QUESTIONS & ANSWERS WITH THE AUTHORS
At the beginning of the process, you are all at very different stages of faith; Ranya, you say on page 93: "It often felt like I had faith but no religion, that Priscilla had religion but no faith, and that Suzanne had both." Do you all feel that you are coming out of this process with both faith and religion?
Ranya: Yes! And that is the most surprising and fulfilling part for me--to have found my religion as an American and as a Muslim. I started off with doubt and insecurity about Islam and ended up a more committed and confident Muslim. In the beginning, my problem with religion was twofold. First, as a concerned mother I was alienated and challenged by the dominant voice of Islam, especially after 9/11, when Islam in America seemed to be more of a burden than a privilege. Through the Faith Club I was able to find within the religion of Islam the traditions that support the foundations of my faith, which has always been built on the idea of an equal-opportunity God--a God that does not discriminate among his worshipers on the basis of favored rituals, or give only members of one religion privileged rights to heaven. My second problem with religion was not specific to Islam. I am still saddened to see how religion in our world is more often than not a divisive force, in which rituals are often used to define communities and relegate to "other" all those on the outside. It is my hope, as it has been our experience in the Faith Club, that as more people have this dialogue about faith, there will be an increased awareness of how all religions can embrace a universal faith in a universal God.
Priscilla: I was always proud to be Jew, but I am even prouder now, after watching Suzanne marvel at the strength it takes to live life without the promise of an afterlife and after reading the Torah, which, as Ranya pointed out to me, was the first holy book for all three religions. I have found my own definition of God, which is the foundation of my faith, along with my acceptance of my humble place in the universe. I have learned that good and evil can coexist. I have accepted the inevitability of my mother's painful deterioration due to Alzheimer's. I pray for patience and compassion as I watch my sister battle several autoimmune diseases. I myself am not afraid to die. And as I experience pain alongside joy, I am grateful for every minute that I'm on this planet.
Suzanne: I began and ended my Faith Club experience with "faith," but my understanding of that faith changed dramatically. I discovered its strength as I talked to Ranya and Priscilla about how I found God in the kind actions of humanity. But I also discovered its weaknesses as I endeavored to define the role of Jesus and to accept that there is truth in more than one religion. Those challenges required that I redefine my faith in a way that validated other religions but didn't negate my belief in Jesus and his resurrection. In this process, my faith was tested, and I felt the fear of living without it. Fortunately, the Episcopal denomination was there to help me along the way. I had been attracted to it because of its liberal attitude toward doctrine, and I found within it one particular priest who helped me define what was elemental in Christianity. This new understanding, which is easily accommodated in the Episcopal faith, enabled me to recognize that there is truth within Judaism and Islam without feeling threatened by that recognition.
Talk about the writing process: Did you jointly plan events that you would write about? Did you journal individually and then compare your notes? The linking dialog sections in the book are all verbatim, taken directly from the tapes you made of each session. Were you often surprised by the difference between the recorded conversations and your memories of them?
Priscilla: The writing we did was honest, heartfelt, and recorded our feelings and growth in real time. Occasionally we would plan to attend a religious service or lecture together, but the book basically unfolded as our lives unfolded. I always looked forward to reviewing our taped transcripts. They confirmed my recollection of how fiery and intense our debates were. And when our talks were particularly moving and spiritual, it was thrilling to be able to relive those moments of mutual respect, compassion, and growth all over again. The beauty and universality of the experience was magnified by the existence of the transcripts
Suzanne: Our journal writing began with some broad topics that we wrote about individually. What brought us together? What's your religious background? What kind of God do you believe in? We generally shared our writing at the subsequent meeting, and that provided new avenues for discussion and more writing. Whenever we went anywhere together, we wrote about it. And whenever we experienced conflict, we wrote about it. The transcripts came in especially handy during these times because they enabled me to relive the conversations dispassionately. Freed from the anxiety I may have felt during the conversations, I could hear my Faith Club partners more clearly. And I could sometimes identify the source of my own anxiety. It was like being my own shrink.
Ranya: What I still find incredible about the Faith Club was the ease with which our dialogue flowed. The dialogue was addictive, and it became difficult to imagine life without it. There honestly was no shortage of material. Life was our abundant source, overflowing with questions, fears, and aspirations. The taped transcripts were essential to the writing process. They often served as the basis of personal reflections and as inspiration for new journal entries. They were the single most important point of departure and a concrete, tangible record of who we were and who we were becoming. They helped guard and preserve that memory as our ideas developed and became more refined. This was essential for the writing of the book.
Your children all play an important role in the development of the Faith Club--and of course, they were the inspiration for its initial meeting! What is the most poignant memory of your children during this process? Do you still plan to collaborate on a children's book?
Ranya: I have many wonderful memories! But if I have to single out one it would have to be when my husband and I were at Leia's first-grade parent - teacher conference and we were surprised at the work she had produced for a class project. As the only Muslim in her class, she was the one who had challenged me in the first place to embark on this journey--that first holiday season after 9/11-- when she asked me whether we celebrated Hanukah or Christmas. A year later, she could still be counted on to challenge my parenting skills. Her teacher had encouraged the students to finish off the phrase "It's okay to ----------" and then to draw an accompanying picture. My daughter, who had never complained or said a word to us, drew a picture of herself standing apart from two other girls holding hands. The caption read, "It's okay to be Muslim. It makes me feel weird when I am the only Muslim and everyone around me is either Christian or Jewish." The picture is now laminated and prominently displayed on my desk for inspiration (you can see a copy on our website, in our scrapbook.) Thankfully, Leia was soon encouraged to give her own "ten-questions" Muslim presentation, where she challenged stereotypes and affirmed her identity. I will never forget her pride and the light in her eyes as she shared with her peers her own empowered, confident American Muslim voice.
Priscilla: I loved talking to my children about Jesus Christ as I drove through the suburbs in my minivan, coming back from the mall. I truly appreciated Jesus and his message, after Suzanne shared things like the Sermon on the Mount and Ranya shared Gandhi's enormous admiration for Jesus. My children will never view Jesus as a stranger, the way I viewed him before I joined the Faith Club. As for the children's book, we are definitely writing one. Ranya introduced the notion to me, four years ago, that we are all Abraham's children. Now that I know that to be true, I want to share with children all over the world the fact that we are all one family.
Suzanne: My most poignant moment with my children was a minivan moment, too. We were driving to the Bronx Zoo when a theological argument broke out between my daughter, a believer, and my oldest son, a stubborn atheist. I retold the conversation in the book. Try as she might, my daughter was unable to convince my son that God exists. It makes me sad that Thomas doesn't have the same faith my husband and I do. I don't know why it comes naturally to my other two children but not to him. I think that eventually he will find his own Craig Townsend, the priest who helped me out of my religious confusion. In fact, Craig has offered to sit down with Thomas. If only I could get Thomas to agree to sit down with Craig!
All of you live in a relatively urban, religiously diverse environment--Suzanne and Ranya in New York City, Priscilla just outside it. How do you think the urban setting affected your faith club? Does living in a city make it more or less difficult for each of you to practice your own faiths?
Suzanne: For me, the fact that I live in New York City added urgency to my desire to understand other faiths. Here I know Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. I drive or walk by a mosque and many temples each day. And, unfortunately, our city was the site of the deadliest of the 9/11 attacks. As a New Yorker, I felt an obligation to understand my neighbors and those who consider us to be their enemy. However, now that our nation is at war, I think people across the whole country feel similarly compelled to learn more about Islam and the Middle East. I don't think living in an urban environment makes it more or less difficult to practice my faith than it would be elsewhere. What makes it easy is that I am part of a vibrant church community where there is opportunity for meaningful charitable work, spiritual education, and worship every day. Unfortunately, I have time to participate in only a small fraction of it. (Maybe that's because of the complexity of raising my kids in an urban environment!)
Priscilla: After 9/11, I was afraid to live in New York, but didn't want to flee the city that I loved. So my passion for New York challenged me to find faith and inner strength. The city, for me, is almost a character in this book. Because of its amazing diversity, I believe New York truly does represent the world, daring me to be brave and inspiring me to find the beauty in life behind all the pain. It is still an obvious terrorist target, but New York is a city worth the struggle it takes to live here. The vibrancy and diversity of every person and experience in New York is as inspiring as any natural wonder on earth. Life is full of many religious moments, whether I'm staring up at a skyscraper, watching crowds of people streaming past me, looking into the eyes of a stranger on a bus, or noticing the raindrops Ranya pointed out to me as they form their concentric circles in puddles on the street. Although I am enormously inspired by the city I love, I believe that I, along with anyone else, can find religion and faith anywhere, whether on the streets of New York, in a suburban synagogue, or, as I did in the book, in an airplane twenty thousand feet above the earth.
Ranya: New York is not just an urban setting. It was of course the city that was terrorized on 9/11 in the name of Islam. The only city my children have ever called home was suddenly in the grip of fear and terror invoked in the name of the very religion they were born into. The burden, the guilt, the anxiety, and the challenge this association involved was very much part of the genesis of the Faith Club. I was spiritually desolate, even desperate, in the aftermath of 9/11, but as a mother, apathy was no longer an option. I do not believe that city life affects the way I practice my faith. I like to believe that faith is something we carry within us that can inspire our daily actions and decisions. To have faith is ultimately to believe in our moral capacity as humans to do the right thing.
What is your favorite aspect of your own religion? Of the other two religions?
Suzanne: My favorite aspect of Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus. I love its demonstration of God's power over death and its suggestion that an afterlife with God is available to all of us. I like the humility of Muslims before God. Sometimes I want to get too familiar with God, which can be a recipe for disappointment. I think it's important to step back and remember that God is unknowable to us except in glimpses that may be confusing and frightening on their own. In Judaism, I like the fact that the home is the center of much of the prayer and prayer ritual. I think it builds strong faith and strong families, and it supports the idea that we can live our faith everywhere, not just inside a church, temple, or mosque.
Ranya: I love the fact that in Islam there are no stringent conversion rituals, nor any confirmation rituals required of Muslims. A Muslim is any person who has declared faith in God and who also recognizes Muhammad as the last of a series of Abrahamic prophets that include Moses and Jesus. A simple utterance of this declaration of faith makes you a Muslim. I also appreciate the absence of a clerical hierarchy (this is especially true for Sunni Muslims) that is supposed to act as an intermediary to God. Many verses in the Quran make it the responsibility of the believer to think, read, and apply his or her intellect to reach the proper moral conclusions. Judaism's American experience is certainly an inspiration that I hope one day Islam may be able to emulate, as it provides diversity and flexibility of worship for its followers in the New World by embracing multiple traditions: orthodox, conservative, and reform. In Christianity, I admire the higher ideals that Jesus modeled for humanity. I also think there is a joy and a sense of celebration of life that, although some complain may have gone overboard culturally in the festivities of the holiday traditions, I for one, applaud and enjoy.
Priscilla: I take enormous pride in the very survival of Judaism, in its sturdiness and endurance, thanks to the strong foundation of the Torah--which, according to our prayer book, is "a tree of life to those who hold fast to it." I love the running debate Jews are constantly having about their religion and the meaning of life. Debate keeps Judaism alive. And it prepared me for the debates I had in the Faith Club! I love the humility of Islam, the act of submission. When I integrated that humility into my life, it made me appreciate all the tiny, beautiful details of the world. I accepted my humble place on the planet. And, surprisingly, I discovered that acknowledging my humility, in the vastness of the universe, made me feel stronger. As for Christianity, I love Jesus and the message of his teachings. The Sermon on the Mount is one of my favorite things to reread over and over again.
At the end of the book, you provide a guide on how people can begin their own faith clubs. What is the single most important piece of advice you can give anyone who wants to start their own club? What kept the three of you coming back, despite conflicts, arguments, and prejudice?
Priscilla: Respect one another. If I hadn't felt that Suzanne and Ranya respected me as a human being, I would never have been able to open up to them, learn from them, and display the vulnerability and courage that fueled my spiritual growth. I kept coming back because I kept learning from Ranya and Suzanne about myself, my faith, all religions, and life itself.
Ranya: In order to have a truly meaningful faith club experience, you must ask yourself the difficult questions, be honest with yourself, and figure out what keeps you within your own religion. Is it because you feel it is a superior religion? Do you enjoy its cultural traditions? Do you believe that it is the only way one can truly worship God? What are your ideas about God, heaven, and prayer? Keep a journal of your thoughts and establish the trust and sincerity that will allow you to have a dialogue with your faith club partners. Sincerity is very important. From my personal experience, as long as you feel that your partners are sincere, then you should be able to weather any conflict. Trust me, you will soon find yourself addicted to the dialogue and to the higher, spiritual connections and bonds that you will have forged with your faith club partners along the way.
Suzanne: Read about the religions of your faith club partners. It will help you understand where they're coming from. Sometimes my outside reading filled in the gaps in my understanding of Judaism and Islam and helped me understand the perspectives of Ranya and Priscilla within their own religions. I kept coming back to our meetings because I was hooked. I loved what I was learning. I was interested in Ranya and Priscilla. I wanted to understand what made their faith tick, and I wanted to understand my own faith better, too. I may be in the minority on this one, but I think that testing the tenets of one's faith in a challenging and safe environment is an exciting thing to do!