Navigating Intercultural Marriage
(Members of One Body Series - Part 1 of 3)
As the Coptic Orthodox Church has flourished outside of Egypt as a result of the diaspora, we find ourselves surrounded by people of many different cultural backgrounds. And when it comes time for marriage, we might choose a partner from a different culture than ours. Intercultural marriages can be beautiful and fruitful, but that doesn’t come without obstacles, like any good marriage. Compatibility between two people is multifaceted. Even two people from the same culture, faith, socioeconomic class, or region will not be fully compatible. Coming from different cultures will add to the differences in compatibility, but that doesn’t mean they are irreconcilable differences.
Fr. Pishoy Salama, the priest of St. Maurice & St. Verena Coptic Orthodox Church — the first multicultural Coptic Orthodox Church in North America (established in 2007) — completed a Doctor of Ministry degree and wrote his dissertation on intercultural marriages in the Coptic Orthodox Church. In Fr. Pishoy’s dissertation, he references Dugan Romano, author of Intercultural Marriage:
“Romano discusses a list of potential trouble spots which ICM [intercultural marriage] may face, including values, food and drink, sex, gender roles, place of residence, religion, in-laws, language, raising children, ethnocentrism, and coping with death and divorce.”
These are not matters to be taken lightly. When a couple is in the dating and engagement stages, all these trouble spots should be explored and agreed upon before moving forward with marriage. What might seem like an insignificant difference before marriage can be magnified after marriage and be a source of contention. Fr. Pishoy also reassures us that these differences can be worked out and states the following:
“Evidence has shown that intercultural marriages have their own unique challenges which each couple must face. In some sense, extra difficulties will be faced in a multicultural union, but with love, understanding, and perseverance, these challenges can also be conquered.”
Some might want to overlook all the cultural differences or even compatibility differences, and argue that their love will make the relationship work. But I believe that the most critical element is not the love two people can have for each other but rather the love they have for God. Our human love will always fall short. But being anchored to God and always striving to be Christ-like will teach us the true meaning of sacrificial love, the kind of love a marriage needs to thrive. True Christian love can help us overcome any differences or obstacles we face.
Therefore the God we hold onto must be the same God both partners believe in, meaning we cannot view Him differently. The Orthodox faith clearly defines who God is, and when we recite the creed, we must believe in every single word we’re saying. Faith is one thing a couple should not compromise or disagree on because it serves as the foundation for the rest of the relationship. And a foundation should not be a mix of two elements or two beliefs. A foundation made out of rock and sand will crumple. Make sure your foundation is 100% made of rock.
Our earthly marriages are meant to reflect the relationship between Christ and the church. Both partners have to be on the same page with their interpretation of that relationship.
It’s essential to have the guidance of a priest as a couple prepares for marriage, for the purpose of catechism before being baptized into the faith and premarital counseling. A couple should dedicate lots of time to working out any disagreements. Also, dating shouldn’t take place in a bubble. One-on-one dates are great, but it's as important to spend time with each other’s families, friends, and communities to fully understand what they are signing up for.
To help me write this blog post, I interviewed a few friends in intercultural marriages, one of which was Grace Attwa. I met Grace over ten years ago on a mission trip to Kenya. When I arrived at the church compound in Nairobi, there were no rooms available due to a big event taking place that week. She graciously offered me a room in her own home to spend the night, and I have never forgotten her warm hospitality.
Tasoni Grace, a native Kenyan, is the wife of Fr. Mena Attwa, an Egyptian-American priest who currently serves St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Cooksville, MD. Grace was introduced to the Coptic Church in Nairobi when she was 13 years old and baptized into the faith. She met Fr. Mena when he was on a mission trip to Kenya in 2005. Two years after they got married, Fr. Mena was ordained a priest and served in Kenya until moving to Maryland six years ago.
Grace shared how they had to navigate the cultural differences between the Kenyan and Egyptian traditions, especially at the time of dating and engagement. She understood the significant implications of coming from different backgrounds and wanted harmony not just with her and Fr. Mena but also with the entire family. It was an essential requirement for her, so she prayed for God’s will and would say, “If they disapprove, I will not move forward. I’m not marrying just him; I’m marrying the whole family.” She was aware of failed mixed marriages in the Coptic community and knew the struggles would not be easy. They were both guided by their fathers of confession as they stepped into this uncharted territory.
Grace was already familiar with Egyptian culture as there were many Egyptians in the church she grew up in. But what struck her was her experience of the Coptic Churches in America. During her visits to the U.S. while living in Kenya, she recalls feeling a sense of unwelcomeness, not necessarily with her, but overall as there were already groups of established friendships that could not be infiltrated. Unfortunately, this was a common experience with most intercultural couples I spoke to (with few exceptions). And that is why I’ve decided to make this into a three-part series, and the next two blog posts will focus on welcoming others into the church community and what to do if you’re new.
Intercultural marriage takes work. Marriage of the same culture takes work. Any marriage takes work. You can have a loving and healthy relationship as long as you’re willing to put in the work (mainly work on yourself) and keep God in the center.