Spiritual friends form faith club
By Cathy Lynn Grossman
By Cathy Lynn Grossman
The pope ignites Muslim anger by quoting a 14th-century source who called the Prophet Mohammed's teachings "evil."
American Christians square off — theological liberals vs. conservatives — over whose voting values are more godly.
When the news abounds with incendiary stereotypes, contradictory theologies and confusing cultural identities, can ordinary people sort it all out?
Yes, if they're bold, persistent and open-minded, say the three women of the Faith Club: Ranya Idliby, a Muslim; Suzanne Oliver, a Christian; and Priscilla Warner, a Jew.
This New York City trio is out to share with a fractious world their way of fostering interreligious understanding soul to soul. A memoir of their experiences, "The Faith Club" (Simon & Schuster), arrives in stores Monday, on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Gathered in Oliver's apartment to talk about their experience, they're easy, laughing, finishing one another's thoughts and bolstering one another's ideas, munching their favorite snacks, such as Warner's addictive gourmet chocolates.
But "The Faith Club" reveals how very hard it was when they were spiritual strangers learning to lay down their guards and dredge up their deepest fears and prejudices.
Through it all, they found insight into one another's beliefs and greater clarity in their own.
This is not what the three mothers imagined when they met in 2002. Back then, still reeling from Sept. 11, they set out to create a children's book centered on the common ties and tales of the Christians, Jews and Muslims, who all link back to the biblical patriarch Abraham.
They finished the children's book, but publishers were more interested in the mothers' challenging, and enduring, relationships. What emerged was "The Faith Club" and a guide for forming similar groups (thefaith club.com).
HOW CLUB FORMED
Idliby, 40, who was born in Kuwait to Palestinian refugee parents, launched the original idea for a children's book. "I wanted us to write as mothers about what unites us," she says.
But she also had another agenda, Idliby concedes. "I was lonely, isolated and afraid. I needed intellectual and spiritual companionship," she says.
She knew Oliver, an upper East Side neighbor, from their children's school. Oliver, 41, who was reared a Midwestern Catholic and turned Episcopalian, says the invitation stirred "mixed emotions. But I felt it was a time in my life for me to learn and open up."
Oliver called in Warner, an acquaintance who lives in Westchester, a children's book author and a Reform Jew.
Warner, 53, was still so terrified by the Sept. 11 attacks that she trembled as she drove to their first weekly meeting. Yet, she says, "I had a deep need in me to resolve questions that could not be solved by anyone else: not by my rabbi, not by my husband, not by friends."
But instead of cozy chats on a couch in Idliby's apartment, they quickly found themselves embroiled in debate. By their second meeting, they were duking out the significance of Jesus' crucifixion.
One day, Warner says, she arrived and found Idliby or Oliver poised at the dining-room table, a stack of references at hand: "Uh, oh! That's when we knew we were headed for conflict."
Would it be over God? Jesus? Heaven or hell? The Middle East?
Any and all of the above.
Within a year they were nose-to-nose, comparing the Holocaust with a century of Palestinian misery at the hands of rulers from the Turks to the British to the Israelis. They hashed through points of history and theology that have been the fount of conflict for millennia.
They discovered tripwires in their own language, subtle stereotypes that blocked understanding. Are Christians smug in their majority power? Are Jews arrogant about Israel? Are "true" Muslim women suppressed?
Yet with every debate, they grew closer to understanding one another's beliefs. And to their surprise, each found the religion she really learned was her own. Each woman read deeper into the Bible or Quran and wider among commentators on theology and history, no longer relying on myth, hearsay or even someone's sermon.
Interfaith dialogues aren't new. But few have lasted four years, reaching such a level of spiritual intimacy as the Faith Club. "Once we began exchanging vulnerabilities, there was no going back," Warner recalls.
Over time, they met, wrote letters, e-mailed or called each other so often they came to hear one another's voices in their heads. "I knew," Idliby says, "if I couldn't present myself as a Muslim in this group, there was no hope for me outside it." She's angry that the media focus on "the most fundamentalist side of Islam" instead of the full spectrum of ways to believe in and practice the faith. She wants to shout out, "How dare you! Don't tell me that is Islam. ... Nowhere in the Quran does it say, 'Kill and you will be rewarded.' "
Through the Faith Club, Idliby says she has found a way to speak out about "plurality, diversity and flexibility among Muslim believers," just as there is among Christians and Jews.
Oliver remembers how their conversations pushed her to "find what is vital in my own Christianity. ... I never read the Bible on my own until this project."
In deep conversation over the meaning of suffering, salvation and sacrifice, Oliver has come to think of Jesus' crucifixion "not of what God has done for me. It's what God has done for everybody, God's empathy for our suffering. It's that death is not the end."
Oliver finds herself speaking up in church and Sunday school, and wherever she goes, offering "a voice of liberal Christianity, a voice for people like me who are reluctant to speak up when fundamentalists seem to get all the media attention." Speaking up is essential because "without our just and moral actions, God isn't present."
Warner was stunned to learn from Idliby that a Muslim's five prayers a day each begins with praying for the whole Abrahamic family — for Christians and for Jews.
"Once you dip your toe into conversations like this, you have to jump in all the way," Warner says.
Everywhere they go, people who already have heard of the book say they want to start their own clubs.
There are stumbling blocks, however. Will everyone be as open, as bold, as willing to press on with these women's mantra of absolute honesty, constantly asking one another, "What do you really think?"
For anyone who reads the Quran or the Bible literally, rather than metaphorically or in cultural context, the women say, their views will be too liberal. For people who believe there is exactly one way to one heaven, described and delineated only by their own faith, "The Faith Club" may not offer a template.
Yet to them, the women all offer a quote from Idliby's imam, the prayer leader where she worships: "There is no temporal judge of faith on this earth."