Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Happy Sunday! Today we’re going to learn about interfaith families and the future of those who have been marginalized by mainstream religions. 

People tend to think about D.C. as a city of politicians. Some folks really believe that D.C. is a city filled with Democrats, Republicans, and lobbyists—and that’s it. “Swamp Critters!” I once heard someone say that out loud on the Red Line. “D.C. is filled with swamp critters!” I was flabbergasted by that statement, because D.C. isn’t a city filled with “swamp critters,” it’s a city filled with people. Real, hard working people who come from all over the globe. People who celebrate life and showcase their varying cultures in a variety of ways. Diversity doesn’t typically come up in conversation when folks talk about D.C., but D.C. is an extremely diverse city. See what I did there?! D.C. is a Diverse City?! As Fozzie Bear would say, “wocka, wocka, wocka!” [Insert stock laughter here.] 

One of my favorite things about living in this area is the wide array of people that I meet. I have said before, and don’t mind saying again, that D.C. is not just about politics. Folks who aren’t from here, or who don’t live here, often times forget that. My skin crawls when I hear the phrase, “the people in Washington,” because I know that they’re referring to the people who operate primarily on Capitol Hill, not the people who actually make D.C. a home. My guest for this edition of “What’s Good?!’ is one of the people who helps give D.C. its diverse nature.

Susan Katz Miller has had two books published about the topic of living in interfaith families. A product of an interfaith family herself, Katz Miller grew up with a Jewish father and a mother who is Protestant. She’s originally from Boston, and moved to the D.C. area after graduating from Brown University to work as a journalist for Newsweek’s Washington office. After some years spent traveling and working as a freelance journalist, both abroad and stateside, Katz Miller and her husband had two children and decided that D.C. would be the best place to bring them up. Upon her return to D.C. she joined the Interfaith Families Project, a faith community that meets on Sundays and even offers combined Jewish and Christian Sunday school for kids. She also began her journey into her current career as an author. Katz Miller also coaches interfaith families on how to deal with being an interfaith family. 

What does it mean to be in an interfaith family?! I asked her that question, along with a few others, so let’s find out what’s good with Susan Katz Miller.

Hi Susan, thanks for joining me today. What does it mean to be in an interfaith family?!

All families are interfaith families even if they have the same religious practices, because they grew up in their own family, which is individual to them. Different families have different ways of doing things. You might both be Presbyterian, but in one family, you decorate the tree a week before Christmas and then the other family, you decorate the tree the night before Christmas; you’re going to have to work that out together. So that’s why I say, your practices are going to be different. Your histories are going to be different. The way you believe is going to be different. ’Cause not everybody holds to the dogma, the creed of the religion that they label themselves with. There’s huge variations in all of these religions. I mean, in Judaism it’s very common to have a lot of atheists in the synagogue. [Laughs] 

So within an interfaith family, would there be sharing of traditions, or do people usually choose one over the other?! 

My parents are interfaith, they were an interfaith couple, but they chose Judaism to raise their kids. My father was Jewish, my mother was Protestant. So I was given that identity and I still have that identity, but I also identify strongly as an interfaith kid. For me [being interfaith] is something that is joyous and inspires creativity rather than being problematic. And a lot of my work comes out of that. My first book title is Being Both, [about] embracing two religions in one interfaith family. Because I was really tired of reading books that problematize interfaith families and I think that that is old school thinking that you’ve got to pick one. So my first book was really a chronicle of a grassroots movement. I interviewed people in three cities (New York, Chicago, and D.C.), both the parents and the young people who grew up in [interfaith] programs to see: How does it work? Why are you doing this and how did it work out for you? And then there’s some memoir thread that runs through that book because we were raising our own children with that idea.

What made you decide to move back to D.C.?! And is D.C. accepting of interfaith families? Is there an interfaith community?!

When we wanted to raise kids, we really chose to come back to D.C. because we wanted them to grow up in a place that was diverse and international, cosmopolitan, so that they had a sense of the world. Because we are a global people and so D.C. is really the best for that.

When we moved back to Washington, with our small children who had been in Brazil as babies, we were very lucky to discover that here in D.C. there is something called the Interfaith Families Project, and it’s one of the three largest, most important organizations in the country for interfaith families who want to give their children interfaith education. It has a dual faith Sunday school basically, where they’d learn Judaism and Christianity side by side. It kind of blows people’s minds [laughter]. There are similar groups in Chicago and in New York and they arose more or less independently, because it’s just an idea that makes sense. We are growing, and at the same time what is happening is younger people are, well, a lot of people, but especially younger people have become alienated from traditional religious institutions. A lot of them are alienated by the way that some traditional religious institutions have excluded women, excluded people of color, excluded LGBTQ people and excluded interfaith families. But the upside of that, “What’s good is…” [laughter]. What’s good is now what we see is innovation. That these young people are finding their own ways to bring forward ancient religious practices. To be spiritual, to be secular humanists maybe, but to find community around that and there’s all these young new communities in D.C. that you can find, and the Interfaith Families Project is an example of that.

Do you think that interfaith families and learning about different communities can bring lasting, concrete change? I grew up in an interfaith family myself. We had Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews. That family type was avante-garde when I was growing up. Do we know how many folks would classify themselves as being interfaith these days?

I see building those interfaith family bridges as actually protecting us against religious intolerance and ultimately religious violence because you’re going to have empathy. If you have aunts and uncles who are Jewish, or aunts and uncles who are Muslim, then how are you going to disrespect them because they’re part of your family? And when you describe your beautiful family, it’s like that is more and more of us nowadays, especially in urban areas and especially in D.C. Here’s the statistics. One in every five people in the U.S. now grows up in an interfaith family and it’s going to be much higher in a place like D.C. because that [stat] is talking the whole country … a quarter of us attend religious services in more than one religion, or denomination for whatever reason. Often it’s because your partner’s going and you go with them. A third of us have partners or spouses from another religion nationally. That’s huge. Whether you’re, you know, gay and Jewish, gay and Muslim or you know, any kind of subset you can think of, those people are finding each other and it’s partly through the internet. We can find each other now and we are forming interesting new communities. So it’s a time of creativity, I think. The traditional religious institutions are scared because they see people leaving the pews. They just see people that would rather go to brunch instead of church, and it’s freaking them out; that’s what’s good.

People are finding new pathways and pathways that are going to be built by women, people of color, LGBTQ people, interfaith families. We’re the majority, right? My friend Robbie Jones wrote a book a couple of years ago called The Death of White Christian America. So you know, that’s, that’s what’s bad.

[Laughter] I guess

[Laughter] But what’s good is we’re going to see what happens when those of us who have been marginalized are in leadership positions.

That is what’s good. That’s what I dig about talking to people in this city—when you realize that this city is what you just explained, it is a multitude of minorities who are becoming the majority and making positive changes. That’s what’s good. 

Thank you Susan for sharing what’s good with you. Is there anything else that you’d like to share before we wrap this up?!

Another way that I am showcasing the religious and spiritual diversity of D.C. is that occasionally I’m a host on a radio show called “interfaith-ish.” Which is on WOWD Tacoma Radio 94.3,  a community radio station. The show is every other week on Wednesday mornings and there’s a regular host. But when he’s not available, I do the backup hosting. And that show, the format is that there are two people each week from two different religious backgrounds. And they engage with each other. We’ve had everybody from atheist to Zoroastrians. You can’t make assumptions about anybody based on their label. That’s another thing I think is important. When we teach kids, we don’t say, “Hindus believe this.” We say, “If you have a Hindu friend, ask them what they believe and they will tell you.” Or if you have a [living] parent, ask them what they believe, because you can’t assume anything about them from their label. 

And that’s what’s good. Thank you Susan.


Follow Susan Katz Miller on twitter @susankatzmiller and on Facebook at Susan Katz Miller 

Follow Interfaith Families Project on Facebook at Interfaith Families Project and on Twitter @iffpdc

Follow Haywood Turnipseed Jr. @woodyseed on Instagram and Twitter 

Follow City Paper on Instagram @washingoncitypaper and on Twitter @wcp