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Leap of faith: Marrying outside your religion

Planning a wedding can be tough — but pulling off an interfaith ceremony can be even more challenging. Here, Brides.com offers tips to help couples and their families realize the mixed blessing of joining of two different religions.
/ Source: Brides.com

Lisa Rosen* and Pete Bartolo breathed a joint sigh of relief as they stood under the chuppah at their interfaith wedding. The Jewish-Catholic service, fraught with family conflict during the planning stage, bounced seamlessly back and forth between the rabbi and the priest. In deference to Pete's Catholic heritage, they lit a unity candle; to honor Lisa's faith, Pete followed the Jewish tradition of crushing a small glass with his foot. But by the time the reception began, in-law opposition had reared its head. Pete's family, who had been adamantly against his interfaith union from the start, refused to pose for photos. His mother wouldn't dance with him, and his siblings sequestered themselves in a corner to avoid mingling with other guests. “I guess you could say we were successful, because we did manage to get married,” Lisa recalls. “But having that much hostility surround such an important day was hardly the fairy-tale wedding I had always dreamed of.”

Lisa and Pete's struggle to merge two faiths is not uncommon, says Beth Singer, associate rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Seattle. “When two people first fall in love, different religions fade into the background,” she says. “But at some point those differences come to the forefront, and it's critical that the couple explore what their faiths mean to them and to their families so they can find a way to reach true harmony.”

Parents and prejudice
Compromise starts with the ceremony itself, the perfect platform to first test your negotiating skills as a couple. Sometimes, this means working things out between you and your fiancé. More often than not, however, it means mediating between two sets of uneasy parents. “Take comfort in knowing that most parents, no matter how opposed they are to your interfaith marriage, ultimately want the happiness of their child,” says Rev. Susanna Stefanachi Macomb, author of “Joining Hands and Hearts” (Fireside Books, 2003). “Any opposition they show is out of fear that their child won't be happy.” To ease the apprehension and foster positive discussion, try to:

  • Find common ground: “It's important to fight the natural urge to look for differences,” says Richard M. Landau, author of “What the World Needs to Know About Interfaith Dialogue”  (interfaithdialogue.com). By focusing on the elements of your faith that draw you together — a common belief in God, the importance of children, traditional wedding rituals — you can shift the tone of the conversation to one of a shared vision. For example, at certain Catholic and Jewish weddings, wine is sipped during the ceremony. Mention this and ask your family for shared wedding customs that you might include in your service.
  • Present a united front: You can't expect your family to be on board if you and your fiancé have unresolved issues. Before you sit down with your parents, be sure that the two of you are on the same page not just in terms of the ceremony — but about your life together beyond that one day. Remember that agreeing to worship with another person doesn't mean compromising your own beliefs.
  • Avoid loaded language: What may seem like normal lingo to you may be considered an insult by your fiancé's family. “Some people are offended by the terms religious groups use to describe outsiders, like ‘gentiles’ or ‘nonbelievers,’ ” explains Landau. “Not only do you need to avoid giving people the impression that you believe you are superior and wish to exclude them, you also need to be able to explain exactly what you mean if you use a term they find offensive.”
  • Speak honestly: If you're sensing a difficult sell, it's time to lay your feelings on the table in the kindest possible way. Assure your parents that they haven't done anything wrong and that your decision to marry out of the faith is built purely out of love for another human being. You might say, for instance, “Mom and Dad, I have found the love of my life. I want your blessing on our marriage and want you to see him not as Muslim (or Greek Orthodox, or whatever), but as the person with whom I can start a family.”

Wanted: One good officiantWhile you may have always dreamed of being married by your family minister, that may not be possible if your fiancé is of a different faith. Should your clergy member decline, try to find an alternate to take his place, or choose a neutral officiant who specializes in mixed ceremonies. “Personal recommendations and word-of-mouth referrals are best when this type of problem arises,” says Rev. Macomb, who suggests having an extensive talk with the prospective officiant on the phone first. “During the conversation, find out things like how many services they have performed and if they have any experience with your specific situation. If you like what they have to say, and feel confident that they will be able to provide the type of ceremony you need, go ahead and arrange a meeting with them.”

Often considered one of the most flexible of the clergy, an interfaith minister can blend whatever religions you specify during the ceremony (mentioning God or other deities), or can keep the service religiously neutral. A Unitarian Universalist minister performs a nondenominational service without specific theological significance. If you want to get away from religious references altogether, opt for a judge or a civil servant who will provide a secular ceremony — usually in the person's chambers. Another nonreligious option worth considering is having an Ethical Culture Society leader perform your wedding. Known for their warm, humanistic approach, these officiants focus on a couple's values and sentiments rather than prayer and theistic references.

Going to the chapel?
So your usual house of worship isn't an option? Don't lose faith — there are plenty of romantic and inclusive locations that lend themselves to blended weddings. A few to consider include:

  • University chapels: On-campus houses of worship are usually open to all students, alumni, and members of the community. Most are nondenominational.

  • Unitarian Universalist chapels: Many of these sites allow interfaith ceremonies.

  • Quaker meeting houses: In these unadorned buildings without altars, civil and interfaith ceremonies are always welcome.

  • Hotels, wedding halls, botanical gardens: These are considered neutral sites, so anything goes.

Looking down the road
When it comes to setting up a home, cultural traditions can be very important. “For example, a non-Jewish person who falls in love with a Jew who's not particularly religious might think she is marrying someone like her. But down the line, she may find that her partner's Jewish identity manifests itself in different ways,” says Rabbi Singer. Maybe he wants his baby boy to have a bris, a Jewish ritual circumcision ceremony; or perhaps the thought of having a Christmas tree in his house makes him cringe. Buddhists traditionally keep small shrines in their homes, which have a photo of their deity, plus food offerings and a lamp, explains Lama Pema Wangdak, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher at the Palden Sakya Center in New York City. “This cultural practice could be very uncomfortable for a nonpracticing partner,” she says.

Confronting all of these basic issues early on can save untold problems in the future. Egg or matzo hunt? Sunday school or Friday-night temple for the kids? “There are no easy answers,” says Rabbi Singer, “so you need to prepare to explain contradictions and inconsistencies to your children.” Some interfaith couples have their kids practice one religion; others try to integrate both. Occasionally, the choice is to avoid religion altogether. Whatever path you take, it's crucial to arrive at a mutually agreeable decision so that children don't get a mixed message. Take comfort in knowing that your efforts to clarify things may actually benefit them in the long run, says Gayle Peterson, author of “Making Healthy Families” (askdrgayle.com): “Families who blend different faiths may be at an advantage in having to take a more conscious approach to religion than one-faith families do.” This is especially true when handling the holidays. While it's reasonable to join your in-laws for their religious celebrations, it's also a smart idea to start traditions of your own. “This is a necessary step new families must take to establish their own identity,” says Peterson. “Maybe that means combining the different holidays in one big celebration that is unique to your family. The important thing is that you learn to share the joyful occasions together.”

Sources of peace
These references offer additional advice and words of wisdom. On the Web:

  • WeddingOfficiants.com: A nationwide service that provides names of available clergy of many faiths.

  • InterFaithFamily.com: An outreach organization and Internet magazine listing support groups, resources, and local affiliations for Jews marrying outside their faith.

  • The-Insight.com: Buddhism and Shintoism examined in an information-packed site with educational links to more than 25 other religions and spiritual practices.

  • Uua.org: A Unitarian Universalist Web site with listings of more than 1,000 liberal congregations in North America.

  • AmericanHumanist.org/index.html: Information on the humanist philosophy and local affiliates that practice it.

  • Cms.PsychologyToday.com/rms/prof_search.php: A listing of therapists within a 50-mile radius of your home.

In print:

  • “Love United: Romantic Interfaith Weddings —A Workbook for Couples Who Are Getting Married” by Rev. Bardet Wardell (Dynamic Peace Society, 2003)

  • “Interfaith Wedding Ceremonies: Samples and Sources” by Joan C. Hawxhurst (Dovetail Publishing, 1997)

  • “Celebrating Interfaith Marriages: Creating Your Jewish/Christian Ceremony” by Devon A. Lerner (Owl Books, 1999)
      

This article originally appeared in Brides magazine. For more wedding tips, please visit