Religion shopping and soul searching often start after the children are born By Marcia Z. NelsonIllustrations by Jason Smith
"Mommy, what's religion?"
It was an unexpected question, especially coming from a 5-year-old being treated in a hospital emergency room. But it was a pivotal moment, prompting her mom to rethink the family's priorities and start a search to give them religious grounding.
Dori Davenport sees that sort of thing all the time. "We are definitely seeing a lot of people visiting our churches and a lot of families with children," says Davenport.
As religious education and growth consultant for the more than 70 Unitarian Universalist churches in the Midwest, she often sees young families looking for religion.
Over time, Davenport says, there has been a shift in the reasons young families come to Unitarian Universalist churches. Fifteen years ago, people were escaping their religious upbringing.
"They knew what they didn't want their children to have," she says. But today's families are less reactive, more curious about choices and aware that faith comes in many flavors. "They're very open to a wide variety of ideas and want exposure to world religions, to Jewish and Christian teachings," Davenport notes.
It's a common search for many families. Two people who started out as unattached, career-oriented individuals become a couple and settle down. For most, that means creating a stable home life, having kids and grappling with questions about how to transmit their values to the next generation. Some will turn to organized religious or spiritual groups to help them teach their children.
"A lot of parents have a real desire for their own kids to have some
foundation in faith," says Tom McGrath, the Chicago author of Raising Faith-Filled Kids: Ordinary Opportunities to Nurture Spirituality at Home. "This is maybe the first time they begin to go to church regularly, and all of a sudden they get a chance to really nurture their own spiritual lives."
Cheryl Malczyk, children's ministry director at Christ Community Church in St. Charles, agrees. "One of the things that will awaken a person spiritually is their children," says Malczyk, who has two teenage daughters and experienced that awakening herself. "They take their kids to Sunday school and pretty soon they're coming in too."
For the kids Sometimes the children literally lead.
Keisha Towns went up the church aisle with her two children, Kierra, 6, and Eric II, 9, to declare her intentions to join Trinity United Church of Christ, a large church on Chicago's South Side. Kierra enjoyed sitting in the church's large sanctuary and long expressed an interest in being baptized. Towns began to take her daughter's desire seriously and, in August of this year, Towns made the decision with her children to join Trinity United. With that commitment, church became a family affair, since dad, Eric, was already a member.
"I would say, ‘I don't like big churches, I could never find a parking spot, all kinds of excuses," says Keisha Towns, a former accountant and now a stay-at-home mom. "Then I stopped and said, ‘Here's a place where I can watch my kids grow and be happy and be a willing participant. I can deal with the little inconveniences that come up."
Exploring options Parents have a lot of choices when cultivating a family faith. Some return to or rev up the practice of the faith they were raised in. It's familiar, makes sense and works as a way to inculcate an enduring sense of faith-based values, beliefs and practices. Others remember their own religious upbringing with dismay and vow to avoid repeating it. So they go congregation "shopping" for a religious home more compatible with their preferences, needs and values.
Some young parents who were raised without any particular religious heritage are open to different faith choices. Still others face the need to blend differences in spiritual traditions-a challenge most common for Jewish-Christian couples.
Makom Shalom, a Chicago Jewish congregation established in 1991, specializes in interfaith families. Couples are attracted to the congregation because it allows them to celebrate significant life events-marriage, birth of a child-in ways that incorporate both Christian and Jewish traditions. "We get a lot of young parents coming in," says congregation administrator Jaqi Green. "They feel they've lived different upbringings but now have a child and need to figure out how to offer support from the combined traditions."
Green adds that still other elements and traditions come into play for the 80 families who attend the downtown Chicago congregation. Some members have studied and practiced Eastern religious traditions, such as meditation. "We try to blend from different backgrounds and traditions and connect to the Torah, because they're inevitably something to connect," she says. Twice a month the congregation convenes Family School, a religious education session for all family members, so that families can go home and talk about common topics.
Rediscovering religion The birth of their two children was an occasion for Makom Shalom congregation members Rahmiel Drizin and Tamar Levinson of Oak Park to become more observant of their Jewish faith. "Before we had the babies I bought all the books on how to raise a spiritual child," says Drizin. "I found them to be nice, but they were very general. We had to learn by doing."
Drawing on the heritage of Jewish mysticism, the family's religious practices include home-based services incorporating meditation and a meal with friends. Services at home allow the family to honor a traditional prohibition against driving on the Sabbath, but it also allows them to attend to their two daughters' needs and have a toddler and preschooler participate in services.
"The joy I have when my daughter says a prayer, or feeding her, seeing her dance at prayer services, reading our book, playing our games-it's just wonderful," says Drizin.
When Cynthia Wade's daughter was born in 1991, it was time for some kind of values education but Wade and her then-husband faced some choices. She was raised Roman Catholic, he was Jewish. "Both of us were open to the fact that we didn't want our daughter to be taught one way or the other," says Wade. "We wanted her to have the exposure to a lot of pieces of information."
She joined the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva in 1994 and got so involved that she's now the director of religious education at her 1,000-member church. She sees some people come through the doors in response to specific encounters their children have had with peers.
"Their kid's best friend said they were going to hell because they didn't believe in Jesus Christ and the parents think, ‘Oh my God, I guess I better talk about this,'" says Wade.
Jennifer Archer of Geneva is enjoying talking about faith with her 3½-year-old daughter, Ally. Her family began attending Christ Community Church in St. Charles earlier this year. "We're very open about talking about God," says Archer. "When she's misbehaving we talk about how God feels about that, or, if Mommy yells, we talk about how God feels about that too."
Archer and her husband, Dale, parents of two, had both fallen away from practicing the Roman Catholicism in which they had been raised. Prior to joining Christ Community, they had begun talking about faith and values for their children and themselves. Archer also had a very specific situation that sent her searching for support: She had been diagnosed with postpartum depression following the birth of the couple's son. A Christian counselor proved helpful, and a friend recommended a parenting Bible study group at Christ Community. "I was in awe of these women and I said, ‘This is what I'm missing. I need this,'" Archer says.
The whole family now attends church, with the parents switching off the duty of minding 14-month-old Aidan during the service. "For any parents struggling with whether they should go back to church for the sake of a child, it couldn't hurt," Archer says. "Most likely they need it too."
If the education and practice of faith and values is a family affair, it takes place every day of the week and not just in the Sunday school setting. Although parents generally feel a need for some kind of institutional expertise to teach and practice faith and values, home is ultimately the more important classroom.
"Unless it is part of home life, the church can't do it all," says McGrath, the faith and parenting author. "Kids follow what their parents do rather than what their parents intend for them."
Resources Books Raising Spiritual Children in a Material World: Introducing Spirituality into Family Life, by Phil Catalfo, Berkley Publishing Group, 1997.
10 Principles for Spiritual Parenting: Nurturing Your Child's Soul, by Mimi Doe and Marsha F. Walch, Perennial, 1998.
Parenting as a Spiritual Journey: Deepening Ordinary and Extraordinary Events into Sacred Occasions, by Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, Jewish Lights, 1998.
Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn, Hyperion, 1997.
Raising Faith-Filled Kids: Ordinary Opportunities to Nurture Spirituality at Home, by Tom McGrath, Loyola Press, 2000.
Meditation for Children: Pathways to Happiness, Harmony, Creativity and Fun for the Family, by Deborah Rozman, Aslan Publishing, 1989.
The Illustrated World's Religions: A Guide to our Wisdom Traditions, by Huston Smith, Harper San Francisco, 1995.
Web sites A multi-faith online community www.beliefnet.com. Spirituality advice for moms and dads www.spiritualparenting.com.
A Catholic family persepctive www.homefaith.com.
Marcia Z. Nelson, who lives in Aurora, is a writer and mother of a girl, 14, and boy, 12.