Elise separated from their Catholic upbringing after coming out, but their very religious parents keep trying to bring them back. And Meg Griffiths, a professional dialogue facilitator, speaks with Juleyka about creating trust across diverging spiritual beliefs within our families.
Our expert this week is Meg Griffiths, assistant director of programs at Essential Partners, an organization that equips people to live and work better together in community. Learn more about the work they do here and find their field guide to community dialogue design here. If you loved this episode, be sure to listen to When They Want More Family Time, But You Don't and Coming Out to My Family.
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Hi everybody. Today, I'm speaking with Elise. Elise grew up in a very religious Catholic household. As a teen, they came out as gay to their Costa Rican mother and Mexican born father. Feeling rejected by the church, Elise decided to walk away from religion, something her family is still not able to comprehend. Let's get into it.
Elise: My name is Elise. I have lived all over the country. My mother is Costa Rican born and raised, 100%. My father was born and raised in Mexico by American missionaries. I call my parents, Mama and Papa.
My parents are both very Catholic and that comes up a lot. I live with my family, so it's such a regular part of life. My problem is that I am not religious. I am not even remotely spiritual. I grew up as a good little Catholic child, went to mass, and I got baptized, I had my first communion. But when I turned 15, I came out as gay. And that did not go well at all. My parents, they had the very Catholic response of that is a sin. That is an abomination. I just felt extremely turned off by the church ever since then. And my parents and I have come to terms with each other. But I was never able to come to terms with the church.
My mother, she will pray for me. She will bless me when I go on trips elsewhere for my safety. She will pray for my friends who are having a hard time. My father constantly feels the need to... well turn, basically everyone he knows to God. I don't think he's ever accepted the fact that, well, none of his daughters... we all decided that the church was not for us. And he's like, "Yeah, I will never give up on you," which is nice, I guess. But it's also a little bit annoying because I just want to live my life. And I don't really want this forced upon me. The Catholic church has done a lot for them. It does a lot for their mental health. I think when things are tough for them, they can turn to God and they feel like they're being taken care of. And they want that for their daughters too.
Elise: I have told them that religion doesn't work for me, but they will never give up their hopes of me turning to God at some point. It would be nice to be able to come to an understanding. I respect my parents and I respect their religion, but I'd like to be able to finalize this conversation. Of course, they want things done their way under their roof. They're also paying my bills, so I've got to keep the parents happy. Things might come up, I suppose, like if I get married. They're not going to be, like, against me getting married, but they might want me to get married in the church. I don't plan to have kids, but if I ever do, they'll probably want me to baptize them. And I don't want to do either of those things.
Elise: There is pressure from my extended family. They're all extremely Catholic. Well, I suppose it's less pressure and more being excluded from the family. I am not really invited to things like weddings, or anything like that. My parents get invited to things, but I do not. And I'm okay with that. I mean, I don't know my extended family extremely well because we never really lived around them. But if I want them to be part of my life, which I'm unsure of, I have to, I don't know, be more agreeable about what is important to them. I cannot really bring up anything about my life, or my relationships. Or, I have to mostly put the focus on them. Make sure that I am not offending them. If I don't do it, I do not expect them to reach out to me. And I don't know if I want a completely nonexistent relationship with my family.
If I could get my parents to listen to me for about three minutes, I would want them to know that I completely understand why they choose to believe in God, but I would really like them to know that God is not a part of my life. God will probably never be a part of my life. And I need them to just accept that, so that we can focus on different parts of our relationship that, in my view, are more important. Like my mother is chronically ill so that's pretty important to all of us, her health. My budding career, as an artist, is pretty important to me. And, my eventual... I'm not in a relationship at the moment, but I'd really like to be, and I would love my parents to be a part of my life when that happens.
Lantigua: Elise talked about the role of religion in their parents' lives with great empathy and respect. So, it really saddened me to hear that their parents just couldn't do the same. There have to be better ways to talk about faith and religion, and believing or not believing. To help us out, I called in an expert.
Meg Griffiths: My name is Meg Griffiths, and my pronouns are she/hers. I serve as the assistant director of programs at Essential Partners and one of our associates, which means that you can find me either building beautiful spreadsheets, and internal systems, or out in the field living out our mission, which is to help people live and work better together by building trust and understanding across differences. So, I am a facilitator, designer of constructive conversations, and capacity builder for dialogue.
Lantigua: So, what did you hear in Elise's story?
Griffiths: I loved Elise's story in part because I identify as queer, and also as culturally and spiritually Catholic. So, Elise's story felt both, somewhat familiar to me, and also completely unique to Elise. I loved how Elise spoke about a desire...I heard a desire to be seen and known in the ways they want to be seen and known in more complex ways than perhaps their parents can currently see them. They talked about wanting to be known as an emerging artist, as a caring daughter of a parent with a chronic illness, as a future partner to someone. So, I heard in Elise's story that yearning for a sense of being known more fully. And, honestly, I think that's a human desire. And that is just a beautiful invitation, I think, for all of us, and for Elise's family.
Lantigua: Okay so, I love how your experience, both personally and professionally, really matches this particular story. So I'm going to ask you a really simple question, why does religion complicate stuff like this so much?
Griffiths: Yes, why thank you for that soft-ball question, Juleyka.
Lantigua: You're so welcome.
Griffiths: Part of the reason why things get really complicated with religion is because faith, and faith identities are sort of supported by a scaffold of deeply held values. And values are things that feel like they're a part of us. And so, it's really hard when we experience a moment of conflict within our religious tradition, or beliefs. And especially when we're trying to manage that in relationship with people we love.
For a family to believe in their religion and also love their child, who maybe doesn't fit inside of that tradition's norms, and is in fact, labeled in really harmful ways. Sometimes by religion, we heard Elise talk about being called an abomination, that's incredibly harmful, and incredibly difficult to hold those things together. And when we get into conflict or disagreement, what happens is we flatten the other person and their beliefs, instead of remembering that more complex, full self that Elise was saying they wanted to be known as. And we can only hone in on the difference. We can only hone in on the place where we might disagree. The work is pulling us out of that narrowness and remembering the fullness.
Lantigua: So, one of the things that really impressed me about Elise was that they didn't flatten their parents in this regard. They are very respectful and they acknowledge the value that being Catholic has brought into their parents' lives. And I really just thought, "My goodness, why can't their parents just reciprocate? They're modeling exactly what they need."
Griffiths: Yeah. I also was really struck by the generosity, that's kind of how I felt it, from Elise toward their parents. And I got curious about whether or not Elise's parents would say that they felt understood by Elise, because I think that there can be a gap between our sense of understanding someone else, and how well someone else feels understood.
And then, I got curious about whether or not Elise's parents think they understand where Elise is coming from? The wires are getting crossed, or they're not communicating well, or they're not listening and asking questions that signal either existing understanding, or a desire for deeper understanding.
Lantigua: So, how do we do that?
Griffiths: Yeah. Well, one of the ways that we do that is we get really clear together about what we're trying to do. So, for the way we approach dialogue, I'm always thinking, "What is my purpose for this conversation?" And the trick is that if one person comes into the conversation and their purpose is understanding, and another person comes into the conversation and their purpose is persuasion, or consensus, or debate, well, then that's not going to go very well. So, first things first is to get clear about what we're trying to do together.
And then, to think about what the parameters might need to be for that conversation. Maybe we need to name some boundaries, or name some agreements about what we're willing to talk about or not willing to talk about. What we need in order to listen well, what we need in order to feel understood because, otherwise, you're just going to perpetuate all the old patterns that haven't served you, and the person you're speaking to. You can't just walk into it and assume it's going to be different this time, if you don't do a little bit of naming how you want it to be different, and what you might need. You know, "I love you, I appreciate all that you do for me. And the way that religion comes up in our household, the way that I feel when we talk about it, doesn't feel great. And I want to try on a different kind of conversation, so that we can both walk away feeling like we better understand ourselves and one another. Would you be up for that?"
Lantigua: Yeah, this is an impasse that we hit a lot in conversations with first gens on the show, which is that, at some point, we don't want to be responsible for the maturity, and the growth of other people, because we've got to take care of ourselves. But, at the same time, there's a cost to not taking on that responsibility. And Elise really named it. They acknowledged that they're not getting invited to certain family events. There's already a distance that's being created because of the divergent views on this. So, how much should someone in Elise's position be prepared to sacrifice?
Griffiths: I mean, that's such a personal question, I think...I don't pretend to know what it's like to be first gen, or to be Elise. I do know what it's like to come out in a Catholic family, to be met with fear, concern, misunderstanding. And I know what it's like to hold identities, and values that bump up against each other to try to honor who I am, and who my family members are, and to hold all of those parts together. For me, personally, it was a personal calculation. What is the cost/benefit or risk/reward ratio of this? I think it's really a deeply personal choice that has to come from a really solid sense of self. For Elise knowing who they are, knowing the struggle, knowing the strength. I heard in Elise a sense of not being sure they wanted to be included all the time, if they had to leave a part of themselves behind. And that's a real struggle and dilemma.
Griffiths: What might I offer someone in terms of coming to that very personal decision? I feel like there's a knowing in our bodies that we can pay attention to. If you think about what's happening in your body, when you're experiencing conflict, or a threat: our rapid heart, our sweaty palms, a desire to bolt. I think we can also try to pay attention and tune into a knowing in our bodies around a sense of peace, or contentment. A sense that we are grounded, and present, and feel strong.
I mean, I also recognize that people who have experienced trauma have a really complicated relationship with that sort of sense of embodied knowing. So, I also am just aware of that.
For me, it does come back to living out my own values and weighing which one feels most important. Is it the value of authenticity? Is it the value of family? Is it the value of agency? What feels most important at this moment, and how can I live out of that place? Not an easy answer.
Lantigua: No, but I really appreciate you putting yourself in the answer because it is such an individual decision. And it's a continuous decision, because at every opportunity you have to say, "Well, do I care enough about this? Do I care enough about that?" Almost on a daily basis, you have to make that calculation. So, I really appreciate that you shared from your own personal example. Is there anything that you want to add that is germane to our conversation?
Griffiths: Yeah. I think a few takeaways for folks are simple, but not easy steps to shifting the kind of conversation that's possible. So, slowing down the conversation. When in conflict, we can get really revved up, and move really fast and quickly. So, taking a pause, slowing things down.
I think listening for what's said, but also for what's unspoken, what's beneath what people have said. Like listening for values underneath people's beliefs, or perspectives can help us get in tune with where they're coming from. And asking a different kind of question. "Help me understand how you came to believe the things that you believe about God, or religion. Tell me a story about that." So, helping people move down to the level of story and value can, I think, uncover that broader sense of self, and a deeper understanding.
Lantigua: Thank you so much for this conversation. I really, really appreciate you taking the time.
Griffiths: It was a pleasure, Juleyka.
Lantigua: All right, let's recap what we learned from Meg.
Have a clear purpose. Ahead of the conversation, identify, together with your loved one, what the goal is for the conversation, and be clear about what each of you wants to accomplish.
Set new parameters. Avoid repeating old patterns of communication by naming what you need in order to understand and to feel understood.
And remember, check in with yourself, consider what values are most important to you. Tune into and listen to your body and connect with your own sense of self as you decide whether and how to engage.
Thank you so much for listening, and for sharing us. "How to Talk to [Mamí & Papi] about Anything" is on original production of LWC Studios. Virginia Lora is the show's producer. Kojin Tashiro is our mixer. Manuela Bedoya is our social media editor. Cedric Wilson is our lead producer. Jen Chien is our executive editor. Jimmy Gutierrez is our managing editor. I'm the creator, Juleyka Lantigua. On Twitter and Instagram we're @talktomamipapi. Please follow us, and rate us on Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Pandora, Spotify, Goodpods, And anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts.
Lantigua: Bye everybody, same place next week.
Lantigua, Juleyka, host. “When You Don't Believe in God, And They Really Want You To.”
How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] About Anything,
Lantigua Williams & Co., August 30, 2021. TalkToMamiPapi.com.