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Jane Ahlin, Published November 21 2010

Ahlin: Three women of faith discover interfaith dialogue is not easy

"A Muslim, a Christian, and a Jew Walk into a Room …”

The sentence sounds like the first line of joke. Instead, it is the title to the second chapter of “The Faith Club,” a book about three women in New York City and the unusual and unintentional faith journey they found themselves taking together.

Ranya Idliby, an American Muslim of Palestinian heritage, and Suzanne Oliver, an ex-Catholic who had joined the Episcopal Church, became acquainted because their daughters were in the same kindergarten class in New York City. Following the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, Ranya conceived the idea of co-writing an interfaith “children’s book of miracles” along with a Christian mother and a Jewish mother. (After all, the three Abrahamic religions are tied in many ways.) She mentioned her desire to Suzanne, a writer, who immediately was interested. Suzanne asked around and discovered another mother, Priscilla Warner, a reform Jew who had experience in writing children’s books. And they were off.

Three years later, their product was not a children’s book; three years later – after dozens of get-togethers and discussions – they knew that whatever they had envisioned was not what had happened. What began as a book project became a “faith club,” and the idealistic book for children became an adult chronicle of doubt and discovery. In the process, the women had to look honestly at the things in their religions that separated them to reach the point of understanding for that which united them.

They became better mothers and better people for it.

No question the women were naïve initially in assuming the strength of their own religious identities and their tolerance for others. And yet, the lack of artifice that got them going made for the straightforwardness and sincerity that kept them going when they bumped up against uncertainty in their own belief systems and disagreements with tenets from the other religions.

Theirs was not an academic or even philosophical exercise. It was personal, with arguments stemming from entirely human reactions that revealed biases in all three women – those unacknowledged ways of stereotyping other religions and the cultures that shape them. Then, too, they had to bridge the sense of alienation experienced by Ranya and Priscilla living in the dominant Christian culture of America, particularly their perceptions of unfair treatment based solely on religious identity.

Whether it was Suzanne thinking Priscilla overreacted to the New Testament description of Jews in the story of Christ’s crucifixion or Ranya growing impatient with the two-sided discussion between Suzanne and Priscilla over the Jewish and Christian perceptions of anti-Semitism or Priscilla experiencing frustration over getting the other women to understand the “tribal” identity she felt toward Judaism, the interfaith dialogue was far from easy. And yet, the women experienced warmth toward one another and ever-growing friendship that moved them through the rough patches. Gradually, they found context, not only for faith within their own religious tradition but also for the larger experience of faith across all religious traditions.

One of the purposes the women had in writing “The Faith Club” was to encourage others to start faith clubs of their own. However, it also seems appropriate to consider their method as an example for bridging differences of all kinds. The women did not expect to have the same outcomes as they explored religion, nor did they seek to convert the others. They came together with good will but quickly saw that the work of understanding their differences was hard. The pain of honest confrontation had to come before acceptance and affirmation.

The three women began their quest as mothers from three religious traditions who wanted to give their own children and other children a sense of hope and reconciliation after the 9/11 tragedy. They still want that. However, they now understand that adults cannot give children a sense of tolerance and well-being they do not have themselves.


Ahlin is a weekly contributor The Forum’s Sunday commentary page. E-mail janeahlin@yahoo.com.