How did the three of you meet?

Suzanne: I met Ranya at the school bus stop. Our daughters started kindergarten together in September of 2001.

Ranya: At the time I was actively looking for two mothers - Christian and Jewish - who would be interested in writing a children’s book. A book that could highlight our common religious heritage through biblical stories that unite the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths.

Priscilla: I was the lucky one. I just answered a telephone call. Suzanne described the children’s book project to me, asked me if I’d like to get together with her and Ranya to discuss it, and I drove into the city to meet them for the first time. That phone call changed my life forever. 

          Why did you write this book?

Ranya: For my children and all our children. I start the book with a quote from Rumi - a 13th century Muslim poet and scholar- about burdens being the foundations of ease. And ultimately the book, for me, is about how something that is a burden or a challenge in life can be made into a positive force, a force for change in our world. I, like many Muslims, became acutely sensitive to how our children may be challenged, even burdened by their religion, especially in America after the terror of 9/11. My most ambitious wish for the book is that it may somehow help empower Muslims looking for answers and ways to take ownership of their religion .To shed prejudice and fear, so that one day we may be able to sincerely speak of the American Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition.

Suzanne: I started this book project in order to learn more about Judaism and Islam and to understand how Ranya and Priscilla practice those faiths. Our dialogue was a chance to find common bonds in our religions and to pass those discoveries on to the next generation. The world is getting smaller, and our religions are caught in conflict, so it was important to me to understand those religions better. In the process I was challenged to define what it meant to me to be a moderate Christian in America at a time when fundamentalists control the dialogue about our religion. I want to encourage other Christian Americans to take a similar journey that I hope will lead to mutual respect and understanding within our communities and in the broader world.

Priscilla: I used to say that I wrote the book because I was in a state of panic, but now I realize that I was really in a spiritual crisis, which I had confused with an emotional crisis. I had been paralyzed by the attacks of 9/11. I was terrified of terrorism. And talking about religion and how it was affecting the world seemed like a way for me to feel empowered. What I got as a result of all my talking was a definition of my God, my spirituality. I think that I was lost, and now I’m found.

          How did you decide what you would discuss at your meetings?

Ranya: First, our agenda was obvious. We were writing a children’s book. Soon, even the children’s book tested our religious sensibilities as we grappled with our own prejudices and beliefs. We realized that to be effective communicators for our children we had a lot to learn as adults. As we pursued the adult dialogue, and we became the Faith Club, our conversations came about organically. Life was our biggest source of material, from aging parents and curious children to cocktail parties and Easter bunnies.

Priscilla: Things got pretty heated after just a few meetings. We were forced to examine a lot of thing I never in a million years thought we’d have to address. And then when life started intervening, our meetings took on a more urgent tone, at least for me. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and my sister with breast cancer. So I had a lot on my plate, a lot to talk about.

Suzanne: We sought each other’s opinions on everything from faith and prayer to death and heaven. We dissected magazine and newspaper articles on religion, trying to understand each others’ viewpoints. And we wrote, a lot, about what was on our minds. At our meetings we read our writing aloud, and that led to hours of discussion. 

          How much outside research and reading did you do?

Priscilla: I was the slacker of the group when it came to research! I would read books that caught my attention because of a story they told, and I would read bits and pieces of historical or religious books because our conversations really required me to be knowledgeable about a lot of issues. Ranya and Suzanne raised the bar for me. And then there were newspaper articles and TV shows that caught my attention because they were covering topics we’d talked about in our faith club.

Suzanne: I started out with simple books about Judaism and Islam, literally with The Complete Idiot’s Guide series. Then as I learned more, my reading material became more sophisticated, and it veered toward Christianity as I sought to understand my own religion better. I read books by C.S. Lewis, Karen Armstrong, Elaine Pagels, Augustine, and, of course, I read the Bible. It was the first time I picked it up on my own to actually read the Gospels outside of church services.

Ranya: Many hours. In addition to books which I turned to when I was stuck for answers, I spent a lot of time on the internet visiting Muslim and other sites. Some sites had cyber dialogue, now known as blogs, which helped me keep in touch with what was on peoples’ minds. 

          Did you have any rules for your meetings?

Ranya: Yes, honesty. A tenet we tried to live by. As long as that was true, there was sincerity in our dialogue that helped us overcome conflict.

Suzanne: I would add openness. It was important for us not to keep suspicions or hurt feelings bottled up for too long. It blocked our ability to understand each other. We were required to air what was on our minds, if not immediately then at least in short order.

Ranya: And the commitment to keep coming back was very important, even if you felt someone had hurt you or you were unfairly judged, stereotyped, or criticized. Because our biggest moments of truth and growth could only happen when there was a certain amount of conflict and tension. When dialogue forces you out of your comfort zone than you are forced to really examine things in way you had not thought of before and as a result gain greater understanding of yourself and of others.

Priscilla: I think it’s important for people to be humble. That’s what I got out of this experience, a sense of humility. The knowledge that I don’t have all the answers, that no one else does either, and that the more ideas we share, the richer our lives are for it. 

          What surprised you most about your faith club experience?

Priscilla: I was surprised at how much I stereotyped people like Suzanne who went to church regularly and accessed their religion in a very traditional way. I have a lot of friends who go to church, who teach Sunday school, but I never stereotyped them. Maybe because we’re friends, and I know their values. But since I didn’t know Suzanne, I’m ashamed to say that I looked at her differently. And I think that’s an important component of the book – that none of us knew each other. So any stereotypes or fears we had were very vivid. And sometimes shocking, at least for me. I knew plenty of Christian people, but then I met this woman from Kansas City, who’d gone to school in Texas…

Suzanne: I think that because I grew up in a Catholic tradition I equated one’s spirituality or religiousness with going to church every Sunday, with the external signs of practicing a religion. Ranya and Priscilla challenged me to think of faith outside of an institutional framework. Then I was very surprised when I went back to the Gospels to see how much Jesus opposed the rule-bound way Judaism was practiced in his time.

Ranya: I am surprised by the fact that I am now a more confident and committed Muslim. I started out insecure about my qualifications as a Muslim and skeptical about religion in general. I used to say I have faith but no religion. Because of the Faith club I now know that Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, has a rich history of plurality and diversity from within. Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf whom I met through my Faith Club experience, confirmed my legitimacy and credentials as a Muslim when he related a story about the Prophet Muhammad in which he was asked, ”What does it take to be a Muslim?” Three steps are involved, belief ( Islam), faith ( Iman), and actions of faith( Ihsan). Only when those elements of faith are fulfilled can you then use rituals and religion as a way to experience and seek proximity to God. 

          What’s the importance for you of sharing this experience with others?

Ranya: For Muslims it’s a calling to pick up the Quran and read it for themselves. I know that there are many Muslims out there who are alienated and frustrated by the stereotypes that define their religion and by the institutions that seem to control it. I encourage them to engage in this dialogue, to take control of their religion and to work towards building institutions and communities that will comfort their present and safeguard their children’s future. For non-Muslims, I think the book is a call saying don’t alienate us, don’t make us “the other.” We are part of you, we are part of the Abrahamic family. Our God is your God. We are part of the fabric of what this society is about.

Suzanne: I would like to shake Christians up a little bit, the way Ranya and Priscilla shook me up! I was very comfortable in my religion, having left the hierarchical and doctrinal Catholic religion for the looser Episcopal religion. But I didn’t realize how I could have pressed that religious journey so much farther than I already had. So I want people to question the faith they profess. I want people to question the leaders who are speaking in the name of Christianity. I want moderates to reclaim our understanding and our language regarding Christianity. We should talk loudly about Jesus, faith, baptism, the Bible, and salvation in the liberal way in which we understand them. Otherwise the opponents of evolution, abortion, homosexuality, and universalism will continue to monopolize the Christian dialogue. Finally, I want Christianity to become a force for universality, a force for finding community within all believers of all faiths.

Priscilla: I entered the relationship, after 9/11, in order to bring my children hope and to bring me hope, and what I want people to get out of the book is a sense of hope, of optimism. People often told us that they were envious of our relationship, of our faith club. I think a lot of people are walking around in spiritual pain. I think that people are craving the kind of connection we have with each other. And I think we live in a time when we have no other real choice other than to connect with each other. I quote W. H. Auden these days: “We must love one another or die.” We’ve tried other ways of communicating. We’ve tried not communicating. We’ve tried using force in order to get our points across. But in our little trio we’ve seen what happens when you keep at it, keep forcing the dialogue. If this kind of dialogue could spread, one trio at a time, it could eventually make a huge difference.

          How did three people write one book together?

Priscilla: With a lot of difficulty! And tears! It was particularly challenging when we were in three different geographical locations, or more…with Ranya in Greece and Long Island, with me in Martha’s Vineyard and New York, with Suzanne in New Hampshire… We wrote a great deal of the book in cyberspace, which is very efficient, but very challenging, because there is no nuance in cyberspace, and there is a lot of nuance in our relationship to each other.

Suzanne: Another difficulty arose from the fact that we are different people at the end of the book than at the beginning. Sometimes it was difficult to preserve that naivete as we edited and shaped the book.

Ranya: Collaborations are not easy. They are like marriages with their ups and downs. But you learn at the end of the day about your partners’ strengths and weaknesses. Also, as any writer will tell you, those long endless hours of editing can be very lonely. It certainly made it easier when I was up at 3:00 am working and I heard the email jingle “ you’ve got mail” knowing that one of my co-authors was also awake.

          Who should read your book?

Ranya: Everyone! Especially men! Especially the ones that control the world! White male politicians!

Suzanne: Anyone who is interested in religion or in the way religion influences our human interactions today.

Priscilla: I’d like all kinds of people to read this book -- people who know a lot about their religion, people who know very little, people who question whether there is a God, young people, old people. I’d love atheists to read this book. I’d love to see a group of elderly people, people who have an enormous amount of life experience, read and talk. I think that would be such a rich conversation. And young people would bring so much passion and honesty to the table.

          Do you have to be religious to enjoy the book?

Ranya: I don’t think The Faith Club is a religious book. I think it’s a human book. You can be from anywhere. You can be green, yellow, blue… It’s about the experience we have day to day living our human lives with all our anxieties, our challenges, our hopes. If you want to call life religious, then so be it. This is a book about life more than it is about religion. The book is about friendship, respect, alienation, fear. It’s about our future, about stereotypes, hate, prejudice. In a world where we need to have categories, this book is in the religious one, but I don’t think this book can be categorized because I think it encompasses our human experience.

Priscilla: I never really thought of myself as a religious person, and never thought that I’d ever write a book about religion. But clearly I was in need of this experience, of an examination of my faith, and there are probably a lot of other people like me out there who would enjoy this book.

Suzanne: The Faith Club is a book about people challenging themselves and challenging each other about the meaning of life, the meaning of being human today, being American today, of being religious or non-religious, believing in God or not believing in God. It’s about people exploring the opinions they have about other people -- opinions that we walk around with every day but don’t really recognize. It’s about understanding the stereotypes and prejudices that have influenced us since childhood and recognizing that those attitudes influence the way we view the world today. And that’s something that every person -- male, female, religious, non-religious, young and old -- can benefit from. Hopefully it will lead readers on their own quest for self-discovery. To help them we offer faith club material in the back of the book.

Ranya: I think it’s a book for people who choose to live questioning and thinking about life, and I think the beauty of the book is that we’ve discovered through our experience that often we don’t have the time anymore to stop and smell the roses. This book encourages people to stop for a moment, unravel, turn your world around and ask big “if” questions. Generally, in our every day life we don’t find ourselves doing that, and I think The Faith Club gives us that opportunity.