PART 1: THE HIRED GUN
“Can you imagine us doing this in a church?” I wasn’t eavesdropping, but I did overhear Mina, the young mother, say so to one of her friends during the reception. “There’s just no way we would ever have felt comfortable. We are so not church people.” (Names have been changed for the family’s privacy.)
I recently had the experience of creating and presiding over a baby-naming ceremony—an alternative “baptism” of sorts. Mina, a first-generation Taiwanese-American Buddhist, and Rick, a quintessential Brooklyn Italian Catholic, had just had their first child, their daughter Asha. After the initial bustle, they felt settled enough to celebrate her new life among family and friends.
Quest for ritualista
Mina undertook the search for a minister—any kind—who could help them craft a ritual that reflected their beliefs and sensibilities. She googled her way through “interfaith,” “multifaith,” and “nondenominational” and found a Protestant minister who ultimately declined their request but offered to circulate it to his colleagues. Their want ad floated into my inbox.
We are looking for a friendly, open-minded person to lead and share with us the ceremony of naming our child…The ceremony would take place in our home or by the small private lake in front of our house. I was raised Buddhist by culture; my husband was raised Catholic. Although we are both spiritual, we do not consider ourselves religious. I am looking for a simple ceremony that we along with our families can enjoy and look back on fondly.
Cool opportunity? Sure. Intrigued? Yup. Worried? A little. Theology degree other credentials aside, what would it mean for me—theologically, professionally, and spiritually—to say “yes”? Would I be stepping over some invisible line of Catholic orthodoxy? Get busted by some church grand poo-bah?
Whatever, I thought; I’ll sleep on it.
The next day, I began my reply:
Dear Mina and Rick:
I am a Catholic lay minister…who plays well with folks of other spiritual and religious tradition. I’d be happy to meet and talk with you about what you’d like to do and help you put together a ritual that’s meaningful for your family…
Mina called right back, very excited, and we planned to meet the next afternoon. To prepare, I began my own search online: Baby-naming ceremony. Child dedication. Baptism. Circumcision.
PART TWO: THE RIGHT RECIPE
I headed downtown to their restaurant, still under construction. Amidst the roar and whine of power tools, we carved out a quiet corner to chat. First, I laid out the general flow of a baby-naming ceremony, as far as I could glean from the various traditions I had explored. We started with basic facts: Where would the ceremony take place? Who would be involved, and how? Any symbols, traditions, or objects special to their families that they wanted to include? Any particularly meaningful songs or readings?
As the conversation warmed up, out flowed the stories: how they met. How their families got along, especially across generations and cultures. Where Asha got her name, what it means.
But then came the most important questions: What do you mean by “spiritual, not religious”? I understand that you don’t “do church,” but what, for you, is the point of this ceremony? What do you want for your child, and how do you expect these people you’re inviting to help you?
And what a satisfying discussion. Mina and Rick had met in art school out west, where they found themselves profoundly drawn to Native American imagery and traditions. Their sense of God, they said, is bigger than any building, rooted instead in nature, the boundless earth all around. To them, “spiritual” transcended the institutional feel of “religion” and instead meant nurturing a personal connection with creation. “Church” for them embraced all of their community—friends, family, even strangers. They spoke with deep emotion of having mothered and fathered metaphorically the friends that had become the heart of their community; now they would ask those same people to help them parent their newborn.
After an hour, I knew I was armed. Over the next few weeks, I drafted scripts for the ceremony, borrowing from a variety of religious and moral traditions—New Zealand Anglican, Reconstruction Judaism, Unitarian, Ethical Culture, Native American, Wiccan—spiced with bits of my own. I was cooking a big pot of religion gumbo.
Young, single urban minister chick serves it up
The appointed day dawned sunny. I arrived at their lakefront home, with plenty of last-minute stuff to do: walk the cast through their parts, prepare the elements, set up shop at water’s edge.
From the invocation to the closing “web of blessing” (in which we all laid hands on Asha to welcome her into the world), the service ended up being an exercise in deep listening as much as a carefully crafted celebration. In many ways, it paralleled a baptism. The couple’s best friend explained the chosen name’s significance—how it represents their values, hopes, and dreams for Asha. As in the renewal of baptismal vows, the parents, godparents, and friends all pledged their commitment to parenting the child. And just as we baptize with water and other elements, so we blessed her with fruits of the earth: rice (for nourishment and wealth), salt (for wisdom and purity), earth (for life and energy), and water (for health and strength).
The actual ceremony of blended traditions, invented rituals, and freeform prayers went surprisingly quickly. And I discovered only during the reception afterward that most of the grown men cried—much to their surprise—finding themselves touched in unexpected ways they hardly understood and could not explain.
This ritual freelancing was rich with lessons, and more opportunities like it are sure to come. For me, the key lay in figuring out how to meet this family right where they were spiritually rather than asking them to conform to the demands of traditions that lacked resonance for them. The best way I could minister—and minister as my Catholic self with little internal conflict about it and absolutely no regrets—was to be fully present to them in their need and hope, helping them articulate their relationship with and beliefs in God… even if it wasn’t in language I would choose for myself.