by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver and Priscilla Warner
Free Press, 2007
It took me a few years, but I finally made time to read The Faith Club written by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver and Priscilla Warner. Just a few pages in, I found myself wondering why I’d put this off for so long.
In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, three women — a Muslim, a Christian, and a Jew — began meeting in hopes of writing a children’s book that would explain the intersection of their faiths, but they first had to honestly understand and appreciate each other’s points of view. These gatherings rotated between their homes as they started to ask each other some really tough questions, delving into all the stereotypes, misunderstandings and more that have existed between the “Big Three” Abrahamic faiths for generations. The women began to refer to their three-person group as the “Faith Club,” and accompanied each other to religious services and along some of life’s more difficult journeys.
I’d checked this book out of the library several times over the years, but it always ended up being returned, unread.
Then, earlier this year, I got an email from my boyfriend’s sister, Doreen, who has been living in Nigeria the past couple of years while her husband is on work assignment there. She is a woman if faith herself, and she had reached out to me — a new Jew — to launch an interfaith dialogue. She wrote to me excitedly about a Muslim woman who had come to her Bible study group, looking to better understand Christianity and dispel misconceptions about her own faith. Wanting to form a women-specific interfaith group around the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Doreen asked me to join as the Jewish member.
I declined — I figured such a group would be better served by someone who could meet with them face-to-face, rather than always corresponding via email or the occasional telephone call — but I was immediately reminded of this still unread book that I kept checking out of the library. I recommended The Faith Club to Doreen — and knew that I’d better read it, too.
As a religious studies scholar and seminary-trained interfaith minister, I’m always a fan on honest and open dialogue between members of different religions. There’s a lot of sensitivity and compassion that are required for such conversations to succeed, and I know that for many, interfaith discussions can all too often end up feeling like walking on eggshells as participants navigate around sure-fire pitfalls and steer the conversation away from areas of controversy.
What struck me most about this book was the fact that these women agreed on a no-holds-bar approach to their conversations. They gave themselves — and each other — permission to admit their fears, vent their frustrations, and ask any and every question about each other’s faith that happened to occur to them. A lot of these in-your-face, challenging questions wouldn’t have gone over so well at a congenial interfaith breakfast, let me tell you. But these three women stuck with each other, arguing, laughing and struggling their way through to real understanding, and real friendship.
It’s an incredibly inspirational book, and not in a candy-coated, feel-good kind of way. Instead, it was the brutal honesty that drew me into this book, as these women laid their conversations and personal life details on the line. Keep in mind that they were having these conversations in New York City very soon after the terrorist attacks. They were dealing not only with their own emotional fallout, but with the reactions of their children, their family and friends, and all the crises of life that arise even when you’re not in the midst of a national crisis.
My only disappointment was that I’d not cracked this book open earlier.