Canadian photographer Colin Boyd Shafer started thinking about interfaith relationships during the production of his award-winning 2014 photography project Cosmopolis Toronto. Anecdotes of mixed-faith love that struggled and succeeded, despite pressures to “stick to your own,” started to fill his days and his camera.
Canada, he came to understand, is a special haven where two people, regardless of their religious beliefs, can build a safe life together — an impossibility in many other countries. “These people are truly doing something incredible even though it may seem like nothing to them,” he told The Observer.
Shafer and project manager Jennifer Rodrigues launched The InterLove Project, a large-scale portrait project documenting interfaith relationships in Ontario. The following photographs and stories depict how six of his 50 couples met and fell in love, worked through their differences, and bravely trusted that love hopes all things, endures all things. “Without sounding too cheesy,” he says, “these couples illustrate that love can conquer all.”
Samir and Najwa Dib (Christian • Muslim)
Sitting at a table over a book brings back memories of when they first fell in love. In 1960s Beirut, Samir, then Greek Orthodox, was known to Najwa’s parents, one Shia and one Sunni Muslim, as a math genius. He became Najwa’s tutor under the strict supervision of her mother, who would stand over their shoulders during each lesson. At the time, Lebanon was in the midst of a brutal civil war between Muslims and Catholics. “We fell in love and wrote little notes to each other in my math book because my mother could not read,” Najwa says. Once her parents found out about their relationship, Najwa was pulled out of university and kept from seeing Samir. They describe their love and what they have had to do to keep it as extraordinary. They dated in secret for seven years before finally marrying. “Neither of us converted. We felt that religion kept us apart for so long, and we would not let it do that to our marriage.” Today, Samir describes himself as spiritual but dislikes organized religion. Najwa says she’s a liberal and non-traditional devout Muslim. Over the years, their home in Newmarket, Ont., has become the neutral ground where both sides of their families gather to celebrate Eid and Christmas, Ramadan and Easter.
Avishka Juta, who is Hindu, and Sean Greenberg, who is Jewish. Photo by Colin Boyd Shafer
Avishka Juta and Sean Greenberg (Hindu • Jewish)
Avishka grew up in Hamilton, where her parents instilled in her the values, beliefs and customs of Hinduism. Though today she is not a practising Hindu, she says the religion’s spiritual side is still an integral part of her life. Sean, also raised in Hamilton, was brought up in a modern Orthodox Jewish household. Today he observes the holidays and attends synagogue on occasion. They met at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., when Avishka became Sean’s housemate in a student rental. Sean was taking illustration, and Avishka was studying corporate communications. For the first month or so, Sean and Avishka saw each other in passing, chatting between classes and after school. What started as a friendship soon developed into deeper feelings, and so far the challenges they’ve faced have been minimal. “We . . . have come to appreciate each other’s heritage and traditions while also discovering the similarities between our cultures and values.” From celebrating Passover and Diwali, to enjoying and blending each other’s cuisines, the Hamilton couple describe the experience as an adventure. For what Avishka jokingly calls their “HinJew” wedding, planned for May, they’ve decided to incorporate elements of both religions and cultures. Their families are open to this notion, but Sean and Avishka also know that when they have children, more challenges might arise. In light of this, they are trying to be proactive about reducing possible future conflicts.
Vivek Narola, who is Hindu, and Brandie Narola, who is Christian. Photo by Colin Boyd Shafer
Vivek and Brandie Narola (Hindu • Christian)
Vivek was raised in Botswana in a fairly devout Hindu family; today, he attends the temple for the main religious holidays. Brandie grew up in a small, predominantly Catholic town in Illinois and identifies as a follower of Jesus Christ. They met when Brandie began working at a hair salon owned by Vivek. They instantly became friends and then started dating. Three years later, they celebrated their nuptials with a traditional Hawaiian wedding. Six months later, after relocating to Burlington, Ont., they had a traditional Hindu wedding. Their two children are already learning Gujarati, Vivek’s native tongue, through daily interaction with their paternal grandparents. All of this does come at a cost to Brandie, who at times finds it challenging to be living away from her own family and community. They emphasize how their differences in faith haven’t caused any significant difficulties in their relationship. As Brandie says, “Our love is the most important thing, and I think the difference in our cultures and beliefs only make it stronger.” Brandie and Vivek want to raise their girls to respect everyone, no matter their race or religion.