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Do you take your atheist grandchildren to church?

You’re a lifelong churchgoer; your daughter and son-in-law are atheists. Three days before Christmas, they must leave town to be with his father, who is gravely ill. They leave their two school-age children with you. You always attend Christmas Eve services. Do you bring your grandchildren with you?

By Connie denBok and Bob Giuliano

Truthfully, I have been disappointed with my daughter’s decision to turn from the faith of her childhood. And I am disappointed that my son-in-law insists that the children grow up with a world view that leaves no room for God. To raise a child with no faith, expecting them to decide for themselves as adults, is like parenting a child with no “I love you’s” and expecting them to decide as adults whether to develop a relationship with Mom and Dad.

There are three conflicting realities. First, going to church is an outer expression of my faith rooted in an understanding of God revealed in Jesus. It transforms my day-to-day activities into offerings of love to God. Jesus is neither my weekend hobby, nor my family symbol, nor is he the tribal God of Christians. I believe he came into the world for the sake of the world, including my children and grandchildren. This faith is who I am in my innermost self.

My second reality is that our children are entrusting their children to us. We are eager to step forward for their sake, for the grandchildren’s sake, for their other grandfather’s sake. Trust is essential, so we must be careful that we have no motives other than the desire to be helpful. Under no circumstance would we view this as an opportunity for proselytism, secret baptism or indoctrination.

The third reality is mutual respect between those with mutually exclusive values. I will find a moment to approach my son-in-law and daughter. With every expression of genuine care, I will lay out my dilemma, calmly and matter-of-factly saying, “I’m sure you know that we go to church on Christmas Eve and that we can’t leave the children behind. I hope you feel they will be okay with us.” If it is not acceptable to them, then I will listen openly to their alternatives.

We will go a very long second mile for family, but must remain true to who we are.
Author's photo
Rev. Bob Giuliano is a retired minister who lives in Owen Sound, Ont.

We will have two very troubled kids on our hands. Their troubles are the priority. They will be worried about their other grandpa, their mom and dad, and scared about the holidays away from home. The issue is not what we want to do; it is what the kids need.

We will do our best to find ways to have fun: maybe have some of their friends over, fill them with sweets and comfort foods, and play games that they like to play. We will get outside, play in the fog and the rain and, if we’re lucky, the snow and the sunshine. We will go to a movie, eat hot dogs and ice cream.

It will be fun for us to integrate their holiday practices into ours. What do they do during this holiday? What can we learn about the things that mean a lot to them? We’ll find out from Mom and Dad and ask the kids what kinds of things they like the best. We will celebrate the holiday in their way and ours.

We will also leave them alone to talk with each other as much as they need to. There may be arguing; there may be tears. Both will help clear the air. We will stay in touch with their mom and dad so we will have all the information they need, the good and the bad. We will listen to the kids and their understanding of what is happening.

I had hoped that our grandchildren’s presence with us this year would give me an excuse to miss that sentimental Christmas Eve stuff. But Grandma says our daughter used to love it when she was little, and our grandchildren may find the music, the soft light, candles and the mystery of it all a wonderful gift in the midst of their worries.

So we will go to church and hug a lot. We will say hello to the seasonably exhausted preacher and invite her over for hot chocolate and marshmallows. 
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