A Family affair: Uniting our faiths with love

Derek Barnes, 54, a Church of England vicar, has been married to Rohini, 40, a committed Hindu, for 18 years. Rohini was born in Zambia and moved to England when she was 17 years old. They live in Southall, West London, and have two children, Hi mal, 14, and Niraj, 11. Their commitment to two different faiths has caused some criticism within their community

Derek

I met Rohini when I was working as a director of an overseas student hostel in west London. I'd established a rule that I wouldn't go out with any students, but I broke that rule when I met Rohini. Our relationship in fact seemed very natural; we got to know each other as friends, and then it developed into something else. The fact that she was Hindu didn't feel like anything out of the ordinary, probably because I'd been in west London for seven or eight years in a multi-cultural context all the time.

We did discuss our faiths from an early stage. One of the things that attracted me was the way she talked about her religion. She told me all about the Hindu holy books, and how they're sort of fairy stories. I was already learning a lot from other faiths, and this one seemed very attractive to me.

Also, Rohini was educated in a convent in Africa and knew a great deal about the Christian faith, which meant we both had open expectations. There were no problems for us, only for other people. Soon after we met, some of my colleagues started to put pressure on me, and said that they'd be happier if she converted. That's the assumption, particularly among the evangelical wing of the Christian church.

But we accepted that when we married, we'd keep our separate faiths; we never saw them as two watertight compartments, but ones that would flow into each other.

So Rohini would come to church and play the part of the vicar's wife and I'd go to the Hindu temple and all the major festivals. We saw no problem in being true to our own faiths and to each other's. It seemed to fit in well with my Christian background, which is very liberal, and also the Hindu faith, which is very including.

Spiritually, her family had no problem with our relationship. Culturally, though, they didn't approve. They believed in arranged marriages and were unhappy about our marriage, partly because she was the only girl in the family. Also, she was bought up in Zambia, and the only white males they'd come across at that time were South African racist Boer types.

Anyway, we decided to go ahead with a church wedding and incorporated one or two Hindu and African elements into the service. Then we had a Hindu service when Rohini was five months pregnant with our first son.

After our marriage, I moved to a parish where there were a number of evangelical Christians. Some were unhappy that she hadn't converted. But I think if there's a little bit of opposition from outsiders, it tends to bring you closer together. When we first moved to Southall, a local newspaper did an article about us and a retired clergyman then wrote an abusive letter, which was rather sad. He asked how I could consider marrying people when I hadn't converted my wife. But it made us feel that if he was unhappy we must be doing something right.

When we had children, we wanted them to be able to straddle both faiths into adulthood. The older one, though, is pretty definite about being Hindu and the younger one doesn't really know where he stands, but goes to the Hindu temple more than to church.

That's partly because they're very close to their mum and also, I think, because they feel the Indianness of their identity, living in Southall. I'm impressed with the maturity of our elder one and how it all hangs together for him. I'm not disappointed at all that he's Hindu - it's not a competition. I want the children to be happy, and be true to themselves.

On the surface, there's a huge difference between Christianity and Hinduism. Hinduism worships many different gods, and Christianity is monotheistic. Yet Hindus see them all as the incarnation of one Godhead, just as Christians see Jesus as an incarnation of God.

We always discuss these different aspects, and seeing a contrast makes you go back to the roots of what you believe. Rather than accepting your faith parrot-fashion, it helps you to work through it, so you know what it really means.

Rohini

Falling in love with a British reverend really was the last thing I'd planned for. I knew it would be difficult for my family. When I told my father, he was very upset. They didn't come to the wedding, but six months after we married, we went to see them. It was reconciled pretty quickly once they met Derek - and when we left, I remember my father hugging me and saying that everything he'd said should be forgotten. It was so nice.

It was still pretty difficult in the hostel where Derek was working. Some of them weren't very pleased, because they felt I should convert. There was a lot of pressure on Derek. I found that painful, and felt rejected, but I tried to take it in my stride because I loved my husband.

Looking back, I was very isolated and naive. I remember when I first married thinking: "How am I even going to be a Hindu when I'm all on my own?"

All through that time we spoke a lot to each other if things were hurting us, or we weren't feeling too good. For me, there was the gradual realisation that I needed to have a family. We were living in Kilburn at the time, and I wasn't used to being so alone. My only contact with the outside world was the local parish. And some of them could be difficult - as well believing I should convert, they believed I should have converted my family too.

For me, though, I needed to say: "I am Indian, I am Hindu - that's my identity." It was very important to spell that out to people; the community and the local parish. The response was very mixed and it was then that I discovered that Christians could be very harsh; I don't know if it's the Christian/Hindu issue, or the English/Asian issue that worried them most. They kept saying to me: "Jesus says, `You can only get to God through me'." I expected them to be more tolerant, not as critical and condemning. We did have quite an amazing reaction. People have been horrid - we still have people praying for us because I'm not "Christian".

For a time, they wanted me to stay away from "baby Christians" - people who had just been converted. I really have no idea why.

These issues have never been a problem for us, only for other people, it seems. We're never confused about which faith we believe in. It's not a case of being half this or half that - it's always been very clear to the children that I'm Hindu and Derek is Christian. I suppose I have stepped more in his direction because I've come to Britain - I'd have done that anyway, because things are so different compared to Africa.

We have lots of discussions about our faiths. I always think I'm right, and so does Derek. But we respect each other's point of view. When we got married, part of the service read, "Till death us do part", which I couldn't understand. Because of my faith, and our belief in reincarnation, I thought: "But I'm going to live for ever and ever with this guy."

Yet Derek believes in "till death us do part". At one point I thought it meant he didn't really love me. We used to have painful discussions about that, but now I laugh about it and say: "I'll just find someone else next time around, then."

Both the boys have grown up with both religions from the earliest age. I remember my son saying to me when he was very young: "Mummy, are Krishna and Christ friends?" I said: "Of course, they are." I've wanted him to know that you don't have to reject someone just because they've got different beliefs. I also think most religions give the same message: be good, be happy and feed each other. Derek and I always say: it's not the religion that's important; it's the love.

Derek and Rohini will be featured in a BBC1 documentary, `Everyman: Sleeping with the Enemy', on Sunday, 13 December

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