Jun 26, 2015

Getting to Know Our Neighbors

By Nancy Agafitei
About five years ago, I was visited at the library by Saadia, one of the Muslim ladies in our community who used the library with her young children. She came with a request to hold a book fair at the library. She wanted to display books that informed people about her faith, and to offer short talks that addressed topics of current interest about Islam. I think she expected me to decline, or at least debate, her request. For me, though, it was a simple choice -- public librarians are all about giving people access to all kinds of information. I got out the calendar and booked a room for them on a Saturday afternoon.

The book fair went off without incident, sadly attended only by a few curious library users. However, for this Muslim group, this was a big step in feeling welcomed by the community. For myself, it was the start of a journey to learn more about my Muslim neighbors. I was invited to bring friends to come and visit the women’s group at Saadia’s mosque. About a half dozen of my Lutheran lady friends took advantage of this offer. The meeting included a delicious dinner, plus presentations by women of several different faiths, each focusing on an outstanding woman from the history of their religion. We Lutherans were surprised that the woman chosen for the Muslim presentation was Mary, mother of Jesus. That night we learned that Mary is considered one of the most righteous women in the Islamic religion. She is mentioned more in the Quran than in the entire New Testament , and is also the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran.           

We had felt very welcomed at the mosque, and our desire to know more about these ladies was enough to visit again on several occasions, including once on an evening during Ramadan when we learned more about the meaning of this sacred month of fasting in Islamic life. Friendships within the group began to form, and Saadia and I discussed new ways in which we could continue to learn more about each other’s faith traditions and to expand our group to include others within our diverse community.
I offered to start the first year off with a book discussion, a method that I was very familiar with as a librarian. We met at my church, and discussed chapters of the book The Faith Club every month for about 6 months. The book was written by three women of the Abrahamic faiths -- a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jewish woman – and included great questions for discussion. Our initial meeting drew 35 potential participants.
For myself, I felt my personal stereotypes shattering with each session. I thought Muslim women did not work outside the home, and then I met a doctor who worked at the medical center. I thought that Muslims dressed in a certain way, and then I met women with head scarves, without head scarves, and even some who dressed just like me. I thought all Muslims believed the same things, and then I learned that there were over 70 sects of Muslims, just like there are at least that many denominations of Christians. The Jewish participants in the group were surprised to discover that the roots of their faiths had many things in common with the Muslims.

At the end of the first year, we decided to take a break for the summer, but come back in the fall to continue our meetings focusing on topics rather than book chapters. These included sessions on Prayer, Marriage, Raising Children, Celebrating Holidays, our sacred books, etc. This basic pattern has continued now for four years, and we will be coming back in the fall of 2015 for another year of sharing. Our group has grown to include Sunni and Ahmadi Muslims, Conservative and Reformed Jews, Mormons, Hindus, and even a participant from the Vietnamese Cao Dai church. We welcome all women who have a goal of joining in respectful community conversation with women of other faiths.

We have grown a lot in our four-year journey. In 2014, one of our members died, and women of all faiths attended the Christian funeral to mourn her loss. Some of us have suffered serious illness, so we have started an interfaith prayer chain to support them in their healing process. Saadia herself has become an author, writing a book of short stories that will be officially launched at a Houston book store this evening. Called “Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan”, it gives a glimpse into the lives of real-life characters in Pakistan and the seemingly impossible “brick walls” that they face. Woven throughout the stories are references to the roles that faith plays in their lives.

 Our group is now called “Women’s Voices.” As we have gotten to know each other as real people and not media stereotypes, we have realized that all of us have the same shared values. All of our religions focus on two main principles – Love God, and love your neighbors. What a better world we would have today if everyone would open themselves to truly meeting their neighbors.
Nancy Agafitei is the former Branch Librarian at the Barbara Bush Branch of Harris County Public Library, Vice President of Hosanna Lutheran Church, and facilitator of a women's Interfaith discussion group. The views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of Interfaith Houston.

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