The Faith Club: A Muslim, a Christian and a Jew— Three Women Search for Understanding

by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver and Priscilla Warner

Reviewed by Marta Redniss Maresco

The Faith Club is a collaborative work by three women who were moved by an urgent need to seek common ground and understanding of other faiths during the fear-filled time after the 9/11 attacks. All are mothers raising children in or near New York City: Ranya’s and Suzanne’s children are very young and Priscilla’s are teenagers. The book documents the women’s creative response to the local and global climate of misunderstanding, stereotyping and polarization, at a time when New York was placed on “high alert” and the news was filled with images of Islam painted with a broad brush as a “dangerous and militant religion.”

The project was at first conceived as a children’s book by Ranya Idliby to answer her kindergarten-age daughter’s questions about their heritage and to respond to cultural dilemmas posed by her classmates asking “Do you celebrate Hanukah or Christmas?” While Suzanne and Ranya waited for the school bus with their children, they became acquainted, and Suzanne invited Ranya to join her book discussion group. As their children played together, Ranya shared her idea of bringing together a Muslim, a Jewish and a Christian mother to write “a children’s book of miracles.” Suzanne immediately was inspired to join this mission. She says in the beginning of the book, “It seemed a necessary and noble goal in the months after September 11th.” A friend of Suzanne’s recommended that Priscilla join their project, and she enthusiastically agreed.

Priscilla, a writer of children’s books, is the mother of two teenage sons and a member of a Reform Jewish congregation in a suburb of New York City. She recalls attending a service at her temple on September 12, 2001, where her rabbi and other local clergy “tried to make sense of the unfathomable events…” She also recalled how her faith in God was in doubt that day, as she felt terrible anxiety over the crisis and fear of possible future attacks. Her son’s basketball coach, a kind, compassionate father of four, had died that day. Her own husband worked in lower Manhattan and she ruminated about his safety. She had suffered severe panic attacks for years and now she felt she was thrown into “one long, never-ending state of low-grade panic.” However she did not want to scare her children, and so kept her fears to herself. She brought them back to the city a couple of weeks after the attacks to show them (and herself) that New York was alive and well and as vibrant as ever.

Priscilla had never met a Palestinian woman before, and when she met Ranya for the first time she felt an immediate connection to her. She realized how the stereotypes she had incorporated from the news media were far from the reality of this lovely person who hosted their first gathering. Suzanne wanted to learn more about Islam since she realized that her knowledge of this faith was very limited. As an Episcopalian convert from Catholicism, who converted in part because of the restricted role of women in the Catholic church, Suzanne wondered (among many other questions in her mind) how Ranya could reconcile the freedoms of her modern life with the subordinate role of women that seemed so prevalent in the Muslim world.

The women begin their first discussion by asking “What is your religious background?” They each describe uniquely varied journeys and express very different kinds of relationships to their faiths. Priscilla had an eclectic upbringing, growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, attending a Hebrew Day school until seventh grade and then a Quaker girls high school. At the school she attended daily chapel with hymn singing and weekly silent Quaker meetings for worship. With her family she attended temple on important Jewish holidays. Suzanne tells of her childhood and adolescence permeated by her family’s strict Catholicism in Kansas City: attending mass every Sunday and holy days, praying and reading the Bible together at home. Ranya learned about Islam through customs taught by her maternal grandparents. Her family did not attend a mosque, but “practiced Islam at home through prayer, charity and traditions.” As refugees in Kuwait and Dubai, they were keenly aware that they were outsiders. Her parents instilled in her a strong belief in the importance of education as a tool for survival.

The three make a commitment to meet regularly together. Courageously they confront stereotypes and conflicts that each reveals she has held about the other’s traditions and beliefs. They bring inspiring and poetic prayers from their traditions and eventually visit each other’s places of worship. A remarkable transformation unfolds as they share the deepest issues of life together, for example how their faith helps them cope with illness and death in their families.

Ranya finds an open-minded faith community with an imam she respects, and invites her Faith Club friends to share in their Ramadan celebration. Together they attend a Yom Kippur service at Priscilla’s temple. Gradually Priscilla’s doubts and fears evolve into a new-found faith in a higher power. Suzanne experiences a period of doubting her own beliefs, as she considers the questions posed by her Faith Club sisters. Each woman finds it helpful during the journey to seek spiritual counsel from clergy. Suzanne’s minister counsels her that “It’s okay to have doubts, everyone does. The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.”

For the sake of a better future for their children, these remarkable women are willing to venture into unknown territory and not be held captive by immovable “certainties.” They embark on a journey of dialogue together and share it skillfully with their readers. The book is like a Bach Three Part Invention, intricate and beautiful, with each unique voice heard clearly in the presence of the other two, together creating a new totality. The expertly designed composition gives the reader a special vantage point, for we feel we are observing the creative process unfolding. We can add our voices to the dialogue as we reflect on our own spiritual journeys and share them with others. We may use the Guides for starting a Faith Club which are included at the close of the book and produced in English, Arabic and Hebrew, or we may invent a format of our own selection.

The Faith Club is a clear example of the process of dialogue transforming communication and contributing to world peace on a neighbor-to-neighbor basis.