Finding common ground: 3 couples making interfaith marriages work

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Can a woman who was born a Hindu and a man who was raised a Christian find happiness as a married couple?

They can if they’re the former Jaya Sharma and Jacob McGarry. The two, who married two years ago with a Hindu ceremony in the morning and a Christian ceremony in the afternoon, even created a blended last name – McSharma.

The McSharmas represent a trend in the United States, where interfaith marriages are multiplying.

While marrying within the faith is still most common — with 69 percent saying that their spouse shares their religion — a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center found 39 percent of couples who have married since 2010 have a spouse of a different faith compared to only 19 percent of those who married before 1960.

However, a 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, showed Hindus are least likely to marry outside the faith.

Finding commonalities 

Jaya McSharma said “no” to two arranged marriages to Hindus before saying “I do” to Jacob. But the decision to marry outside their faith wasn’t taken lightly by either of them.

Just two weeks after they started dating, they had their first tentative religious talk. Three months in, they had a more serious discussion.

“If you find a person and you really want to make it work, I think you have to go into it with a very hopeful optimism and a willingness to sit down and have the hard discussions,” Jaya said. “It was very difficult to sit down with Jacob knowing that if this discussion doesn’t go well, this is done. We’re not going to date anymore. We really had just been dating two weeks the first time we talked, and I was like I really like him and I don’t want to end this now, but I know if he or I are going to be rigid, that we can’t be open to another view, this is not worth pursuing and that’s a really scary risk to take, but you’ve got to do it.”

But instead of letting the vast differences between their religions drive them apart, Jaya and Jacob found and decided to focus on commonalities.

“Everything that is important to us about both of our religions that we were raised with is all about how you treat other people and each other and we feel the exact same way and I think most religions do, so once we realized that it was the code of conduct, the code of how you live, that was important to us we realized there was no actual conflict,” Jaya said.

For Jacob, marrying Jaya has been a continuation of a spiritual journey he had begun before they started their relationship, a journey that has led him to believe there is a universal truth found in spiritual experiences that no one religion owns.

“Spirituality is essential to my being and, in the strangest way and in the most fascinating way, it’s become so much more a vital part of my life than it was. I feel so much closer to it than I ever did. It became very personal for me, very much a personal journey. It’s essential to my life and it’s an ongoing investigation for me.”

For Jaya, religious traditions are vital because of the ties they bring to family.

“They’re important to me because of the cultural aspect, not because I believe if I put this statue here and put this flower here that certain things will happen,” she said. “I want to preserve the traditions for my children, for my family and also because that’s what ties me so strongly to my parents, but religious-wise, I’m the same as Jacob. I feel that even though I have Hindu prayers because that’s my mechanism of being with God, it’s the relationship with God that’s important and it doesn’t matter to me which language it comes out in or what you do to get there just as long as there is a tie to something bigger, there’s an appreciation.”

Openness and flexibility 

Rachel Stuart-Haas has plenty of perspective on interfaith marriages. She was born to Jewish/Methodist parents, ultimately chose Judaism as her faith and married a Methodist.

When she was a child, her family celebrated both Jewish and Christian holidays and alternated places of worship.

“We would always joke that we were ‘Mewish’,” she said. “One weekend we would go to First Methodist and the next weekend we would go to B’nai Zion and I didn’t like that back and forth. Both my sister and I felt like it was really confusing.”

That’s why she and her husband have decided to raise their children in the Jewish faith, although they do mark both Easter and Christmas.

And Stuart-Haas said she doesn’t mind if the children’s grandparents take them to religious events and expose them to Christian teachings.

“I think it’s really great for them to experience every kind of religion because it just kind of opens them up to new and different ideas,” she said.

Openness has been a hallmark of the way they have approached religion in their marriage.

“Neither one of us is very rules-oriented,” Stuart-Haas said. “We’re just really flexible people.”

That kind of approach is crucial for the success of mixed-faith marriages, said marriage and family counselor David McMillian.

He addresses religious attitudes in premarital counseling even if the couple is of the same faith, but it’s even more important when the engaged couple is of different religious backgrounds.

“I want to know spiritual beliefs because it can be a hot topic that comes up over the course of the relationship,” he said.

Conflict resolution 

He’s found most couples don’t address it on their own before marriage.

“It’s not something that young couples tend to do a lot of thinking about. It’s rare for two people in love to really have that covered in things they’ve talked about. Once we start talking about it and the importance of spiritual beliefs, I ask questions that lead them into how do we both look through our own respective lenses at personal spirituality? How as the relationship grows do we plan to share spiritual/religious beliefs together? Each one may have varying ideas about how important their spiritual beliefs are and the respective commitments they are making.”

A catalyst for conflict is often the arrival of children.

“How are we going to raise up our children? With religious or spiritual values? Are we going to be a member of a church? Are we going to actively participate? Those types of things are important to think ahead.”

McMillian said the key to resolving arguments about faith is the same as resolving any marital issue: effective conflict resolution.

“Healthy conflict skills are extremely important in navigating through religious and spiritual beliefs as well as other things that can come up in the course of marriage,” he said.

Mutual respect for each other’s “operating system” – beliefs and attitudes that are ingrained within us — is key.

“I try to help individuals see the importance of their own operating systems. We’ve got two separate operating systems running here, two egos. Sometimes that ego strength is strong.”

Couples that successfully navigate marriage issues are committed to monitoring their part of the equation and developing a system to address differences without leaving or repudiation.

“If two people are going in with a hidden agenda of changing the other, converting the other, that’s a recipe for disaster. You try to help them identify their acceptance of each other. With mutual acceptance, I can respect your belief without believing it myself.”

McMillian said he has seen marriages dissolve over faith issues.

“One or both were not able to see their own egos operating. It was almost as if ‘I’m right and you’re wrong, period, end of the story.’ You’ve got to have a willingness to see your own system operating. We all have it. All God’s children got operating systems. But we have to be able to see it. If we don’t see it, we’re going to live very reactive lives.”

Whether marriages outside the faith are allowed depends on the religion.

The Rev. Peter Mangum, rector at the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans, said there’s a misconception that Catholics are not allowed to marry non-Catholics. Actually, it’s common.

“Once upon a time, the church was more strict when it came to who a Catholic could marry,” Mangum said. “Even last century, if a Catholic married a non-Catholic, it would not be in the context of religious service. Ever since Second Vatican Council, we do have beautiful wedding services identical to two Catholics getting married, except it’s not in the context of a mass.”

That omission isn’t meant to slight the union, but to be an issue of unity.

“We don’t want the very first thing that a newly married couple would do to be a sign of disunity where one receives communion that the other doesn’t,” Mangum said.

Catholics may also marry outside the Christian faith, but such unions require permission from the bishop.

“The number-one thing the bishop wants to assure is that the Catholic party’s faith is safeguarded,” Mangum said. “We also want to do what we can to insure that the children are to be raised in the Catholic faith. Once upon a time again, both parties—the Catholic and non-Catholic — had to sign an agreement to that. Now, only the Catholic party says that he or she will do whatever he or she can do to pass on the faith to the next generation. I always ask that question about the children in front of the non-Catholic party because I want to make sure that they understand, if they want a Catholic wedding, part of our understanding of the faith is that you’re going to pass it down to next generation.”

These issues are discussed during the required Pre-Cana, or premarital counseling.

Mangum said no pressure is ever applied for the non-Catholic party to convert. Instead, the emphasis is placed on each party being the best representative of their individual faiths.

Still, Mangum believes being of the same faith is beneficial for the marriage.

“In an ideal world, both parties would be of the same faith and raise the children in the faith and the whole family would pray together and go to church together and not one party going one way and another party going another way.”

Worshipping together 

For Michael Ostendorff, conversion to wife Amy’s faith was a natural progression he embraced.

Raised in the Episcopal church, Ostendorff credits his early religious training with teaching him to get the most out of a faith-based life, and, just as important, to put faith to work not just for himself, but others. When he became an adult, he began focusing more on the individual relationship he wanted with God.

“Because of that, I took a non-denominational approach to Christianity, and began seeking ways that I could best relate to Christ, and live my life the way God wanted.”

His relationship with Amy brought him to First Baptist Church of Shreveport, where she was an active member.

“We both recognized how important it is to have God present in our lives, and that worshiping together as a couple was going to be best. There was no judgment on either part about which church we both went to, but we knew that once married, we wanted to worship together as a couple at the same church.

“I began visiting First Baptist Shreveport shortly before Amy and I got married. Then, we started going to Sunday school together, and the commonalities between the other couples in Sunday school and us really won me over. At the same time, I learned of what was needed to officially become a member of the Baptist church, so I pursued those.”

For them, worshipping together was more important than denominational lines.

“My wife and I share the same common values in Christianity, and believe that we can both be stronger Christians by worshiping together. I don’t think there was ever an emphasis solely upon denomination, rather going to a church that provided both of us with the tools necessary to live our lives the way Christ wants us to.”

That thoughtful, deliberate approach to conversion is key to preventing regrets down the road, McMillian said.

“I think a person has to THINK about it. Doing something, after contemplation, as what I truly think is right for me is different from a conversion ‘just because that’s where you grew up/what you believe.’ You do it, not FOR someone else, or for convenience, but because it’s right for you.”

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