When Michelle and Yusef chose to embark on life together as a married couple, some things were sure to become a little more complicated thanks to their different faiths and cultural backgrounds.
For Michelle, an Australian-born Christian, and Yusef, a Muslim, one of their first experiences of balancing two different religious traditions was deciding how they would get married. And more specifically, who would conduct the service.
Rev Helen Richmond, a Uniting Church Minister, relays their story in her new book, Blessed and Called to be a Blessing: Muslim-Christian couples sharing a life together.
“Michelle’s parents were struggling with their daughter’s decision to marry someone from a very different culture and religion. Michelle had always wanted to marry in a church and walk down the aisle and this was also important for her parents. For Yusef’s family it was important that a Muslim cleric who was a close family friend could conduct the ceremony.”
They began looking for a church willing to marry them and were delighted to find a minister who not only welcomed them but who was open to the idea of jointly conducting the service with a Muslim cleric.
Everyone who attended felt it was a wonderful occasion. The service acknowledged both faiths but also the way Michelle and Yusef’s love bridged their religious differences.
The Minister later reflected:
“If Yusef and Michelle can work it out together and live a life that honours each of them, then their families and their friends and everybody around them will benefit from that, and it will be a modelling for peace.”
Helen Richmond describes interfaith couples like Michelle and Yusef in her book as examples of a “living dialogue between two religious traditions.”
The book draws on in-depth interviews with 28 Muslim-Christian couples based in either Indonesia or Australia. Richmond also spoke to some of the couples’ children and a number of community leaders from both faiths.
Reflecting on the book, the author says finding new ways of understanding religious diversity has never been more important.
This urgency is demonstrated in her research. Indonesian couples expressed concern that religious tolerance is increasingly being challenged in their country while many Australian couples feared increasingly hostile and misguided attitudes towards Muslims in the community.
“At a time when we see much distrust between religious communities, I hope my book offers a glimpse into what helps and what makes it difficult for people from different faith communities to live together with integrity and friendship,” says Richmond.
The book is inspired by her own multi-faith family. Helen Richmond was studying theology in Indonesia in the late 1970s and early 1980s when she met her husband, Bendut, who came from Indonesian Muslim heritage. He later took the decision to convert to Christianity but their family embodies the diversity of religious and cultural traditions of which she writes.
In ministry Helen Richmond has also been surrounded by different cultures and faiths, including her time as the Uniting Church’s National Director for Multicultural and Cross Cultural Ministry and as a tutor in mission studies at United College of the Ascension in the religiously diverse city of Birmingham in the UK. She continues to be immersed in cultural diversity as a theology tutor with Nungalinya College in Darwin, a training college for Indigenous Australians.
The couples she interviewed for Blessed and Called to be a Blessing represent a wide range of experiences. A small number of marriages did not last, others faced disapproval or rejection from their families or communities, many found the experience of living together renewed and deepened their faith.
The wisdom found within their experiences lies in how participants were able to reflect on their own faith and reimagine some of their religious understandings.
“Believing that God is not the monopoly of one religious community was a perspective that helped interfaith couples … this meant taking seriously the distinctive religious self-understandings of each while searching for common ground,” writes Richmond.
Coming to recognise that God might work in their life partner in different ways led participants to ask the question of whether religious diversity reflects God’s purposes.
A major component of the research for the book was identifying different approaches to religious diversity, particularly with respect to an individual’s religious understanding of Christian mission or in Islam the concept of ‘da’wah’.
Interestingly, most couples took an approach that focused on shared actions for the betterment of humanity. They connected with each other by recognising Christianity and Islam’s common focus on kindness, goodness and integrity.
It is Helen Richmond’s hope that readers will come away encouraged to take journeys of friendship with people of other faiths.
Richmond acknowledges that in Australia, and also within the experience of the Uniting Church, learning to live with religious difference is an ongoing journey.
“In building relations with people of other faiths we may find our preconceived ideas and worldview challenged and there’ll be things to learn as well as unlearn. We’ll be changed in the process but also enriched and indeed blessed.”
The Minister who married Yusef and Michelle affirms the gift and grace found in their loving friendship.
“If there are some people in the community who can live together and show that it can be done, living with respect and integrity, then this will have an effect on both communities. It’s taking mission a step further. It is not Christian or Islamic mission – it’s mission for humanity more than anything, specially in the present climate of polarisation and bad stories about ‘the others’. Yusef and Michelle in a positive way, counteract that.”
Blessed and Called to be a Blessing is a powerful and positive insight into how human relationships are challenged by and can transcend our notions of the religious other.
This book can be purchased from the Uniting Church WA Ministry Resourcing Centre. To purchase, contact Margaret Johnston on 9260 9818 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.