Faithful build bridges with books

How a post-9/11 book club brought Christian, Jewish, and Muslim women together.

Laughter rings out in the salmon-colored living room of the parsonage at First Church in Cambridge, Mass. More than a dozen women - Christian, Jewish, and Muslim - are sharing insights garnered from "Gilead," a 2004 novel about the faith and struggles of a Christian minister in Iowa.

The easy camaraderie as they discuss their distinctive approaches to prayer reflects three years of monthly meetings of the Daughters of Abraham, as they call themselves. The book club has explored the realms of the three monotheistic faiths - and blossomed into comfortable relationships that reach into each other's daily lives.

"My hope was we'd come to know and respect the other two faiths while deepening our commitment to our own," says the Rev. Anne Minton, a retired college teacher and Episcopal priest. "What I didn't anticipate was the deepening of relationships in the group."

In fact, 10 of the 18 members traveled together to Spain last January, where they explored sites of the medieval golden age of Muslim-Christian-Jewish coexistence, which spawned an intellectual flowering. They are planning a trip to Jerusalem next May.

The club's origin, however, lies in the immediate anguish of Sept. 11, 2001. That night, an interfaith service hastily called by the minister at First Church (United Church of Christ) packed the sanctuary.

"The service was powerful and people were crying; there were women in head scarves sitting next to me," recalls club founder Edie Howe. "I had this strong thought of how we were all the children of Abraham, and how unnecessary and tragic it was. I thought, 'What can I do about this?'"

Her answer was to start the women's book club as a first step toward improving understanding. To ensure a joint commitment, she sought out Jews and Muslims who might share her interest and held planning discussions. A group of 18 met for the first time in September 2002 and has been meeting ever since. Though expectations vary, all share an interest in how other faiths are expressed in individual lives.

"I wanted the benefit of how to guide my reading on this," says Rona Fischman, a real estate agent active in a local synagogue. "In light of what's going on in the world, it just wasn't acceptable for me to be ignorant of Islam. It's not acceptable for Muslims to have little idea of what Jews are about. Or for Christians, either."

Keeping a booklist, they vote on priorities and read a book a month, alternating among the three religions. Tastes range across novels, history, poetry, memoirs, and religious philosophy. During their summer hiatus in 2004 - after the group had developed a level of trust - they read books on the history and politics of the Middle East.

"The Crusades Through Arab Eyes," was particularly informative, says Ms. Fischman, because of its non-Western vantage point.

"One book that really struck me was 'The Rock,' a historical novel by Iraqi author Kanan Makiya about the building of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem," says Ms. Minton. "The book quotes extensively from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sacred texts but doesn't give you the footnote on the page. The quotes are so similar you can't tell where they come from without looking them up in the back."

From Islamic poetry, to a mystery involving the ritual baths of Jewish tradition, to C.S. Lewis's exploration of good and evil in "The Screwtape Letters," the varied choices spur conversation on the commonalities and differences in beliefs and practices. And sometimes they reveal surprising similarities.

Sepi Gilani, a Muslim physician and mother who is a member of one of two spinoff book clubs (a third is planned for next year), says that "Lying Awake," a novel about an American nun in Los Angeles, resonated for her. The nun's devotional experiences reminded her of her grandmother in Iran, who after her husband's death, spent her time focused on prayer, reading, and worship. But it also rang a bell with her own life in the United States.

"The nun leaves a devout group and goes out into the secular world where many don't believe, and God is the last thing on their minds," she recalls. "When you are constantly thinking of God and the mechanisms of the universe, sometimes it seems the rest of the world is very aloof. Yet when you meet someone who is religious in their own way, whatever their faith, there can be more of a connection with that person than with someone who claims to be of your faith."

She found similar pleasure in the discussion on "Holy Days," about the life of the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn.

Muslims in the US are not as regularly active in the book clubs as Christians and Jews. That's largely because the younger generation is working and raising children, Ms. Gilani believes, while the older generations of immigrants are less sure of their English. Some also travel - two members are now in Egypt and Pakistan.

Most club members are heartened by the way it has spilled into their lives.

"People meet for lunch, help out when members are not well, suggest a good movie - like Jewish or Iranian film festivals - and [have] dinner ahead of time," says Ms. Howe. "And they attend weddings, bar mitzvahs, celebrations at the end of Ramadan."

For Fischman, it was meaningful when some came to the shiva after her father died. They had learned about Jewish mourning during club discussions. "We can talk about the symbolism of our faiths' rituals, but it won't click unless we happen to attend and see what it means in a family's life," she says. "It's about what's in the head and in the heart."

Wherever the book club discussions roam, they clearly have come to be meaningful for those participating. It's still going strong, Minton says, because of the quality of the relationships, the fun and laughter, and the intellectual stimulation.

"We discuss a book, and people think, 'well after that we could read these five others!' " she adds. "We always come out of the meeting feeling better than when we went in."

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