There are blessings all around us, of course, but what follows is my account of an unexpected blessing--a wondrous surprise if you will--which came at a time when I needed to experience the presence of God in a new way.
In the winter of 2007, I met Dr. Ayse Coskun at a Turkish Women’s Coffee Night at the Raindrop Foundation in Houston, Texas. I had been attending the Coffee Nights for a few months and mentioned to Dr Coskun that, while I enjoyed the social events, I found myself wanting to go deeper. I did not want to take classes exactly; instead, I wanted to do interfaith dialogue in an informal rather than an academic setting. Almost immediately Dr. Coskun suggested that we meet for lunch. We lunched together several times: an American Christian and a Turkish Muslim at an Asian-fusion restaurant with statues of Buddha as decoration! I was charmed by Dr. Coskun’s openness, humor, and obvious intellect. Ayse made me feel comfortable, and she seemed to enjoy me as much as I did her. God’s blessing was with us as we laughed and planned.
Ayse and I decided to contact women from diverse faith traditions to see if they might like to share our interest in learning about one another’s religious perspectives. We agreed that our group should be small (8-12 women) and consist, at least at first, of only people from Abrahamic traditions (to simplify matters). We also decided that our “experiment” would have a time limit (8 months, meeting 2 hours each month) so that those we invited would not have to make an indefinite commitment. To my shame, Ayse had to do all the inviting, because I knew only Presbyterians! Ayse invited another Muslim woman (new to Houston, but familiar with interfaith dialogue). She also invited a young Roman Catholic woman and a Conservative Jewish chaplain, who in turn invited another Jewish woman. Rounding out the group was a member of the Unity Church of Christianity and two others who had explored a variety of other traditions. Later a Quaker (Religious Society of Friends) seminary professor and another Roman Catholic joined us.
At our first meeting I experienced no awkwardness or hesitation. Each woman listened to the others with delight and respect. Our meeting did tend to be a bit chaotic, not because we were disorderly but because we were extremely curious. It was like wandering through a magical forest with a group of precocious children; everyone had unusual questions and surprising insights. (Fortunately Dr. Coskun would, after one of our diversions, gently but firmly coax us back to the topic at hand.)
Gradually we created an agenda, but even that was adjusted (or ignored) as situations drew us in different directions. For example, at first we began and closed our meetings with prayers offered by individuals who represented various traditions; we heard prayers in Hebrew, in Arabic, and from St. Francis and St. Augustine. In time however, while we still closed with prayer by an individual, we began to open our meetings with a unison prayer written by our Jewish chaplain (see sidebar), because it seemed to speak directly to what we were about.
Our agenda also began to include a time for sharing personal concerns, because we realized that we wanted to know one another as persons, not simply as “token” Jews, Presbyterians, etc. Therefore, when Dr. Coskun told us during a recent Personal Concerns Time (PCT) that she had to return to Turkey to help care for her ailing mother, we were able to respond immediately. We asked her to teach us a Turkish prayer for healing and promised to pray daily for her mother. It was during our PCT that the Jewish Chaplain told of bombing threats to her synagogue and a Catholic told of several instances of vandalism at her church. One of our group then volunteered to draft a letter as a basis for correspondence that might be sent to all places of worship that receive threats or damage. Often our Personal Concerns Time lasts only briefly; sometimes, as in the above cases, it leads to prayer and action.
The major portion of our meetings has consisted of sharing parts of our scriptures, giving overviews of our various faith traditions, or considering a specific issue from the point of view of our culture and faith. We have also laughed together, eaten together, and spent time exploring the kosher kitchens and touching the beautiful Torah scrolls at a synagogue. Most importantly, we have talked about topics that probably would not have been included in an academic setting. For example, the subject of our last meeting was “Mothers.” We first wrote down adjectives describing our own mothers and found that, despite our different cultures, many of our mothers could be described similarly: selfless, loving, forgiving, religious, and stoic amidst difficulty.
As we turned to what our various faith traditions had to say about mothers, most of us quoted from our scriptures. The Muslims pointed to the section of the Qur’an that dealt with justice, citing many passages about the high respect given to mothers in Islam, respect even above that given to fathers. Mothers (as well as fathers) are to be obeyed in all matters except when obedience would go against service to Allah or might bring harm to someone else. According to Muslim law, children are not to argue with or even say “oof” to a mother. Mothers (and sisters as well) are to be cared for financially by the eldest son. There are also rules governing the benevolent treatment of widows, orphans and stepmothers.
The Roman Catholics pointed to the importance of the Virgin Mary. Mary is considered to be not only the mother of Jesus but also the Queen of Heaven and, given Jesus’ instructions from the cross, the mother of all Christians: “Woman, behold your son; . . . Son, behold your mother” (John 19). While Catholics do not worship Mary, women, in particular, pray to her because Mary experienced the problems and pain of being a girl, a young mother, and a grieving mother, all the while being faithful to what God required of her.
Jewish contributions to the discussion included the law to “Honor your father and mother.” Depending upon how one interprets that law, it can be considered more strict or less strict than the Muslim “Obey your father and mother.” Jews stress the importance of “honoring” parents, even if the parents are abusive and cannot be “loved.” Many stories in Hebrew scripture extol good mothers (Moses’ mother who risked her life that her son might live (Exodus 2), and the mother in I Kings 3, who chose to give her child to another rather than have him cut in two. Many of the Jewish laws regarding the Sabbath apply only to men, because women are the keepers of the family and must be free to do unexpected chores if needed. Unfortunately, in recent years, Jewish comedians have made their mothers the object of jokes; damaging stereotypes have arisen from this practice.
While the Protestants hold Jesus’ mother in high esteem, they do not have the same special feelings about Mary as do Catholics. In general, the Protestants had less to add about mothers, except the household code in Ephesians 5, which is St. Paul’s list of reciprocal responsibilities for family members. The Protestants pointed out, however, that portions of the household code (“Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord”) have been emphasized while other portions (“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”) have been less emphasized, with the result that women (even wives and mothers) have often been devalued in Christian culture.
The above discussion was particularly pertinent to us women, but given that we added intimate stories about our own mothers and laughed (with a degree of sadness and shame) at the jokes about Jewish mothers, the session would probably have informed/entertained men as well. Our conversation went so long that we had to delete the Business portion of our meeting. And we all agreed that the talk of “Mothers” needed to be expanded to include religious perspectives on women in general. We are also eager to tackle topics such as “Weddings and Funerals,” “Art, Music, and Poetry,” and “Angels and Jinns.”
Early in our time together we decided to call ourselves WIN (Women’s Interfaith Network). As well as describing what we hope to be, the acronym is appropriate because we feel like we are “winners” already, having enjoyed one another these past months. We will probably never completely understand one another’s faith or customs, but we have come to appreciate and trust one another. Perhaps appreciation and trust is even more important than understanding because, while the latter connotes mainly an intellectual connection, the former implies that one sees the reflection of God in the other. For myself, I now even see the others differently in a physical sense: the younger women seem more beautiful, even radiant; and the older women seem both softer and stronger. All have become persons I admire, and I thank God for the blessing of their good and energetic presences in the world.
Before the end of our committed time, several have expressed an interest in continuing and expanding the group. In fact, even before our experiment was half over, several wanted to add friends-an indication of how valuable and enriching we think WIN has been. We have begun work on Mission and Vision Statements and are brain-storming about how best to proceed. As WIN members have offered their ideas, I have begun to see how our special relationship might benefit the community around us. I have also begun to understand in a tangible way that, while I often pray for peace in the larger world, God’s will towards that goal includes small efforts of people like those in WIN, joining to live out peace on a local level.
Truly, both as a group and as individual women, WIN has been God’s special blessing to me.
“Borei Ha’ Olam, Creator of the stars, sun and moon,
“We are mindful of Your world and our responsibilities to it. Bless all who gather here today that we might become leaders of change and visionaries of human rights and freedom. Sustain us with courage and endurance that we may sustain one another. Renew our hopes and heal our wounds.
“Compassionate and merciful God, may the joy and celebration of this occasion remain as a source of inspiration and dedication to pursue higher ideals for many years to come. We seek Your guidance so that we might have the courage to advance the cause of internalizing oneness and thereby spread God’s shelter of peace and dignity for all humankind.
“Let us find unity in the commonality of our searching and in the sameness of our quest for peace and equality for all. Amen.”
A prayer written by Jewish Chaplain Bobbie Osadchey and prayed in unison at the open of each WIN meeting.