion, some need spirituality to varying degrees, and some need neither. Interfaith recognizes and understands that reality. It is a dialogue that is evolving along with our global village. It is a bridge among the religions.
parAt a wedding ceremony, an interfaith celebrant (or officiant or minister) may bring the balance and healing often required; he or she helps build the bridge. We are all human beings with our individual biases, but an interfaith celebrant must be neutral. Since interfaith is not a religion, the celebrant has no vested interest in guiding the ceremony to a certain "religious" outcome. Her job is to listen without judgment, recognize what is needed, present possible solutions with sensitivity, and care for all parties involved. She should remain grounded in compassion and dedicated to serving needs. Then it is for the couple themselves, often with their families' approval, to choose the rituals and music, prayers and blessings for their ceremony.
Rebeccah and Paul, a Jewish-Episcopalian couple planning their wedding, wished to use the Jewish tradition of breaking a glass and the Christian tradition of lighting the unity candle. But they also wanted their processional music to be "Ave Maria." The bride liked the song and wanted her friend, a soloist, to sing it. Rebeccah told me this after saying that she had grown up in a conservative kosher home and attended Jewish schools. After further discussion, it came out that while she and her mother were no longer observant, her mother still had wanted a rabbi to co-officiate with an Episcopal priest instead of having me alone conduct the ceremony. (Rebeccah and Paul were paying for their own ceremony, so they felt freer to select the celebrant themselves.)
I did not know Rebeccah's mother at that point, but I was sure she would be upset about their choice of processional music. In fact, I distinctly remember saying, "Rebeccah, your mother is going to plotz!" (Yiddish for "fall over.") I told the couple to consider seriously the religious significance of "Ave Maria." If they really wanted that song, I suggested, we could begin with traditional Jewish music while the chuppah was carried in, and balance other components of both religions during the rest of the ceremony. I strongly suggested that they speak with Rebeccah's mother and prepare her. In the end, we had Jewish music and "Ave Maria," and Rebeccah's mother later wrote and thanked me for one of the most meaningful experiences of her life.
I often meet and work with parents as well as the bride and groom. It is all part of the process of learning about one another. Before we build the bridge, we need to clarify where everyone is coming from and what each one wishes. I also want to hear their fears and concerns. Only then is understanding possible. This process does take effort, but it's worth it -- for at your wedding, you set the precedent for how you will conduct your lives together, and how your families and friends will relate to you. As Joel Crohn writes: "The act of getting married is a kind of dress rehearsal for a shared life....Weddings symbolically condense and display how a couple intends to live their life in relationship to family, culture, friends, spirituality, and success....[The wedding presents] an opportunity for the couple to start designing a blueprint and laying the foundation for the future cultural and religious framework of their new family."
You will find that the material in Joining Hands and Hearts will help you create the wedding you want, regardless of whether you choose an interfaith ceremony and celebrant or use interfaith aspects in a traditional ceremony with religious clergy from your own backgrounds. Your wedding will be enriched by whatever you choose. Remember that marriage is universal. Love, devotion, faithfulness, long life, health, happiness, children, and family -- these are the concerns of every bride and groom, and they are among life's greatest gifts.
ANNA AND JOSH, A FORMER EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN-AGNOSTIC PROTESTANT JEWISH COUPLE
The love story of this young couple traces a long and often difficult path.
Here, in Anna's words, is how their story unfolded:
The first time I saw Josh, in an acting class in Manhattan, I thought, Now there's a really intelligent, sensitive, Jewish guy. Since I was a Christian, very committed to my spiritual walk and to my conservative church, it didn't occur to me that he might be just the intelligent, sensitive guy I'd looked for all my life. The first time Josh saw me, he thought (as he confessed years later), "Great legs. There is a woman I could spend the rest of my life with." (I don't know the degree of correlation between his two thoughts.)
When Josh asked me out for the first time, I wanted to refuse. But he was so nice, and I couldn't think of a polite way to say, "I can't associate with you because you're not the same religion as me." So we went ice skating in Central Park.
Two more dates followed, and then Anna realized she had to break up with him.
I was in my mid-twenties, I wanted to get married someday, and I knew I'd never marry a non-Christian. So, even though Josh was pretty incredible in every other way, I told him I couldn't see him anymore because he was not a Christian. I missed Josh and prayed for him for years after we stopped seeing each other.
During those years apart, Anna went through a time of questioning. When she attended services in her church, she sometimes cried for no apparent reason. She finally stopped going, bowing out of all her church commitments.
I was afraid of the loving but judgmental God I'd been taught, and I finally decided that couldn't possibly be who the real God was. I longed for the Spirit of God but refused the many rules of the church, the literal interpretation of Scripture, the confession and intercessory prayer I'd always used. I went off that God cold turkey. I was free-falling.
Strangely enough, Josh began volunteering at the after-school center for teenagers where Anna worked. They started seeing each other again.
I was never afraid with him. I was never more myself. He told me he felt the same way. We delighted in each other. He listened to my spiritual struggles, and held me when I cried because I couldn't figure out who God was. Josh had some experience with Buddhist meditation, and I was beginning to explore meditation, although I kept insisting I didn't get it and couldn't do it. Sometimes we meditated together. Sometimes we annoyed other pedestrians by stopping on busy street corners to kiss.
I was happy. After a while, I knew deep down that I had found the one. Josh said that from the beginning when he held me in his arms a little voice inside would say, "This is my wife, this is my wife," but he would completely ignore it. Now he says he should have known the little voice was smarter than he was.
One thing disturbed Anna: What would her parents think about Josh? Anna and her mother and father were so close, and she didn't want to make them unhappy. They learned about the presence of Josh in her life; they knew he was not a Christian. Eventually, they all had lunch at a Chinese restaurant.
It is difficult to say which of the four of us was the most nervous, but everything went beautifully. What was there not to like about Josh, this incredible man who loved me so much? What was there not to like about my parents, this wonderful couple who gave me their all?
Two and a half years later, Josh asked me to marry him. By then, he had spent enough time with my parents to let them see who he really was, beyond the category they had always been trained to place him in: non-Christian. But I knew their misgivings about their own daughter marrying out of the faith, raising their grandchildren differently than they had always assumed, because my mother and I had touched on the topic. To their great credit, my parents were able to be purely joyful with me.
On a beautiful August day, filled with lovely flowers, gorgeous dresses, friends, family, joy, and an openness and acceptance that only love can create, Anna and Josh were married. Anna wrote:
We would marry in the Friends Meeting House I had finally found in my quest for communion with the Divine Spirit. Sunday services there are silent. The silence is deep and filled with light. The first time I walked into the Friends Meeting House I felt the presence of God wash over me. It was the only place I had been able to meet with God for several years. Josh sometimes went with me and meditated, too.
Anna and Josh had asked me to talk about what they called "our long and miraculous journey, the one that finally led us to each other." At their wedding I said, "Together against great odds, through love and perseverance and always, always with God's help and intervention, you stayed on course. You forged ahead to fulfill your destiny together. It is my belief that when a love of this magnitude occurs, it resonates throughout the universe, bringing us all closer to God's peace."
Anna's final thoughts:
The service was real and intimate and celebratory and emotional. When at the end Susanna said, "I present to you Mr. and Mrs. ______," the guests burst into spontaneous applause, and as they clapped for several long moments, we simply stood holding hands, grinning, looking out at our loved ones, basking in the elation of the entire room, Jews and Christians and not-really-sure-whats. It is a minute, pure and true and victorious, that I will remember as long as I live.
Copyright © 2003 by Susanna Macomb
Introduction: So You're Getting Married!
Hello, and congratulations on your upcoming marriage! What a glorious, life-affirming choice that is, one that must fill you with hope and excitement. Now that the big decision has been made, your attention has naturally turned to planning your wedding, which includes the ceremony.
As an interfaith minister, I have been privileged to officiate at hundreds of wedding ceremonies, for couples coming from an amazing variety of backgrounds. Interacting with people of so many cultures, colors, and creeds has enriched me -- for this is work that makes the spirit soar and the heart sing! These couples have inspired me. What I often refer to as a sacred walking with these couples during the preparation and celebration of their weddings forms the soul of this book.
It is my hope that Joining Hands and Hearts will help you create the wedding ceremony of your dreams and perhaps beyond what you have imagined -- one that will resonate within you throughout your married lives. This book offers an inclusive, embracing approach, one rooted in and permeated by the same essence that brought you together -- love. And if yours is an interfaith, intercultural, or interracial union, then your love doesn't know the boundaries of color, creed, or nationality. I cannot think of anything more beautiful.
Our world is becoming smaller by the minute. Advances in technology and communications, changes in the way we work, the ability to travel anywhere -- all have created what is truly a global village. People from all countries interact with one another to an ever-increasing extent. Inevitably, individuals of different faiths, backgrounds, and cultures meet, get to know one another, fall in love, decide to marry. There is no doubt: intermarriage is on the rise. Here are some statistics:
In the United States alone, 5 million people are married each year.
Over 40 percent of marriage-age Catholics marry outside the Church, a doubling since the 1960s. Marriages between Catholics and Protestants, once frowned upon, are now accepted by the vast majority of those faiths.
Three in ten Mormons are now in interfaith marriages, although they are encouraged by their church to marry within their faith.
One in three Episcopalians and one in four Lutherans have married outside their churches.
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America reports that two-thirds of its sanctioned marriages are interfaith.
The number of Jewish-Christian couples doubled to one million during the 1990s.
Four in ten Muslims, whose religion allows men but not women to intermarry, have chosen non-Muslim spouses.
The intermarriage rate approaches 60 percent for Buddhists, the fastest-growing Eastern religion in the United States.
How do all these "mixed matches" get married? Increasingly, couples who wish their wedding day to be one of harmony, spirituality, and celebration are discovering the interfaith ceremony. It is a bridge. The great strength of the interfaith ceremony is that it is inclusive. If done correctly, it is an enlightening and enriching experience. Each ceremony contains its particular brand of magic, and all involved come away feeling honored and celebrated. No one feels alienated or offended. One family is not more important than the other. The interfaith ceremony is like a sacred dance that goes back and forth, celebrating each tradition in joy, making room so that everyone feels richer and expanded.
I often tell couples that my job is to serve them and their families with the utmost caring and devotion. Joining Hands and Hearts is here to serve you, to suggest possibilities and solutions. There is no agenda, religious or otherwise. We all participate in the sacred. The solutions, in the broadest sense, are not about conciliation and giving in but about learning, understanding, respecting, and always making the circle wider. That is what creates a memorable interfaith wedding ceremony. And that is what makes for a successful interfaith or intercultural marriage, one in which the love will continue to grow stronger, deeper, and greater.
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Joining Hands and Hearts will serve as your guide to designing a wedding tailored to both of your needs and wishes; it will lead you through the steps of planning a ceremony that is uniquely yours. A ceremony involves not only your beliefs but those of both your families. It has to do not only with religion but also with cultural and personal elements of significance to you.
Part I includes an introduction to interfaith; a questionnaire to help you identify, express, and focus your feelings, thoughts, and needs; practical considerations to bear in mind as you begin thinking about your wedding ceremony; a discussion of family matters to help you deal with issues as the planning process goes on; and the outline of a core interfaith ceremony, which you may use as a blueprint for your own wedding.
In Part II, you will find the manual, which begins with a description of general traditions and includes a selection of universal words. These pages provide a sourcebook of passages that correspond to the several stages of the ceremony -- readings, prayers, vows, blessings. They are words that speak to all hearts. And they can be incorporated into almost any wedding ceremony. Next you will find an overview of the religions of the world and their marriage ceremonies, adapted for an interfaith service. We have taken traditional elements from various ceremonies and presented them in a universal context, so that each is appropriate for an interfaith assembly. You will find the symbolism and meaning of each ritual and element explained.
When I meet with an engaged couple to talk about their wedding, sometimes one or both are not very knowledgeable about their own religious or cultural traditions, and often they know very little about their partners'. I would suggest to you, as I do to the couples I work with, read about each other's religions and cultures. Be willing to learn from each other. The wedding is one day -- a wonderful, transforming, unforgettable day, but just a day within a lifetime of days. Every interfaith couple should enter marriage with eyes and hearts wide open, and know as much as they can about each other's religion, culture, and family heritage. Inevitably, there will be adjustments to come. But to marry in ignorance, or with the notion that any compromises can be worked out later, is troublesome.
This manual will help get you started. For each religion, I offer a brief explanation of the basic tenets and the spiritual essence that have provided comfort and sustenance to so many people over centuries. It is my hope to give you a glimmer of the light that illuminates each tradition. Unfamiliar doctrine may sound strange or uncomfortable, and may separate and divide. But the teachings of the founders of the world's great religions -- the words of Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Lao Tzu, Buddha -- are essentially universal. All religions and spiritual paths originate from and lead to the same place -- love.
As an interfaith minister (who grew up in a traditional Catholic family), I find that the more I learn, including from all the couples I have worked with over the years, the bigger I become inside. Through my exposure to the various traditions, they have become somehow part of me. I have discovered that in some way I am Christian, I am Jewish, I am Muslim, I am Hindu, I am Buddhist, I am Taoist, I am Sufi, I am Native American, I am African-American. I am one with the beauty and wisdom of all faiths and cultures. God is called by many names. Perhaps as you and your partner learn from each other, you too will find yourself growing in appreciation of each other's theologies, cosmologies, and belief systems. And from this exposure you too will become bigger, richer inside. You or your partner may have spiritual inclinations toward traditions other than the ones you were raised with, and this book will serve you in that regard as well.
The next section of the manual lists wedding rituals and customs from around the world. Many couples wish to celebrate their cultural roots. In these pages, you will read about customs you might find appealing and appropriate for your wedding (the African-American jumping of the broom, for example, or the Spanish and Mexican exchange of coins), what they mean and how they can be incorporated and explained in a ceremony.
Finally, many of the couples whose ceremonies I have conducted have graciously allowed me to tell their stories. These are tender, delightful, and romantic stories -- about how the couples met and fell in love, the obstacles they overcame, their spiritual paths, the choices they made, and the weddings that, together, we designed. Standing in the presence of their love, one cannot help but be sprinkled with their stardust. From their love stories (which are interspersed throughout the book) and sample ceremonies (which are presented in Part III), you may gather any number of suggestions or creative solutions for your own wedding. I hope their stories will not only describe how, when, and where particular elements can be incorporated but also spark ideas on how to unite your family and guests in a oneness of spirit and, especially, how to achieve the balance that is the hallmark of an interfaith service. Perhaps you may even see a bit of yourselves in these brides and grooms.
As you read the ceremonies that we describe in Joining Hands and Hearts, it may be apparent to you that one has a more Jewish slant, another a more Christian slant, or whatever the interfaith combination may be. These are decisions the bride and groom have made. It was the couples themselves who chose the rituals, prayers, and blessings for their weddings. There may be any number of reasons for their choices: Perhaps the bride feels more deeply committed to her religious heritage than the groom does to his and he is happy to accommodate her wishes; perhaps his family and guests come from a more traditional environment, and the couple hopes to help them feel most comfortable. Sometimes who is paying for the wedding is a deciding factor. The final decisions are theirs -- just as your decisions must be yours.
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For me it is an honor and privilege to perform marriage ceremonies. The Christian marrying a Hindu, the Protestant marrying a Mormon, the Baptist marrying a Jew, a Jewish groom marrying a Japanese Shinto bride, the bride who loves her Greekness and admires her fiancé's Catholicism, an African-American and a Moroccan Frenchman who relish each other's cultures -- to me, these individuals, even when they struggle with their plans and questions, are a cause for rejoicing. They are blessings. "Marriage," wrote Joseph Barth, "is our last, best chance to grow up." And an interfaith or intercultural marriage to me represents one of our universal best hopes of moving toward a promised land, where people of all religions, creeds, and colors live side by side, hand in hand, honoring and celebrating both their uniqueness and their commonality. No us versus them. Or me versus you. When I stand before an interfaith couple and look out at their families and guests, I sometimes feel, This is where it starts. This is our hope for peace.
Copyright © 2003 by Susanna Macomb