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Ethics and Religion Talk: Have you had family members convert out of your faith?

I would love to read some of the panel members' experiences with family members who might convert to other religions. How is that navigated? What do you do about holidays? Have any incidents ever caused rifts that never heal?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

My experience of such situations is limited. One daughter married a member of the Serbian Orthodox Church. In most years, we celebrate Christmas and Easter twice because of differences between the Gregorian and Julian calendars. More problematic is the case where children reject the faith and practice of their parents and go their own way. The hurt and dislocation are immediate and profound; a large area of “common ground” is removed from the relationship and things once shared and enjoyed are lost and gone for good. Like a divorce, the pain of the rift recurs often and runs deep. “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3); “What part hath he that believeth with an infidel?” (II Corinthians 6:15). Parents must redouble their efforts to love such children from the heart and these children should strive to show the same respect for their parents’ beliefs that they show to their peers and others. Christ’s rule is, “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). If both parties to the relationship act irresponsibly, things will go toxic in very little time.

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

I am so grateful for my extended family. A large Italian-American clan, you wouldn’t be surprised to know that they are mainly Roman Catholic. Thankfully, over the years I’ve had just one challenging conversation with a cousin about this and he was drunk at the time. The next day I suspect he didn’t even remember the incident. 

As to holidays, one of the things that attracted me to Hinduism is that there is such a sense of pluralism that permeates the faith. I continue to celebrate holidays such as Easter and Christmas, but how I view the stories surrounding those events has significantly changed. But that doesn’t keep me from enjoying my family time.

I started exploring Hinduism when I was 15. My parents found this out and were rather anxious. So, while the rest of my friends were lying to their parents about things like smoking pot, I lied to mine when attending a Hindu temple event.

Now I’m hoping that someone doesn’t request that our panel respond to a question on the morality of lying in order to practice religion!

My father died several years before I became very serious about embracing the Dharma, so I didn’t have an issue there. And being in my mid-30s, Mom was just fine with me making my own decisions. And she loved going to Hindu functions with me, as Indian food was one of her favorites. 

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

This is honestly a non-issue for Unitarian Universalists. Many UUs have actually been raised in other religions which, as adults, they have rejected or moved away from. They have found Unitarian Universalism to be a better fit in their adult life. We are often the ones who feel like outcasts at family gatherings because of the lack of acceptance by our families. 

My response:

There is a teaching in Judaism that roughly goes, “A Jew, even one who sins, is a Jew.” At a fundamental level, it is impossible to stop being a Jew because it is a tribal and ethnic identity, not just a religious identity. At this basic level, it’s not about what you believe or how you behave, but simply about the community that you were born or adopted into. A Jew never loses the fact that they were a part of the people of Israel.

However, when we turn to the level of reality and practicality, a Jew who embraces another religion loses certain honors and rights accorded to Jews within a ritual synagogue context. So there is a real consequence for converting out. There is not, however, a consequence for the more common phenomenon of becoming a non-practicing Jew. Most Jews who leave Judaism don’t become something else, they just become nothing in particular. They might continue to think of themselves as vaguely Jewish and participate in a Passover seder with family or lighting a Hanukkah menorah, or they might no longer identify themselves as Jewish in any way.

I have not had immediate family members convert to other religions, but I have had cousins drop much of their religious observance and one convert out. It is a bit painful and awkward but the rare times our paths crossed, I had no desire to make it an issue. We live in an open society and people are free to choose their own religious path. One of my jobs as rabbi is to keep the doors of Judaism open so that those, Jewish or not, who are interested in a traditional Jewish path informed by Torah have a place to explore. My experience is that a few will leave, but more will enter.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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