WITH more than 80 faiths and 240 nationalities represented in Australia, it's inevitable that love will blossom between people of different cultures and backgrounds.
“Interfaith relationships are an important barometer of social cohesion wherever they occur,” says Hass Dellal, executive director of the Australian Multicultural Foundation.
According to the 2006 census, 87 per cent of Aussie couples share the same religion, but Dellal points out, “We’re seeing more interfaith relationships with second- generation migrants.”
So, how does it work when you’re partner has a different belief structure to you? Can love really conquer all? We spoke to three couples about how they crossed the religious divide in the name of love.
CONVERTING TO JUDAISM FOR LOVE
Olga Kornilova and Michael Dunn met in 2001, both aged 21. Four years ago, Olga, a Russian Orthodox, converted to Orthodox Judaism. They had a Jewish wedding at The Great Synagogue in Sydney in 2008. They have two children, Hadassah, 3, and Ezra, seven months.
Olga: I moved from Russia to Sydney in 2000 to study business and I met Michael at a party. We discovered we had a similar sense of humour and started dating. Our relationship grew from there.
Michael’s family were relaxed about religion, but he ultimately wanted to marry someone Jewish. It wasn’t a big deal at first because, at 21, neither of us thought it would turn into a serious relationship. But a couple of years in, I considered converting. I didn’t have to, but I knew how important it was for Michael because of his family’s history with the Holocaust. Moving the relationship forward was up to me and I’m so glad I did.
I believe there’s only one God, but there are many ways to express your faith. In Judaism, I’ve simply learnt a different way. At home, I think there should only be one religion as it can be confusing, especially for children.
There have been many changes for me. When you convert, you have to choose a Jewish name. Michael’s grandmother suggested Golda, after Golda Meir, the first female prime minister of Israel. I’m known by both names now and I really like it.
I’ve also had to get used to eating kosher. Before, I loved prawns but, because they don’t have scales, they aren’t kosher. My cravings for them have finally stopped.
The conversion process takes 18 months to two years, and you experience it together as a couple. We became more involved with the synagogue that way. For Michael and me, our faith is always a topic we can discuss.
Michael: My parents weren’t very religious, but I always felt Jewish even if we didn’t go to the synagogue or observe the Sabbath. When Olga decided to convert and we went to the classes together, I had a reawakening. We observe more of the traditions and have taken on more of the culture.
My family are actually less comfortable about how religious we’ve become. Being kosher means our children don’t eat anything other than water or fruit at Grandma’s, which has been difficult for my mother to accept.
Two religions under the same roof wouldn’t work for us. I couldn’t accept it. I definitely appreciate what Olga did by converting. It showed her commitment to our relationship. It was a huge thing to do and something I’d never have been able to do myself.
THE CHRISTIAN AND THE AGNOSTIC
Mike and Emily Cormack met on a blind date set up by a friend in 2008. Emily, 33, works in fundraising and community engagement for a charity, and is a Christian. Mike, 40, is a human resources specialist for the Fred Hollows Foundation, and isn’t religious.
Emily: Ever since I was baptised into the Anglican Church in my teens, I’d pictured myself with a Christian. When my friend Rebecca described Mike as a bit of a hippie, I knew he wasn’t going to be religious, but she’d wanted to introduce us for years, so I went along on the date thinking perhaps he just hadn’t met the ‘right’ Christian.
At first, I kept my faith to myself but, by our third date, I couldn’t hide my beliefs. It’s an embodiment of who I am how I live my life and treat people around me, rather than something I constantly profess.
It’s confronting to be with someone who doesn’t believe in God, but Mike has so many qualities that speak to my heart, and I fell in love. After that, the fact he didn’t share my beliefs didn’t seem to matter.
While Mike can be cynical about the church, he understands its importance to me. He’s even agreed to contact my friends from church if ever I’m seriously ill, so they can pray for me.
We manage to find a good balance, such as our wedding – Mike wasn’t keen on a church ceremony, but I wanted my vows to be said before God. We had a beautiful civil celebration in the Hunter Valley officiated by the priest from my church and my brother.
Sometimes I feel as though I’m the lonely woman at church, and I have to be selective about which activities I attend. I have to consider Mike, too, and my marriage is more important than a church camp.
Mike: I went to a Catholic school, which is actually a good way not to become religious. I find it highly unlikely that there’s a God who cares if my footy team wins or if I find a parking spot. Through my work in international community development, I’ve seen the good that can be done in the name of religion; I’ve also seen the harm it can cause.
Finding out about Emily’s faith wasn’t such a big deal. I view it in terms of a cross-cultural dynamic. I like how Emily is in the world, and if she believes that’s an expression of her faith, that’s fine by me. When we have kids, I’ll be happy for them to know both our views.
It doesn’t intrude in our relationship, but if she asked me to go to church or pushed religious literature on me, it would be problematic.
Our social lives are pretty cohesive, but there are times when I’m the outsider – I walked out of a wedding once when the priest’s sermon was a little too aggressively charismatic for my taste. But what makes our relationship work is how we are together. It’s pretty simple and works.
THE HINDU AND THE SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST
Radhika Raju, 34, is a lawyer and a Hindu, while Greg Murray, 40, is a business owner and a Seventh-Day Adventist. They met in 2008 and married last October in two ceremonies, one Hindu and the other Christian with a Seventh-Day Adventist pastor.
Radhika: Growing up, I always envisaged I’d have a Hindu husband. There was talk of an arranged marriage, but my dad says he never found anyone good enough.
As I matured and saw the world, I was more interested in finding someone with a good heart, which is what I found in Greg. We met on a self-development course and I thought there was something special about him. My dad wasn’t sure our cultures and religions would work together and he worried that Greg’s parents wouldn’t accept me. It was a turning point in my father’s eyes when Greg’s parents welcomed me wholeheartedly.
Hinduism is a way of life; there’s no once-a-week service. There are festivals and most Hindus have a prayer room in their house where they honour deities each morning and night. There’s one at my parents’ place, but Greg and I don’t have one.
It was one of the agreements we made when we married – no religious iconography from either of our faiths in our home. That’s been a real compromise for me, and sometimes I think, would it hurt to have a little something tucked away in a cupboard? But I respect Greg’s wishes.
Greg: Radhika was very different to other girls I’d gone out with. Initially, I was apprehensive about it working, but I’d never met anyone so respectful and loving. To us, our different faiths are only a problem if we make them one.
I believe spirituality can express itself in more than one faith. We had the two wedding ceremonies because we wanted to start our lives together on the right foot, observing both cultures. When we have children, they’ll grow up knowing both religions.
It’s what we have in common that makes our relationship work. Our faiths aren’t the only difference between us – there are also our political leanings. We like to have a bit of fun with it, but we also know when to stop if we have a difference of opinion. It’s so important to respect that, especially when you’re married to a lawyer.