Rites of Passage in Interfaith Families

Our two children receiving the blessings of their elders at their Hindu coming of age ceremonies.

Rituals can help kids integrate both traditions.

Raising kids in two religious traditions can be quite challenging. Honoring both parents, making the grandparents happy, trying to fit it all into an already busy schedule can seem daunting. With all the challenges, many families just give up on the tradition and give in to the desire to not do anything. But in the end, wrestling to redefine what these rituals mean to our kids will benefit everyone. When we learn how to balance these different aspects of our lives, it models navigating complex situations to our children. The hassle is totally worth it.

Make the time to walk with your kid on their faith journey.

Our kids are 18 months apart but only one school grade apart. Because they were so close in age, we were able to have them go through the Christian Confirmation process and the Hindu coming of age ceremonies together. We attended a United Church of Christ (UCC) church in the suburbs with an active youth group. Their associate pastor at the time was very welcoming to our interfaith family. I scheduled a time for us to talk, to make sure that she would neither promote nor allow others to suggest that “Christianity is the only way” to our children–or worse say they were going to “hell for their Hindu practices”. The UCC is a progressive Christian denomination and the pastor was a colleague of mine, so welcoming our two interfaith children was an easy fit. Each kid had to come up with their own confirmation project. Our daughter decided to explore multiple religious traditions and their views of service. Thankfully this was welcomed by her Confirmation Pastor. Her pastor understood the complexity of being both a “PK”, a preacher’s kid, and being in an interfaith family meant richer questions that would draw on multiple faith traditions. Our son participated in several church sponsored mission trips and learned the importance of helping others.

The Iyengar Brahmin orthodox beliefs and patriarchal nature of my husband’s family made the process of including our daughter in the Hindu coming of age ceremonies difficult because they are designed for boys only. My husband was reluctant to support our son going through the traditional upanayanam sacred thread ceremonies. Similarly, our Appa, my Father-in-law, wanted our son to be a full and ardent supporter of the South Indian traditional ways or not conduct the thread ceremony at all. This “all or nothing approach” put lot of pressure on our fourteen year old son. We met with elders within the Tamil community–both men and women. I persisted and shared my own professional advice that it would be better to expose our son and daughter to these practices without expecting that they will carry them forward into their adult lives. There is value in exposure and trusting that our interfaith kids will grow in the process. Giving them the grounding in both faith traditions will help them develop the nuanced skills they need to navigate the world today.

Our son receiving his thread with his Appa, my husband, and the priest in front of “agni” the sacred fire.

The upanayanan thread ceremony is for adolescent brahmin boys. It is a ritual where the father and grandfather, along with the priest, teach the young initiate the Gayatri prayer. Two days long, and series of prayers and ceremonies, marks the beginning of this next stage of life that focuses on studying and becoming an adult. He is given his first set of three threads intertwined together, that he is to wear daily, but especially for religious functions. He becomes an adult in his faith and takes on new responsibilities. A second set of three threads is given during the marriage ceremony.

Our 23 year old son reflected on what it was like to go through both rituals at 14, “Having both Christian and Hindu ceremonies as a developing young adult helped me to connect with both sides of my religious lineage. As I grew up after each of these ceremonies, I was able to learn how to balance these two seemingly dichotomous religions and look to the harmony of these religions. Tenets of Christianity and Hinduism intertwine through the concepts of seva and service – these pillars from both religions helped me to stay focused in my calling to become a physician and serve my community.” He is beginning his medical school education in Chicago this fall.

Don’t be afraid to Adapt Traditions to Your Needs

There is no equivalent ceremony to the thread ceremony for girls within the Hindu tradition. When a girl comes of age and begins to have her menses, then she is considered to have left her childhood behind and entered into womanhood. There is a practice called the first saree function–a time when women of the community welcome her to adulthood. This is a cultural event, not necessary religious. She is given her first saree–another sign of becoming a woman. Her mom and other elder women in the family tie the six yard saree around her. The saree requires both skill and grace to wear. It takes time to learn how to tie a saree on yourself. It is an intimate time between mother and daughter. Afterward she comes and sits to receive bangles and blessings from the women. We adapted this tradition to include the religious blessings from the priest.

Our daughter receiving her bangles along with showing her mehendhi on her hands.

South Indian Iyengar people often have orthodox beliefs and focus on conducting religious rituals the right way. Including young girls in these traditional prayer ceremonies meant for adolescent boys is just not customary. The elders in our community recommended a young Hindu priest who knew the traditional Sanskrit slokas and spoke both Tamil and English. We invited him into our home and spent time talking with him to find ways to include our daughter in the same rituals our son would experience. She was able to receive the ritual bath with her brother–a very similar ritual to the spiritual cleansing in the Christian sacrament of baptism. The priest was willing to adapt the ceremonies to include our daughter. We also encouraged each of our kids to invite a friend or two who were not Indian to the function. This helped them share with their friends at school the rite of passage they were going through. We found ways to include them in the process. For instance, they picked out their own flowers and each made their own garland used in the function.

Our daughter receiving the Hindu spiritual bath prior to the formal religious ceremonies. Both are pictured here with their “chittappa” uncle and their “tatha” grandfather.

Our daughter shared, “Having two different coming of age ceremonies forced me to take ownership of my interfaith identity really for the first time–I was able to understand which aspects of each ritual enriched my faith and strengthened my relationship to God and my communities, and which aspects were not helpful for my personal faith journey.”

Complex interfaith identities that cross barriers of religion, race, culture, and gender expectations are easier to navigate when the young adults have the opportunity to think through their faith traditions on their own terms in a structured way. The ceremonies like Confirmation and Hindu rites of passage are perfect opportunities to support our emerging adults to integrate these diverse aspects of their culture into their forming identity.

We faced obstacles, tensions, and even some conflict. In the end, our children and our family benefitted from sharing in both traditions and we all grew in the process. It deepened my relationship with Appa and we cherish these photos and memories. Appa died a few years later. Most notably, our children claim their biracial multicultural interfaith identities as an essential aspect of who they are. They are more sensitive and able to welcome people from a variety of backgrounds because of these rich experiences.

A proud moment in the life of our family when all the ceremonies were completed. August 2013.

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