Married with interfaith children

What happens when mom and dad come from different faith backgrounds?

Pastor Donald H. Baird, Pastor Susan Hamilton, and Bishop Cory Jasperson acknowledge the importance of learning about and respecting both cultures in an interfaith partnership.

Pastor Donald H. Baird, Pastor Susan Hamilton, and Bishop Cory Jasperson acknowledge the importance of learning about and respecting both cultures in an interfaith partnership.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

What are your requirements for a marriage partner? Someone who makes you laugh, who does the dishes after dinner, who gives a great massage? Someone who’s traveled the world and can play “Rock the Casbah” on the didgeridoo? Or maybe you gravitate toward an almost eerie familiarity, someone you’re immediately comfortable with because their beliefs, virtues and values remind you of a certain someone you’ve known forever: yourself.

But what happens if a couple doesn’t obey the laws of “like attracts like"? Is a Smith-Nguyen wedding doomed to failure?

We called in a Presbyterian minister, a Mormon bishop and a United Church of Christ pastor for counsel on how to unify a marriage of opposites.

I am a Christian and always planned on raising my children Christian, as well. However, my wife is a Buddhist from Vietnam, and we are now struggling with how to bring up our two children in the faiths and cultures that mean so much to us. We have tried to attend both Christian and Buddhist services on alternating Sundays, but we both feel like we’re not fully participating in our communities. How do we expose our children to what we each believe is right, and allow them, ultimately, to choose which faith is right for them, while maintaining a sense of unity in our family?

“I think the first thing they need to do,” said Dr. Donald H. Baird, pastor at Fremont Presbyterian Church, “is acknowledge that they have a problem.”

A problem not easily solved, at that. “It’s unfortunate,” Baird continued, “but these are sometimes things couples don’t think about before they’re married.” And while the idea that children will make up their own minds is a good one, Baird said, trying to practice both faiths can be confusing for kids. For this reason, he encourages parents to “make a decision and help get the children involved in a community, rather than trying to do both.”

Fremont offers both a classical and a modern worship service to accommodate the varying tastes of its 2,000 members. As Minister, Baird works hard “at creating common experiences” between the services so that the congregation feels a sense of community.

For Cory Jasperson, bishop of the Nong Shala Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, maintaining community is especially important in overcoming the language, cultural and generational barriers facing his Hmong congregants.

“A lot of our young people are dating non-Hmongs,” Jasperson said, which sparks concern in parents and grandparents. But to support their case for intercultural couplings, the youth need only point to the bishop himself.

“My wife is Hmong,” Jasperson explained, “and her family is animist [the belief that souls inhabit all or most objects].” His wife does, however, share his faith, supporting his notion that “you have a better chance of having a happier and longer-lasting marriage if you seek a companion that shares in the same faith, goals and standards.”

Since the LDS church does not have paid clergy, Jasperson made up his mind early in life that he would “serve in any capacity I was asked to.” He served a mission in Fresno, ministering to Hmong refugees, and was ordained as bishop in 2002. Between his sizable church duties and his day job as chief of staff to Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, Jasperson has to work hard to maintain consistency on the homefront.

“In our situation, we think it’s absolutely vital that our children share in both cultures and that they be able to communicate with my wife’s parents and other members of my wife’s family who don’t speak English very well,” Jasperson said. “That’s an important part of their heritage, their identity, who they are. You have to have the communication.”

To make this possible, Jasperson and his wife made the decision to speak both languages in the home: Hmong Sunday through Wednesday, and English Thursday through Saturday. And if anyone’s caught speaking the wrong language on the wrong day, their 3-year-old is there to enforce the rule.

Dr. Susan Hamilton, pastor of south Sacramento’s Parkside Community Church-United Church of Christ, an “open and affirming congregation” that represents nine different ethnic groups, sees the full spectrum of interfaith marriages.

“I believe there can be a blessing [in interfaith and intercultural partnerships],” she said, “and we’re seeing that in our society, as well, there can be ‘cohabitation,’ a mutual respect.”

Yet Hamilton, who has been at Parkside since 1995, also agrees with choosing one faith to “spend the majority of time in”—but not at the sacrifice of knowing what one or the other parent’s faith, practices, and viewpoints are.

“We have at Parkside some folks who come because they’re mixed couples in the Christian faith,” she said. “Someone was raised Catholic and the other was raised Methodist, so they decided to find something together, and that may be another way to handle it for a couple. Maybe they become Jewish, I don’t know,” she laughed.

The important thing is to find “somewhere that they can both be respected and honored,” Hamilton continued. “So it really becomes what is important to them, and what they as a family can create together in terms of rituals and their faith expression.”

Both Jasperson, whose wife’s family practices traditional animism, and Baird, whose wife is from Scotland, have worked hard at integrating multicultural customs into their families.

“When a man and woman become married at Fremont,” Baird said, “I encourage them to discover each other’s cultures. They may have grown up a block away from each other, but they’re coming from different cultures, and if they think that somehow it’s going to mesh by itself, they’re gonna find, to their surprise, that it doesn’t work like that.”

“With my congregation,” said Jasperson, “since Hmong is not an organized religion, to separate what’s Hmong culture from what are the traditional animistic rites is very, very difficult. For a lot of individuals, they see no difference at all. … For a lot of people the essence of being Hmong includes the component of ancestor worship and animal sacrifice and the animistic rites and ceremonies that they engage in, so it’s a little bit more difficult.”

He claimed that the umbrella of the LDS church, however, is big enough to accommodate these cultural practices.

“Some of it contradicts LDS theology,” Baird pointed out, “like sacrifice of animals.”

“Our approach is, there’s a lot of flexibility,” said Jasperson. “Depending on the individual’s understanding of the gospel and their individual level of faith, then it’s entirely appropriate. And this is more of a generational issue—members of the older generation don’t distinguish as much between where Hmong culture ends and where the religion and faith-based things begin.”

Hamilton commended Jasperson on the way he’s dealing with the religious-cultural mix, both in his personal life and in his congregation family. “I have a great deal of respect for that blending,” she said. “I think that’s the optimal way of how to be respectful and how to blend. Communication is it.”