TUVYA: Kristen and Karl deSouza live in Canada, and they have a very interesting intercultural story to tell. Karl, what’s the background to your family name?
KARL: deSouza is a Portuguese surname from my father’s Portuguese family.
TUVYA: And Kristen, your family is from South Korea.
KRISTEN: Yes, and our family name is Park. I was born in Seoul.
TUVYA: Karl, this is a conversation with Jewish and Gentile couples, so where does your Jewish connect look like?
KARL: I was born in Karachi, Pakistan. And, yes, there were Jews in Pakistan. My father’s family were all Catholic from the Portuguese colony in Goa, India. My mother and all her family are Jewish, from one of the more ancient Jewish communities in India called the B’nai Yisrael, or “Children of Israel.” My mother was raised in Judaism, affiliating with a synagogue called Magen Shalom in Karachi, Pakistan. Her home was very traditional, a religiously conservative Jewish home.
TUVYA: Kristen, you were born in Seoul, South Korea. How did you come to be in North America?
KRISTEN: I have fond memories of Korea. However, when I was 10, my family moved us to Queens, New York seeking better opportunities for them and the children.
TUVYA: What was your spiritual experience growing up?
KRISTEN: My dad’s family was Catholic. I remember going to Catholic churches, but I didn’t like the statues. My mom’s family were Buddhists. I have memories of going to the Buddhist temple, but I didn’t like the Buddha statue either! So, as a curious eight-year-old girl in Korea, I was spiritually searching. With the help of friends, I found a local Christian church where I enjoyed listening to Bible stories and singing songs about Jesus. They didn’t have any statues. So, that’s where my spiritual journey really began.
TUVYA: As a young adult, you settled on a life path in New York City?
KRISTEN: Yes. My mom was a fashion designer. My dad had a dry-cleaning business. I chose my own past and went into nursing.
TUVYA: Karl, what was your spiritual life growing up in Pakistan?
KARL: My father took the lead in the spiritual life of his four sons—I’m the oldest. We were raised in the religious practices of the Catholic church. Interestingly, my Jewish mom knew a lot about Jesus. Like a lot of the Jewish kids in India and Pakistan, they were just one country until 1948. She went to British schools. In those schools, my mom was exposed to the gospel of Jesus. So, she had a high view of Jesus. But when our dad gathered the boys together to pray the “Our Father,” our mom would join us, but she would stop short at the “Hail Mary.”
TUVYA: How did your family come to be in North America?
KARL: Obviously, things changed in 1948. My families, on both sides, experienced the tensions of the split between Muslims and Hindus. Jewish families were leaving for Israel that was also established in 1948, and for North America. Friction between India and Pakistan was tough enough, but we experienced religious tensions in Pakistan and persecutions against Jewish people and Christians. So, we left for North America. Many on both sides of our family had already left. My dad’s family went ahead of us to North America, some in the states with more settling in Toronto and Montreal. My mom’s family, fled to either England, Israel, or Canada. Our family got out of Pakistan in 1974.
TUVYA: Kristen, you told us about the spiritual influences of a church in Korea where you attended Bible studies as a young girl. What eventually moved you to a deeper and living faith?
KRISTEN: When I went by myself to the local church as an eight-year-old girl, I sensed a love that I didn’t know how to describe. As a teenager in Queens, New York, I met some other teens who invited me to their church. Later, at a youth camp, I learned what God had done for me in Jesus. If this God of this universe could love me, then nothing else mattered. I was just 13 years old.
TUVYA: Did you continue to grow in that relationship with God?
KRISTEN: Slowly. I had some challenging years, but I settled down in my faith around 19. I was studying the Bible. At the same time, I wanted to know more about Jewish people because they are found in the Bible. That really interested me, and I wanted to know more about them.
TUVYA: And Karl, what was the course of your spiritual journey once your family was safe in Canada?
KARL: My mom and my dad always affirmed that I’m Jewish because my mom is Jewish. In terms of religious practices, I went to church with my dad. The music and the Bible connected with me. But, as a kid, I struggled with my identity. Religiously, I went to church, but spiritually, I identified as Jewish. My mom is Jewish and her extended family members were in Israel.
Things changed when I was about 16 years old. I wanted to find my own religion. As a teenager, I went to synagogue a few times and thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved the service and spirituality of the liturgy. I wanted to know more about my Jewishness. I didn’t know how God fit into any of that. Everything changed when I was 22 years old studying theoretical physics at university in Montreal. I was just searching for the truth, searching for meaning, searching for love. And I came across the gospel message, really wrestling with the message of Jesus. One of my friends, a colleague at the university, invited me to his church. I heard the Jesus ministry expounded over a period of months. The message had a powerful impact on me. Then in May 1992, I had an encounter with God during the service and walked out of that church knowing that Jesus was true. In His time, God brought me to know the truth about Him.
TUVYA: Both of you eventually ended up in a Christian seminary, to study and prepare for Christian service in some form.
KARL: Yes, and the day I registered at seminary in September 1995, my dad passed away. So, the school officials pulled me out of first year orientation. It was a difficult time for me as I grieved my dad’s passing and then questioned my school plans. After burying my dad, I went back to seminary and poured myself into my studies. During the first semester, I attended a mission’s conference at the seminary. It was there that I met Kristen. I sat down next to her when one of the sessions started. I heard her sing and was just wowed by her voice. About three weeks later, I found enough courage to ask her out. We dated for about two and a half years, got engaged and were married in May 1998.
TUVYA: Kristen, what was your half of this story.
KRISTEN: So, after finishing my nursing degree, I went to seminary. On the first day of classes, I heard that the father of an incoming seminary student, Karl deSouza, had died suddenly. We were all encouraged to pray for him as he drove seven hours to be at the funeral and then drive right back for the opening day of classes. Now as a young teenager, I decided I didn’t want to date. I was going to let God speak to me and show me the guy at the right time. I didn’t know how God was going to let me know when I’d met the right person. I didn’t know how God was going to tell me that this was the one. Oddly though, when the seminary secretary told me we should pray for Karl deSouza, I had a spiritual experience. Inside me, was a clear confirmation that this is the one: Karl deSouza. I thought, “Oh. It can’t be. It’s just a name. I don’t even know this person.” It was the first day of school!
We were in totally different programs. I didn’t say anything to him about my commitment, but just kept it to myself. I didn’t tell him anything until later when he asked me out. Only then did I feel the freedom to go on a date. That’s something I didn’t usually do.
KARL: Kristen was actually one of the signs that God used to confirm His love for me. While Kristen and I were engaged, I asked her to tell me how she came to faith in Jesus. She told me how in her teenage years she prayed to God that she wasn’t going to date any more guys. With her promise to wait for marriage, she told God she would trust Him to bring that man to faith in Jesus first. So, out of curiosity I asked Kristen when she prayed that. It turns out that was around February 1992, three years before we met. And that is exactly when I had that powerful spiritual encounter with the gospel at a church service in February 1992. I came to faith in Jesus in May 1992. The Lord brought Kristen and me together in a wonderful way that affirmed and strengthened my faith. He demonstrated how much cares for us and wants to bless both of us with His plan and purpose.
TUVYA: I think there are a lot of folks who hear that beautiful story, but ask “Don’t you two also have struggles and challenges like the rest of us?” You two have a spiritual harmony that helps you deal with very real cross-cultural challenges. Can you share an incident where your faith provided a practical help for one of those real-life challenges?
KARL: Yeah. So, I’m from a Pakistani Jewish, Mizrachi (East Asian) Jewish and Portuguese Catholic family. There was a learning curve for me to understand Kristen’s Korean culture. We were engaged, on our way to meet Kristen’s parents, taking the Amtrak train from Toronto to New York City. Kristen used that 12-hour trip to teach me about her parent’s Korean culture; how to bow properly, correctly pronounce key Korean terms and using chopsticks. It was very important to Kristen that I show respect her and for her parent’s Korean culture.
KRISTEN: Well, we both have faith in Jesus. That common understanding has helped us face many challenges. Together we prayed about meeting my parents that weekend in Manhattan. I was nervous because I didn’t know how they would react to me bringing home somebody who looks like Karl. To me he’s tall, dark, and handsome. But they might just see, “He’s not Korean.” Asians are not used to people with lots of hair and very different physical features. Besides that, Karl is six feet tall. When he entered their small Manhattan apartment, he stretched out his long hairy arm. My mom was just so shocked that she just screamed, “Ahh!”
TUVYA: Karl, was there a similar challenge in your family when you introduced Kristen, your Korean-American bride-to-be?
KARL: Kristen’s cultural background was no obstacle to my mom accepting her. We had an unusual spiritual twist in my family. Within two and a half years of my coming to faith in Jesus, all of my family members came to believe in Jesus too: my Jewish mom, dad, and three younger brothers. Our family, that was once broken and struggling, experienced spiritual and emotional healing. My mom received Kristen as another spiritual member of our family. I know my dad would have been blessed to receive Kristen in the same way. He passed away before he had a chance to meet her.
TUVYA: Tell us where you were married.
KRISTEN: We were married in a church in a service that included several traditional Jewish symbols. We took our vows under a chuppah (“wedding canopy”). The ceremony began with the blowing of a shofar and announcing the arrival of the bridegroom. Karl had a grand entrance!
KARL: Our church was multi-ethnic. Both of our families were there. We wanted to use that experience to express our joint faith, but also to appreciate elements from both Jewish and Korean cultures. So, I approached Kristen’s parents, and specifically asked her father for his blessing to marry her. It was to show them honor. That’s very important within their Asian culture.
TUVYA: You two have been blessed with children. How do they see themselves?
KRISTEN: I think each of our children will say something different. While we were living in France, our son told his Jewish teacher, “I’m Jewish, too.” France is rigidly secular. So, people don’t commonly speak about their religion. So, it was interesting to hear that he identified with his ethnic Jewish heritage.
KARL: Judaism might be a religion identified with Jewish people, but it is not a universal determining factor of Jewishness. The majority of world Jewry is secular. Meanwhile, Jewish people are identified as an ethnicity, as descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
TUVYA: Sure, one key distinction between religion and ethnicity is the ability to change. Elements of culture are acquired and are subject to change according to personal choice. Ethnicity, as a matter of birth, doesn’t change. Since people can change their religious beliefs and practices, we can conclude that religion is a component of culture. Since DNA is factored at birth, ethnicity doesn’t change and is therefore distinct from culture.
KARL: Since anti-Semitism is a real threat to the Parisian Jewish community, I was surprised that our son would identify as Jewish. I think he felt safe speaking privately to his Jewish teacher. It is a difficult reality there today.
TUVYA: Kristen, how do you think your daughters would identify themselves?
KRISTEN: One would say she is a believer in Jesus. The other probably would classify herself as secular or agnostic.
TUVYA: Is it fair to say that children born in a home where parents have a distinct spirituality do not automatically have that same spiritual outlook? Children will have to find their own spiritual path, in the same way you and Karl had to find your own relationships with God.
TUVYA: Have you been open with them about your distinct cultures and relationships with God?
KRISTEN: Yes. We’ve introduced them to Korean and Jewish culture and practices. Our children had bar and bat mitzvahs to learn Jewish liturgy, and they grew up as part of church with us. We celebrated traditional Jewish and Christian holidays. So, it is up to them now to decide about their own spirituality. That’s not something they inherit from us. We did our best to show them spiritual reality, but they have to approach God to find Him on their own.
Tuvya Zaretsky researches the cross-cultural challenges experienced and reported by Jewish Gentile couples. For more information to help create understanding in your interfaith relationship, contact us at [email protected].