Monday, January 2, 2012

Friendship & Faith: The WISDOM of women creating alliances for peace (book review)

My favorite literature professor pointed out that it takes careful study of both literature and history to gain a truly three-dimensional understanding of an era, a cultural shift, or a revolutionary group of individuals.

Supposedly unbiased history books and supposedly unbiased news stories provide facts, but say little or nothing about the thoughts, personal reactions, and—perhaps most importantly—relationships of the people whose lives they describe in generalizations. This being the case, I’m glad that people whose personal narratives I’m not hearing in the news are writing books about their experiences.

One such book is Friendship & Faith, by 29 members and friends of Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in MetroDetroit (WISDOM). Friendship & Faith features stories of key personal events in the lives of its authors, such as interfaith marriages, attending open houses of different religions than theirs, their own and their children’s interfaith friendships, eye-opening conversations with co-workers they initially thought they’d have nothing in common with, and more.

Friendship and Faith is not only a collection of inspirational stories. It also gives candid snapshots of events in the struggle to overcome obstacles to unity in diversity in Detroit’s and its suburbs’ recent history, which the news media glossed over—Such as the bigotry non-Christians experienced at the 2004 National Day of Prayer in Troy, the interfaith group created in response to that event, the heated debate over allowing Muslim and Christian calls to prayer broadcast in Hamtramck, and other grass-roots struggles led by interfaith pioneers to enlighten people who take for granted the U.S. Constitution’s human rights protections, while thinking little about if these rights are being protected for all “others.”

In addition to the personal and community narratives, I found Friendship & Faith to be an excellent interfaith relations guide book, especially for individuals who otherwise might not know how to start getting involved with the kinds of organizations and initiatives discussed in the book. Readers can use it as a directory of people and groups to connect with, and to get ideas from the several great examples of things that individuals can do personally in their everyday lives to help promote unity in diversity.

One thing that surprised me is that a few of the authors started off as unsure of how to make a difference as I did. Whereas some came to WISDOM after they already had impressive résumés of interfaith work with other organizations, for others, WISDOM was the link they needed to get involved to start with.

Another thing that surprised me was a synchronicity between myself and the four founders of WISDOM: Their inspiration to step up their interfaith involvement was the play “Reuniting the Children of Abraham.” I remember seeing the performance, which featured poignant monologues by young people of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim backgrounds about the common foundations of their three religions, in the early-mid 2000s, and it stirred a longing in me to be part of the larger picture of interfaith work.

Gail Katz, Shahina Begg, Trish Harris, and Peggy Kalis acted immediately on their longing to do something concrete to promote unity in diversity, by forming a female version of the Reuniting the Children of Abraham Project in mid-2006. They then realized that these religions are only part of Metropolitan Detroit’s spiritual landscape, and they expanded their circle to welcome members of other faiths, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and the Bahá’í Faith.

Despite the challenges Friendship & Faith’s authors faced on their paths to interfaith fellowship and service—some simply uncomfortable, others horrifically tragic—the women of WISDOM still responded with love, faith, and strength. Friendship & Faith re-affirms the ideals of people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., about responding to insults and injury with dignity, love, and positive action rather than with more insults and injury. They turned uncomfortable confrontations, and even wartime events, into learning experiences, and strove to find the meaning in these experiences instead of react in ways that perpetuate the downward spiral of misunderstanding and abuse.

Another positive is the authors of Friendship & Faith don’t sugar-coat anything. In a book about finding unity in diversity, one might expect to find cookie-cutter platitudes that romanticize humanity’s underlying homogeneity as a species. It’s true that human beings are all more alike than we are different, but this sentiment can be taken too far, to the extreme of neglecting the value of the uniqueness of individuals and cultures.

Some of the stories in Friendship & Faith do seem to border on this extreme, but I found much more celebration of and respect for our differences. Most of the authors talk unsentimentally about how they’ve overcome religious bigotry or racism, and in some cases about how they’ve overcome their own initial prejudices and mistrust of particular types of people.

I strongly recommend this book for anyone who would like to gain a better understanding of Metro Detroit’s history and what its contemporary interreligious, intercultural landscape is truly like; it would also be a valuable resource for high school and college classrooms as recommended reading for comparative religion or social studies courses.

Image: "Ascension Dance" by Karla Joy Huber, 2004; Watercolor, marker, gel pen, and highlighter on pink and blue paper

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