March 2, 2007
Every parent’s nightmare
Forget sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll and Republicanism—OK, maybe not that last one: this (from the subscription-only Wall Street Journal) is a truly scary parental prospect.
An increasing number of teens and young adults who were raised in nonreligious or nominally religious families are getting swept up in religious fervor. This is creating a complicated and sometimes painful family dynamic.
The parents of 16-year-old Kevin Ellstrand are self-described secular humanists who shun organized religion. Two years ago, Kevin says, he “started following Christ with all my heart.” He has taken a mission-
ary trip to Mexico and participates in a weekly Bible study group.
In a time when many teens are having sex and taking drugs, his parents mostly consider his piety a blessing. They get upset, however, when Kevin explains that he doesn’t believe in evolution. “To me, this is appalling,” says his mother, Karen Byers, who has a doctorate in strategic management and was raised a Methodist. “We get into arguments, and voices get a little louder than they should.” Kevin says: “I don’t want my parents to go to hell for not believing in God. But that is what’s going to happen, and it really scares me.”
Kevin’s father, Alan Ellstrand, director of M.B.A. programs at the University of Arkansas business school, says he respects his son but is saddened that he has such worries. “I’m sorry that’s the byproduct of his religious studies,” says Mr. Ellstrand, who grew up Unitarian.
While parents of newly devout offspring often consider religion a benign if not positive influence, some say they are disappointed that their children have chosen a lifestyle so different from their own. Some of these teens and young adults are forgoing secular careers in favor of the ministry, moving away from home to religious enclaves, skipping family celebrations and changing their given names.
Clergy are in the difficult position of trying to guide young people toward devoutness without dishonoring their families. The reluctance of parents to accept their children’s choices can be a source of frustration for some youths and their pastors. “My joke is, they liked them better when they were on drugs,” says Pastor Peter La Joy, who directs the student ministry at Calvary Chapel in Tucson, Ariz.
… This issue is especially fraught in immigrant communities. Magdalena Ramos, 48, and her late husband came to Los Angeles from Honduras 24 years ago to provide economic opportunity for their children. “Every parent wants their child to have more money,” says Mrs. Ramos, a housekeeper who didn’t raise her son, Abner, with religion. During his sophomore year at the University of California at Los Angeles, Abner declared that he had decided to devote his life to Christ. But she became disappointed when Abner decided to forgo his plans of becoming a psychologist in favor of low-paying ministry work. Though Mrs. Ramos says she is proud that her son is “a good Christian,” she had thought he would be the first person in the family with a professional career. He also had told her when he was a boy that he’d one day help support her. Says Abner, who now is 29: “My mom’s dreams for me are inconsistent with the callings God has for me.”
Tom Lin’s parents, immigrants from Taiwan, sent him to Harvard University with the expectation he would become a corporate attorney. When he instead opted for a much lower-paying career in a Christian ministry, his mother threatened to kill herself, says Mr. Lin, 34, a regional director for InterVarsity, a college ministry that has 843 chapters in the U.S. Mr. Lin adds that both parents cut off all communication with him for seven years, reconnecting only after his mother was diagnosed with cancer. (She died in 2002.) Mr. Lin says his choices were “shaming” to the values held within many immigrant cultures. His parents “moved to America for material prosperity,” says Mr. Lin. “When [immigrants’] children forsake the very reason they came to this country, it’s particularly devastating.”
… For Giti Egan, her 15-year-old daughter’s decision to become an Orthodox Jew brought up a range of emotions. Ms. Egan, a 36-year-old mother of three, was raised Orthodox—and left the religion after deciding that she simply didn’t believe the stories in the Torah. Now her eldest child, Kara Lieberman, is embracing that world. At Kara’s request, her parents send her to an Orthodox girls school. She keeps kosher within her mom’s and stepfather’s non-kosher kitchen. (They bought her separate plates, silverware, pots and pans—and have turned over for her exclusive use a refrigerator, dishwasher and oven.) Kara spends nearly every weekend away from home because she finds it easier to maintain the rules of the Sabbath by staying with observant relatives. “That,” says her mother, “is a bummer.”
But whenever Ms. Egan gets annoyed by the recordings of rabbis’ lectures blaring from Kara’s room or disappointed by the lack of weekend time together, she considers the benefits of her daughter’s religious devotion. “She’s a much happier kid now,” she says.
Happier but delusional. Egan should be proud.
The entire (1,800-word) article is worth reading if you have a subscription.
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