There is something about women getting together to talk. They relate. They bond. And when they cross cultural and faith traditions, something special happens: They act.
Five years ago, Trish Harris, a Catholic, met Shahina Begg, a Muslim, at a performance of The Children of Abraham, a musical play that traces the connection between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the conflict between them, and the possibilities of reconciliation. Harris said to Begg, “It would be kind of nice to do something instead of ‘The Children of Abraham‘, what about The Women of Abraham?“
“Funny you should mention that,” Begg responded. “I have a Jewish woman and a Protestant woman who had contacted me and they’re interested in doing the same thing. We’re going to have coffee next week. Do you want to have coffee?”
That led to the founding of Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach (WISDOM), with members representing eight faith traditions committed to building relationships and making the community a better place.
The group has conducted education and service programs, and most recently published Friendship & Faith, a book featuring personal accounts of the women. ReadtheSpirit.com, which published the book, offers installments online at FriendshipandFaith.com.
Some of the women featured in Friendship & Faith have appeared on panel discussions called “Five Women, Five Journeys,” recently offered at St. Hugo’s of the Hills Catholic Church in Bloomfield Hills. Sofia Begg Latif, one of the writers and performers of The Children of Abraham, spoke at the St. Hugo’s event, moderated by Harris.
Latif, the daughter of Indian immigrants Shahina and Victor Begg, grew up in a Hindu/Muslim household in Bloomfield Hills. That allowed her to appreciate the religious diversity of Southeast Michigan, one of the more diverse regions in the nation – and one of the most polarized. In her account in Friendship & Faith, Latif reflects on family gatherings involving Hindus and Muslims. Her mother’s family is Hindu and her father’s Islam. (Shahina Begg converted to Islam.)
“Both believe strongly in their faith,” recalls Latif, now a Dearborn Heights resident. “There would be debate back and forth then they would come together. It was never something that interfered with our family relationships. There was theological disagreement, but that was an understood aspect of our lives. We could see the commonalities [between family members]. We lived the commonalities in the interaction with each other and the relationships that my parents fostered. The faith lines didn’t prevent me from having strong relationships with people of other faiths.”
WISDOM has produced 67 programs – 16 of them “5 Women, 5 Journeys.” The programs range from a women-only Habitat for Humanity Build and other service projects to community, interfaith education, and advocacy activities. The activities draw upwards of 300 people. “5 Women, 5 Journeys” has been presented at a variety of venues – Andover High School, Birmingham; Macomb Community College and University of Michigan Dearborn; a Bloomfield Hills senior community center, and various houses of worship.
The St. Hugo’s program employed a new element, according to Harris. “Normally we have theatre seating…you’re normally sitting with your friends. You listen to the panel; have questions and answers, then leave.” St. Hugo’s program was organized by an interfaith committee of people who hadn’t met before, seated participants at roundtables with people of different faiths, and followed with dialogue. The program was well-received and may lead to a service project, Harris says.
“If you think about it, there aren’t many opportunities for Christian women to sit down with Muslims, or Jews to sit down with Muslims,” adds Harris. “What would it be like to sit on a committee with Muslim women when I’ve never met one before? More people probably met Jewish women before, but not a whole lot. We tend to operate in our own circles. One of the goals of WISDOM is to get outside our own group of family and friends… in a safe and sacred environment.”
Women, she says, have a way of coming together and solving problems that is different from men. “Women seem to have – in most cultures – this gift for relationship. This is what’s key. A problem comes up and you want to resolve it. Most of the time the men will sit at the table and they will immediately attack the problem as they see it. The women will talk and build some kind of connection between each other. Then they will approach the problem. Building those connections and those relationships greatly improves the chances that the problems will be resolved.”
The future holds a generational challenge for WISDOM: Will they be succeeded by the women of Latif’s age?
“We haven’t found the sweet spot in terms of how to relate (to younger women),” admits Latif. “There isn’t a lot of youth within the leadership. That’s something that will have to change. There have been examples of WISDOM holding events at universities.”
WISDOM held a recent event at the University of Michigan Dearborn which drew a large crowd, notes Latif. “At some of the community service events you’ll see younger women that are there for the day. They may have young kids and the kids are in school, they have a few hours in the afternoon to volunteer. … For young women in high school and college there is lot of interfaith activities under way. It’s not always under the banner of an interfaith organization. It’s usually working toward a cause, whether it’s social justice or improving the inner city. WISDOM partners with those organizations and you have a larger showing. In terms of young mothers with children, evening gatherings like this might be difficult for them to come.”
For WISDOM women, many of whom pushed to achieve “firsts” for their gender in society, forming WISDOM was as much a statement of their generation as their commitment to interfaith relationships. Harris, the first woman to work in management at Ford’s Detroit Tractor Operations, concurs that succession poses a series concern for the organization.
“It’s very obvious to all of us on the board when we gather – it hits you right in the face: You know that if we’re going to continue we have to be successful in cultivating younger people’s interest in what we’re doing,” she says, adding that WISDOM added some younger members to its board this year.
“When women are out in the work world – and a lot of them are in the work world and have family responsibilities – to get them to devote significant time to something like this…is a real challenge. We are a totally volunteer organization. We have no paid staff. Anything that gets done gets done by one of us. It’s difficult to get people who are younger or just starting their careers.”
Younger women still have the need and desire to engage in interfaith work, and they need to differentiate their relationships from men, notes Latif. “There’s something about being in the same environment with men, and being able to communicate and bond in a different way [with women]; it’s having those fraternal relationships that brings out different aspects of person’s personality. I haven’t studied this, but you can see fraternities and sororities in college and the deep bond that forms between people in society when you’re sharing your innermost thoughts.”
Latif believes there’s commonality among a lot of women in WISDOM, that they have navigated the challenges of living in an America that doesn’t always accept their faith. Regardless of what their religion is, they all have struggled to raise their children in a less than open environment. “Those commonalities will remain will remain in the next generation as well.”
One thing is for certain; women of all ages drink coffee together, form relationships, and get things done.
Dennis Archambault is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Metromode, Model D and Concentrate. His previous article was Chaldeans And Jews: Building A Common Community