‘Faith Club’ authors speak of interfaith understanding

BY LINDA S. LAWSON, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

An incomprehensible act, a bus stop conversation and a phone call released a sequence of events for a trio of women to embark on a journey of friendship exploring their individual faiths.

The result, The Faith Club, A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew-Three Women Search For Understanding, now in paperback, has proved to be a bestseller, prompting interfaith discussions nationwide.

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Priscilla Warner, a Jewish woman from Connecticut and her two co-authors, Ranya Idliby, a Muslim, and Suzanne Oliver, a Christian, were guest speakers at Ladue Presbyterian Church’s Lee Institute Speaker Series on Nov. 10. Their 40-city tour is attracting standing-room only audiences.

It all started with the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and Idibly, a Palestinian mother of two.

Following a frantic call from her husband on 9/11, Idliby, a naturalized citizen, turned on the television and prayed one silent prayer: “Please don’t let them be Muslim.”

When her daughter, then in kindergarten, started asking questions regarding their faith and that of Jews and Christians, such as whether they celebrated Hanukkah or Christmas, Idliby began a one-woman study of her faith.

The idea of a children’s book highlighting the similarities versus the divisions of the three religions surfaced after she stumbled upon an Islamic story of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, viewed as brethren and not adversaries.

At her children’s bus stop, Idibly mentioned her desire to Oliver, a Christian and finance magazine writer.

Then Oliver contacted Warner after getting her name from an acquaintance at a cookie bake.

Warner was raised by a mother from Hollywood and a conservative Jewish father who sent her to Hebrew Day School following his father’s death. Inexplicably, in the sixth grade, he sent Warner to a Quaker School.

“I came from an eclectic, but strong Judaism background. He took great comfort in Judaism and was the greatest influence on me. So I had a little bit of an interfaith dialogue, but nothing like I’ve had with these women,” Warner said.

So when approached about the project, it caught her off guard.

“I wasn’t a religious expert. I just always said my strongest suit was deflecting pain with humor,” she commented.

Yet, the project intrigued her and one day she found herself meeting at Idliby’s home.

“From the beginning I felt something crackling. I knew these were two very substantive women and that something was going to happen, but I didn’t dream this,” said Warner.

In attempting their exploration, they inadvertently found themselves examining their individual beliefs and doctrine. By their own descriptions, Warner didn’t know whether she had faith; Idliby said she had faith, but no religion and Oliver said she had faith and religion.

Warner said she pondered whether there was a God, and if so, where God was as her mother exhibited the first stages of Alzheimer’s while her sister, already fighting a long-term lung disease, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Fear also overwhelmed her, having been personally touched by the death of her son’s coach during 9-11.

“It was not on my radar. I felt like I had a bargaining chip with God and there was some system I was trying to crack,” Warner said.

Idliby, who does not wear a veil, described herself as part of a silent majority not represented in the media or in the mosques she visited.

It wouldn’t take long, basically a couple of weeks, for them to realize before they could impart wisdom to future generations they would have to learn from each other.

Each was given the task to write a childlike version of a particular story representing their faith. Oliver’s choice of words, such as “wicked men” and “House of Israel,” upset Warner.

“There was like this internal alarm that triggered. When I asked her if she had ever heard of the term ‘Christ Killer’ she said she never had. I didn’t know if I believed that. You have to remember, I didn’t know her or Ranya,” Warner said.

Idliby found herself as the mediator between the two, but felt a little left out, and when she tried to respond, hoping for a Jewish/Christian/ Muslim dialogue, she was shut down.

“We both told her it had nothing to do with her right then,” Warner said.

“Talk about feeling like Ishmael,” Idliby said as they all laughed.

Oliver then began to do some research.

“I spent a lot of time on the Internet and became more aware of how those words could be interpreted. I didn’t realize that some Christians were saying only a few hundred years ago that Jews were slaying Christian babies and putting blood in the communion bowls.” said Oliver.

“I’d really stereotyped Suzanne as someone who never had Jewish friends and may have harbored some anti-Semitism murmurings,” interjected Warner.

The club had one rule: To always be honest. And they realized they had stereotyped each other. It would be the genesis of carefully revealing raw layers of emotion, perception interpretation, preconceptions and misconceptions.

It would be more than a year of meetings, and by then a very close friendship between Idliby and Warner, before they would fervently address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Warner felt her support of a two-state existence and her refusal to give money to certain organizations because of the settlements expressed her sentiments.

“Ranya pushed for further discussion. What I’ve come to realize is me validating her family’s pain wasn’t disloyal to my Jewish heritage. I have found it to be of no benefit in comparing victimhood to move the dialogue forward. My rabbi had said how he saw the wall as a way to help peace. I said I don’t want to be on the Israeli side, I don’t want to be on the Palestinian side. When Ranya said if you can see all sides of the fence, then you are on the side of humanity, and that works for me,” Warner said.

They’ve now became their own sorority of three women with a deep bond and expanded cultural understanding.

Each has helped one another find their own spiritual place. Oliver has come to believe her road isn’t the only road to God. Idliby has found a mosque conducive to her philosophy. And Warner says faith returned to her.

“I was flying over the Great Lakes and there were these brilliant colors of the sunset. In that moment, I started crying and I got how I’m connected to God and this presence bigger than all of us.”

“I always say I’m not a historian or a theologian,” she continued. “I’m just one Jew telling the story of how these two women and their friendship changed my life and how I look at things. I really wish everyone had a chance to have a friendship like this with a Suzanne or a Ranya and to meet such families because it makes you see past the stereotypes and learn other people in a different light.”

They marvel at the proliferation of people hearing their message ranging from the three women putting on a play of the Faith Club in their Florida retirement home to a Villa Duschene High School class sitting in their audience with books in hand for a class assignment.

“People come with tears in theirs eyes,” Warner notes. “Everywhere we go we see this thread, this brilliant embroidery that is getting more and more magnificent.”

They even convey their message in their signing of their books: Rayna inscribes “With Faith,” Oliver adds next “For Peace,” and Warner seals it “With Hope.”