When people dare to cross cultural and interfaith boundaries, the results can be powerful. A group of women from multiple faith traditions chronicle their intimate personal stories in a new book, Friendship & Faith: The WISDOM of women creating alliances for peace.
Two young women from the Ann Arbor area, Sarah Fowlkes
and Stefanie DeHart
, helped co-author the book.
The group named WISDOM
, an acronym that stands for Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in Metro Detroit, began when four women of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian backgrounds met at an interfaith event in 2006 and forged a friendship. With escalating tensions in the Middle East, Iraq, and Darfur in the news, they worried that communities of faith in Southeast Michigan were becoming dangerously polarized. They felt that women had the capacity for empathy and connecting spiritually, and thought this might be a way to begin changing the landscape, one friend at a time.
Thus WISDOM was founded to help women build connections across traditional fault lines and organize community events as opportunities for conversation. The group's signature panel of speakers presents a program titled "Five Women, Five Journeys: How Different Are We?" Those programs center around profiles of women of five different faith traditions who share their own journeys, joys and challenges in response to common questions. The panel events often receive rave reviews.
In January 2009, 14 WISDOM leaders gathered at a retreat where the idea was born to create a book of stories about interfaith friendships. Over the next year, dozens of women from diverse faith traditions were invited to share their experiences, interviewed by many writers from a similarly wide range of backgrounds.
Stefanie DeHart and Sarah Fowlkes, co-authors of Friendship and Faith book
Ann Arbor natives Sarah Fowlkes
and Stefanie DeHart
, juniors at the University of Michigan and Kalamazoo College, respectively, were two of those writers. Both already had experience interviewing through their work with Divine Light Pictures
, an Ann Arbor student film crew that received a World Sabbath Peace Prize in 2007 for its interfaith film, "What Does God Look Like?." David Crumm
, founder of ReadtheSpirit.com,
invited Fowlkes and Dehart to get involved.
Fowlkes interviewed Elana Haron
, a young Jewish woman whose first visit to Israel was cut short by the breakout of the Israel-Hezbollah war
in 2006. Upon her return to high school, she started a diversity club, with some uncomfortable resistance from several adults. Eventually the club grew successfully, and Haron learned the importance of reaching out “beyond that comfortable bubble” to create a better world.
Fowlkes also interviewed Rehana Saleem Qureshi, a woman from Pakistan who established a Muslim community center and school in Canton Township. As questions arose about the community center, Qureshi remembers, “If we had stayed inside our Muslim box, we would have grown anxious, afraid. Instead, we held Open Houses. We invited people to come inside.”
DeHart listened to Rev. Charlotte Sommer’s stories of the support she received from Muslim and Hindu friends upon the death of her mother. She shared the belief that people of different traditions need to spend more time talking and interacting with one another.
, a member of the Baha’i faith, described visits to the Barli Development Institute for Rural Women
in Indore, India, to Dehart. She recalled one long, difficult journey to a remote village that turned out to be a beautiful evening making new friends. She and DeHart traded stories of travel and exposure to new cultures.
For Fowlkes and DeHart, compiling these stories into their first published book has been an extension of an ongoing journey of cross-cultural exposure. As high schoolers, they traveled on mission trips to Kenya and Bulgaria through their youth group at First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor.
Fowlkes said it continues to surprise her that so much intolerance still persists in the world, since she grew in a community very interested in interfaith conversations. DeHart added how these connections have been gone beyond just “tolerance” but grown into meaningful relationships.
Their experiences have sparked a continued interest in cross-cultural dialogue. DeHart spent the fall semester at the Japan Center for Michigan Universities in Ann Arbor’s sister city of Hikone, Japan. Fowlkes is considering joining the Peace Corps after she graduates.
The young authors, as well as the stories in Friendship and Faith, show how the courage to reach across traditional divides can, one connection at a time, begin to change the world.
Visit the Friendship and Faith website to learn more about the WISDOM organization and the book, Friendship and Faith. The book was published by Read the Spirit Books and may be ordered at Amazon.com.
Pam Stout is coordinates Faith and Home & Garden coverage for Ann Arbor.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org