It was September, 2003. A diverse group of women from many different Christian denominations, both Catholic and Protestant, began meeting at Dublin Community Church-United Church of Christ, in Dublin, Ohio, for fellowship and Bible study. Yes, we were all Christian women, but very different in age, background, and diversity of belief. Every Friday morning, 35-40 women came together to share their beliefs, struggles, and joys. Childcare, food, and a warm welcome was offered.
The two facilitators of the group chose the studies, and each week we viewed a DVD, and discussed and shared our thoughts. Our studies ranged from conservative to progressive, and we always stressed that we weren't expected to agree with the video or with each other, but we were expected to be very respectful of each other, even if we disagreed.
Two years later, our Senior Minister called me to relate the following: Three Muslim women had been driving by our church and had noticed a banner hanging prominently in the front lawn. The banner was the "motto" of the United Church of Christ, and it read, "God is Still Speaking." The women bravely walked into our church to ask our minister what the banner meant. They were new to the area, having moved to Central Ohio from Turkey, and wanted to be in dialogue with women of other faiths. Our Senior Minister warmly welcomed them, described the meaning of the banner, and told them about our group.
He contacted me and I informed the group at our next meeting that they would be invited to join us. Initially, some in the group were hesitant and skeptical. Comments included, "What do they want from us? Will they try to convert us? Why do they want to join an all Christian group?" In light of the events of 9/11 a few short years earlier, I understood these concerns, but my co-facilitator and I felt strongly that we should welcome the women. After contacting them, we felt they simply wanted to meet and be in respectful dialogue with other women.
The women were warmly welcomed the following week. Yes, we had questions for them, and they understood and explained very well all that we asked. Yes, there were differences, but by focusing on what we had in common, those differences became much less important. Most of us had never personally met a Muslim, and we were struck by our commonalities. Over the next few months, we were invited to our friends' homes for Turkish food, and participated in events at the Turkish American Society of Ohio.
Since then, several of our original Muslim friends have either moved away or taken full time jobs. But we are always graced with the presence of at least one member from their community and several have begun attending our evening group. We are all better for knowing them.
Our group was "officially" named in 2006 and we are now called WORD (Women of Religious Diversity). We think it captures the essence of our group and all that it represents with the presence of so many faith traditions. We continue to do a range of studies, from conservative to progressive, and we learn much from the studies and from each other.
In the fall of 2013, we selected a DVD/Workbook study called "The Patriarchs." It was an Old Testament study, a bit more challenging for us, but all were excited to begin. We were looking forward to the Muslim women's perspective as well. Four weeks into the study, as I was doing my homework, it became apparent to me that the author was proceeding in a different direction than I had anticipated, one that I thought was going to be offensive to the women of the Islamic faith that we had grown to know and love. Our ministers and I agreed that we would watch the next DVD segment as a group, but that I would forewarn everyone by email that there were some segments where we would pause the DVD and discuss these in detail with our Muslim friends. I related to our Muslim friends that I thought it was important that we hear these comments from someone of the Conservative Christian faith, (the speaker on the video), but that we certainly didn't want to offend them. As usual, they were very gracious, and said they would listen and respond as best they could.
As we watched the DVD together, the speaker related that in her view, Ishmael and his anger at not being the "chosen" son, had begun the Muslim movement and the violence she associates with the Islamic faith. We continued to express our disappointment and disagreement when she related that the God of Islam (Allah), is not the same God that we worship as Christians. She spoke of Osama Bin Laden acting on what his faith told him during the horrific events of 9/11. Our Muslim friend responded with love in answering the hateful remarks made, as we stopped the video periodically to allow her to respond. We sincerely apologized to her and related to her that our group did not feel the same way as the speaker we had just heard, and we were extremely sorry for the offensive comments being made on the video. After hearing enough of these hateful and disrespectful comments, we stopped the DVD, and discontinued the study.
In speaking with the group that day and the following weeks, we realized that several of the Muslim women had been "bothered" previously by comments in other videos, but they knew these were not the feelings of our group, so they kept returning to share in our fellowship together. Our relationship with them and their community is even stronger now. Yes, there are the fundamentalist conservative Christian voices out there, and I still believe that it was important for our entire group to hear those voices. Unfortunately, many times those voices are the loudest. But, in our group, with our more moderate to progressive Christian attitude, we believe that we worship the same God, the God who is our creator and sustainer. Obviously, Jesus is viewed very differently in Islam than in Christianity, and we will agree to disagree in that area. We prefer to concentrate on the common values of our faith traditions. We have had the privilege of sharing meals, prayers, traditions, and acts of charity and compassion with them and their families, and we are all better for knowing each other. We truly wish that others would commit to sharing the same experience that we have had.
If all you know of another faith is what you hear and see in the news, then you don't truly know a person of that faith. There has been violence done in the name of all religions by those who claim that their faith tells them to act in anger. Only by sharing ideas, traditions, and common goals in interfaith dialogue, will we truly know anything about how another person daily lives out their faith.
To quote a passage that was read at an interfaith dinner that I attended:
"Our differences may at times define us,
but they need not divide us.
At all times, and in all places,
let our common goals unite us."