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Celebrating Diversity in the U.S.

By Susanna Stefanachi Macomb

Interfaith minister Susanna Stefanachi Macomb writes about the growing trend of interfaith, intercultural and interracial families in the United States

The great American philosopher Emerson spoke of "unity in diversity", something that is foundational to the American ideal. To be open to diversity in general is a very good first step. However, it seems to me that unity in diversity is the greater call and aim. This unity requires a certain quality of heart. It requires a love for all God's creatures, great and small, irrespective and because of their infinite varieties in color, culture, religious belief, gender, sexual preference, philosophy or social and economic status.

Now grant you, this is easier said then done. Advances in technology and communications, changes in the way we work, the ability to travel anywhere — all have created a truly global village. People from all countries are interacting with one another to an ever-increasing extent. Most societies are still intrinsically tribal and segregated. However, our world is getting smaller by the minute. Inevitably, people of different backgrounds are getting to know one another, especially in the world's great multicultural epicenters, our major urban cities. Invariably, many of these folks of different backgrounds are falling in love, getting married and having children.

Statistics show that approximately 1/3 of all new marriages now taking place in the U.S. are intermarriages — that is interfaith, intercultural or interracial in nature. A 2001 survey by the Graduate Center at the City University of New York shows that 29 million American couples (married or not) live in mixed-religion homes. One survey, according to the NY Times, finds that 40 percent of Americans had dated someone of another race.

When it comes to matter of religion and intermarriage in the U.S:

  • Over forty percent of marriage-age Catholics marry outside the Church, a doubling since the 1960s.
  • Three in ten Mormons are now in interfaith marriages.
  • 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 marriages are interfaith.
  • The number of Jewish-Christian couples doubled to one million during the 1990s.
  • Four in ten Muslims are choosing non-Muslim spouses.
  • The intermarriage rate approaches sixty percent for Buddhists, the fastest-growing Eastern religion in the United States.
  • The only outdated statistic I could find with regard to intermarriage in Hinduism is ten years old and states that 5 percent of Hindus live in interfaith households.

Here are more numbers and facts:

  • Of the over one million LEGAL immigrants a year entering the US, over 80 percent are non-European. The greatest numbers are from Latin America, the Caribbean as well as Asian countries.
  • The U.S. census revealed that, among native born, married, Americans ages 25-34 years old, over two-fifths of Hispanics and one-half of Asians had spouses who belonged to a different ethnic or racial group. The number of black-white couples alone tripled between the years of 1970 and 1991. This is significant when we note that as recent as 1958 a white mother in Monroe, N.C., called the police after her young daughter kissed a black playmate on the cheek. The boy, Hanover Thompson, age 9, was then sentenced to 14 years in prison for attempted rape. Outrageous but true. After failed appeals, he was released following a public outcry. Today we have Clarence Thomas, a conservative black supreme court justice who lives in Virginia, married to a white woman, and ironically it was in Virginia that the case of Loving v. Virginia struck down antimiscegnation laws.
  • 40 percent of all children born to an Asian or Pacific Islander parent also have a non- Asian or non-Pacific Islander parent. The number of Japanese-American children being born today who have one non-Japanese parent jumped to 60 percent in recent years. Here we have come a long way from World War II when we placed those of Japanese heritage in internment camps.
  • Today, the world's most famous child of intermarriage is our beloved Tiger Woods whose ancestry is a combination of black, Thai, Chinese, white and Native American.

These diversity figures are quickly rising giving weight to the words of Martin Luther King, "Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that."

As an interfaith minister, I have had the privilege of working with people from an amazing variety of backgrounds. I have studied the world's great traditions. Increasingly exposed to their teachings, their followers and rituals, I learn more and more of the transcendence of this glorious universe. After all, the essence of each tradition is alight with the same fire. It is the lamps that are different.

I counsel blended families… especially through life's major rites of passage. My book, Joining Hands and Hearts deals with the topic of intermarriage. With regards to intermarriage, I have worked with some of the most challenging situations: The joining of an elite upper class Southern debutante with a middle class African American from the north. Her father refused to walk her down the aisle until he and his wife spent some time talking with me. I had spent months counseling a Palestinian Muslim and an American Jew who had fallen in love. Unfortunately, their families did not share in their happiness (to put it mildly) Then as fate would have it, one of them barely survived 9/11. After that they said to me, "We now know what is important in life. Will you marry us?" I have worked with children of Holocaust survivors… one fell in love with a devout German Catholic and another with a Greek Orthodox woman. I have counseled Indian Hindus marrying Middle-Eastern Muslims. Irish Catholics marrying Moroccan Muslims. Vietnamese Buddhist marrying Sicilian Catholic. Iranian Jewish marrying Chinese Taoist. African American marrying British (both Episcopalian)… .Japanese Shinto marrying American Jewish. Latin American Born Again Christian marrying Korean Agnostic… . Pakistani Zoroastrian marrying American Buddhist. I have celebrated many unions where there existed 4-5-6-7 cultures between them. Chante` and Judah, for example, a couple featured within my book had between them a combined African American, Native American, French, Polish, Russian, Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, Sufi, Rasta heritage. 10 traditions, 10 times blessed!

Some of these families choose to raise their child in one faith. Others choose to celebrate the full breadth of their cultural and religious heritage. Still others choose a third religion for their blended family, while there are those who prefer a non-denominational neutral approach. There are no cookie cutter solutions here. The answers are as varied as the families themselves.

Not too long ago, I performed the memorial service for a wonderful Albanian Muslim woman who died at the ripe age of 92. Her five Albanian Muslim children had married Middle Eastern Muslims and European Christians and her grandchildren extended their circle even further by intermarrying with Jewish, Chinese and Latin spouses. Yes, for the service, we incorporated a blend of all these prayers and traditions.

Someone once compared my office studio to an U.N. outpost. And sometimes in certainly feels that way. I consider this work a gift. Personally, I revel in the symphony of mankind's colors, textures and traditions. However, I won't lie to you by saying that it's easy work. One of my favorite stories in this regard was told to me by a Methodist minister from the Mid-West. He was to co-officiate with a Rabbi for an interfaith, intercultural wedding ceremony. They both showed up at a scheduled meeting between the two families. The meeting was so acrimonious that afterwards the Rabbi turned to the minister and said, "You do the ceremony, and I'll pray for you!"

Sometimes I refer to my studio office as the crying room. For I have also counseled many young folks who were disowned by their parents for marrying someone of a different color or faith. I have seen relationships fall apart because of external family tensions due to the intermarriage issue. Having said that, I have seen many more relationships where love has conquered all.

Generally, the younger generation is more interfaith and multicultural in terms of their peer group and in their love relationships. Usually it is the parents and grandparents that have the issues. I remember one particular conversation amongst family members at a wedding reception of a multi-cultural union where one young person stated (quite joyously), "Soon we (humanity) all will be mixed in one way or another." His elderly grandmother immediately took my arm and commented, "I know. Isn't it just awful!"

Some people see this ever increasing diversity as a cause of alarm. They feel that we are losing our way life. Others fear that the present majority will become the minority. Still others simply fear what they don't know. Fear breeds all the "“isms, racism, sexism, religiousism, classism, ageism etc. We need to rise up, examine and face our fears. We all have fears, prejudices and biases. Be wary of those who say they do not! Martin Luther King once admitted that it was not the angels of darkness he feared (for he knew where to find them and where they stood), it was the angels of light.

What can we do as individuals? We can speak out when we see any of the isms spreading. We can reach out and learn another's point of view and way of life. We can participate joyously. And we can practice empathy. Empathy is a powerful tool.

As a white person, I may never understand what it means to be a black person with a history of brutal, demoralizing slavery where my people were told by white people that we were less than human — but I can try. I can study African American history, read books, watch documentaries. I can look at the horrors of what was done and face it head on. I can examine my own guilt and fear. I can look at the racism that still goes on today — including subtle racism. This takes courage.

Raised as a Christian, I may never be able to understand what is means to be a Jew. What does it mean to live knowing that humanity turned their heads and collaborated in a heinous genocide upon my people? But I can try. I can study the history of pogroms, of the holocaust. I can listen to the stories told by Holocaust survivors. And I can look squarely into today's face of anti-Semitism. I can, at the very least, try.

As a non-Asian, I may not be able to completely understand the frustration of all the stereotyping — the many assumptions that people often make about Asians — but I can listen and learn. For example, one Chinese high school student told me that he was sick and tired of everyone assuming that he was good at math. He wasn't. He was more inclined towards the arts. A Korean man told me that he resented how many non-Asian women somehow perceived him as somehow being less sexual than Caucasian, African American or Latin men. Stereotyping — though we all do it to some degree — is a form of racism. The key is to be aware — be alert — when you are doing it. Then slowly we will be able to stop.

As a non-Muslim, I may not be able to fully grasp what it means to be a Muslim living in America today… but I can try. I have to face looks of fear, distrust or anger–often sneers and comments from my neighbors who look at me, my family and my relatives and often see nothing but terrorists. The word Islam comes from the word peace. Yet how many of us are willing to take the time or energy to learn about this religion which brings peace to over 1 billion of our world neighbors? We MUST try.

So much fear is dispelled when we get to know one another through listen and talk. Huston Smith once wrote, "Those who listen, listen for peace." It takes a quality of heart to want that. It takes love and compassion to revel in the fullness and beauty of humanity's mosaic. That seems to me to be the great call. Humanity has made tremendous progress. I, for one, rejoice in that progress and I recognize that we still have a long way to go.

Rev. Susanna Stefanachi Macomb is an interfaith minister, an artist and the author of "http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0743436989/spiritofglorythe?creative=327641&camp=14573&link_code=as1"> Joining Hands and Hearts: Interfaith, Intercultural Wedding Celebrations—A Practical Guide for Couples (Publisher Fireside/Simon and Schuster 2003). She is currently working on two more interfaith books in her continued hope of spreading a message of peace. Macomb has ministered to hundreds of interfaith, intercultural families.

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