Chicago Parent Magazine: Deciding the fate of faith

For many parents, the decision isn’t easy
Michelle Olson isn’t aware of it yet, but she’s headed for a double dose of Sunday school.

The 4-month-old’s mother, Susan Olson of Downers Grove, is a member of the Catholic Church and her father, Eric Olson, is a member of the First Church of Christ, Scientist. As a married couple, Susan and Eric have attended services together in both churches each and every Sunday. So far, they aren’t planning to change their routine just because of the birth of their first child.

Michelle was baptized in the Catholic Church, but the couple plans to expose her to both faiths, hoping to blissfully blend the Catholic CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) classes with Christian Science Sunday school. “We’re going to teach her both and let her decide for herself what she wants,” says Susan. “I don’t want to force my religion on anybody.”

While the Olson family has a plan in place (at least for now), the question of faith presents a common conundrum for many families. Action plans conceived at the wedding altar sometimes shift once kids become a reality, often leading parents back to their religious roots-or to a new faith entirely. No matter what kind of spirituality a family has, nurturing it can give kids a sense of community, an expanded support system and a sense of purpose outside of their own family.

Baby, bring me back

Religious leaders report that it’s common for kids fresh out of high school to wander away from their faith in an attempt to explore and define their own core beliefs. Throughout college and early adulthood, many young adults aren’t affiliated with any organized religion. (Saturday night fraternity parties and Sunday morning services are often mutually exclusive events.)

“But when they have kids, they discover that they want their children to be raised in a community of faith, too,” says Christine Chakoian, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest.

Rabbi Peter Knobel, of Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, agrees. “When people have children they begin to think very differently about their own lives,” he says. “The first thing they want to do is they want some kind of ritual to identify the child with their tradition and their faith.” He says that having children often leads parents to think about how they will create and define a meaningful faith environment for their family.

Facing interfaith

What makes this quest for a commitment a special challenge, of course, is when you don’t share the same faith as your partner-and you must decide between baptism or bris. While many manage to meet, marry and reproduce with someone who shares their same faith, love doesn’t cooperate as neatly for everyone.

Lombard residents Becky and Matt Kirsh were raised in different faiths: Catholicism and Judaism, respectively. A priest and a rabbi joined forces to bless their wedding in a Catholic church, but after the glass was broken the couple wandered away from any religious affiliation until a life-changing event happened: They had a baby.

Matt’s a divorce lawyer who’s witnessed his fair share of broken homes, and the couple decided they needed to have religious consistency as a bond for their own kids. “A friend of ours who’s a priest … said to us one night … ‘I don’t care what you raise your kids but pick-pick something. You’ve got to give them something,’ ” Becky recalls.

They took his advice and, since Becky was deemed more committed to her faith, the first three kids were baptized Catholic. After a few years and for a variety of reasons, the family eventually switched to the United Church of Christ. Becky’s pleased that Matt eventually became a member, and today serves as one of the leaders in the church.

Deciding on a single faith for the family can be a brave, bold move. “Good parenting really requires adults to make some important decisions, and those decisions I understand to be very difficult, but I think parents need to set the parameters for the children,” Knobel says.

Says Chakoian: “Children who are raised in a religious tradition have a much easier time later in life discerning their own faith. Adults who have had no religious background have a hard time connecting with any religion or deciding what they believe.”

Community counts

The Kirsh family feels more connected to one another and part of a community as a result of joining their new church. For instance, they’re active participants in mission projects the church sponsors, including supporting the homeless. They also are looking forward to having their kids participate in youth groups as they start to hit the teen years.

The family has formed friendships with fellow congregants, which they feel directly benefits the kids by exposing them to people with moral compasses similar to their own. “We’ve found some intergenerational older senior friends there that are filling an amazing void for us and our kids,” since the kids’ grandparents aren’t often available, Becky Kirsh says. “It’s congealed our philosophy in life with our church life to have these friends that we’ve made all the way from 80 years old down … You don’t find that anywhere else, and our kids are part of that.”

Worldly vantage

Beyond the fellowship and friends, becoming more spiritual or choosing a faith can help give the kids a global perspective and appreciation in our ever-changing world.

“It helps children to know that they belong to something much bigger than themselves and their immediate family,” says Chakoian. “Every faith tradition provides a sacred story in which we live, a set of practices by which we form meaning, some cherished values under which we live.”

Communications coordinator at the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago, Sultan Muhammad is the father of two sons, ages 4 and 2 [and 2 daughters]. He and his wife, Naadhera Rodriguez Muhammad, are Muslim (she converted after being raised Catholic). When his boys see him and his wife pray five times a day, it makes quite an impression on them. “It tends to be an equalizer, in that there’s something that is beyond the authority of Mom and Dad,” says Muhammad. He explains how the hierarchy of authority within his family and faith teaches his sons how to deal with the broader human community. “Issues of respect, issues of tolerance and forgiveness are very key to building the character in children at an early age,” he says.

Preach? Prepare to practice

For the Muhammad family, the five-times-a-day prayer requirement of Islam is a concrete way of showing their kids their beliefs. For others, it might be reading from the Bible or praying before meals or bedtime.

While these rituals are important symbols of faith, they’re not the end-all, be-all. “What I encourage parents to do is to look at how they’re living their spirituality. It’s not the ritual and the ceremony so much as the day-to-day part of it,” says Don Camp, administrator of Family and Children’s Services at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Camp is a minister and former chaplain. “In some ways, it’s easier to take a child to a service than to think that they’re observing your spirituality day in and day out,” he says.

Strengthening ties

One parent who “walks the walk” and demonstrates her commitment to faith to her three sons is mom Lynne Shapiro of Deerfield. Shapiro says that growing up, her family was Jewish culturally and celebrated all of the holidays and attended services, but she had little formal Jewish education. “All of my Jewish friends where I grew up did go to Hebrew school and Sunday school and had bar or bat mitzvahs,” Shapiro says. “When I was young, I felt lucky that my parents didn’t send me, but as I got older, I felt that I was missing something.”

Today as an adult, she’s studying with a rabbi and is trying to learn Hebrew-which as an adult, she claims, isn’t easy. Even so, she says she feels like she’s learning more about her own spirituality through the process.

So that her sons don’t feel as if they’d missed out like she did, Shapiro sends her boys to Hebrew school and Sunday school. Her 10-year-old son, Wiley, says he has learned a lot by attending both schools and feels proud to be learning a language that’s been around for thousands of years. (Although he admits that it seems like it’s taking thousands of years to learn it, since he’s spends more than six hours a week in class.)

The cycle of faith

Parents can make decisions about their family’s faith fate, set an example for the kids and live out those beliefs (sometimes by dressing-and then dragging-their kids to service), but they never know what the future holds.

“As adults, children will choose to do what they choose to do,” Knobel says. “The child grows up-the child will make his own decision no matter what we do.”

Shopping for spirituality?

Even if you have your faith all figured out, it can be tricky to find the right place to practice. Rabbi Andrea London of Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston suggests making a list and prioritizing what’s most important to you. When choosing a place to call your faith home, consider:

Worship times and schedules. Do you want a choice between three services on Sunday-and maybe even a Saturday evening option? Or is it acceptable if a smaller congregation offers just one service, giving you a chance to meet more members?

Proximity to home or school. Is the commute to the church/temple/mosque doable? Do you plan on making trips during the week? If so, is being closer a necessity?

Congregation demographics. Do your fellow congregants need to be family and established friends, or are you comfortable praying with strangers? Do you want your kids to worship with schoolmates or neighborhood friends?

Clergy philosophy and personality. Are you inspired by contemporary thinkers or comforted by a more traditional approach? Are the leaders welcoming?

Children’s programming. How do the programs for kids of all ages-from nursery time for infants to youth groups for teens-stack up? Will the educational opportunities meet your expectations?

Outreach projects. How does the congregation give back to the community? Do mission programs and social action projects match your own beliefs?

Immerse yourself in a prospective faith home by attending worship services and classes, checking out their Web site and joining in on a mission project. Ask to be put on a mailing list to receive the church newsletter, which will help you better understand the people-and if it will be a good fit for your family.

copyright © 2006, Chicago Parent Magazine