Friday, April 29, 2011

Women of Faith

In this very large city where I live, there is an active interfaith community. One of the regular events is a Women of Faith dinner, held several times a year. The host religion invites women of all faiths to come to their building, learn about their religion, have a dinner—usually vegetarian to accommodate the various religious requirements, but also to be a cultural culinary experience. At the various tables where we eat, we discuss our varied religions. Usually there are some prompt questions to help get the sharing started.

I have been to six now: my own, a historic black church, then the Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, and last night Zoroastrians. Besides being very educational, each of these events has been personally spiritually uplifting. There is a sense of safety, of interest to learn without condemnation, of wanting to understand—a willingness to be friends.

At my table last night there were two Zoroastrians (immigrated from India and Pakistan, and very happy to be living here), a well-versed Catholic woman, a Unitarian, and young Muslim woman. Our conversation was a delight. The young Muslim woman, a third grade teacher at a Muslim school, was especially enlightening, since I haven’t been to a mosque yet. She grew up in Minnesota, plus spent a number of years on military bases, with her parents. So while her heritage is Indian (or possibly Pakistani, I forget), she is very American.

She is Sunni, but to her there is a fluidity among sects. In this city she says there is little separation between Sunni and Shia, as there is in many war-torn countries, and she would probably be welcome wherever she chose to attend in the city. But she is comfortable with the local mosque she knows, that feels familiar. About half of US Muslims, she said, are African American, and they do tend to worship separately, probably more for cultural than doctrinal differences.

She isn’t married yet, and her parents are leaving that to her—no matchmaker as they’d had in their generation. But dating is only for courtship, which so far hasn’t led to anything. She is young and pretty, so I’m sure marriage and family will come. All the subjects she teaches are in English, but she does believe in learning scripture verses in Arabic, for girls as well as boys. If this young woman were the face of Islam worldwide, I would see her religion only as peace and goodness. And it is likely this is true of the vast majority of people of her faith.

The Zoroastrians summed up their code as: good thoughts, good words, good deeds. I have no argument with that. In fact, every time I have attended a Women of Faith event, I have encountered women who abide by their faith tradition because they believe it makes them better people and brings them greater peace and happiness in life. Women of most faiths value truth, honesty, family, passing along their values to their children, respecting others, making good choices, and sharing with others.

Some time ago a friend my husband grew up with was working on a book about talking about religion, a way of asking questions, exploring without judgment, for greater understanding. It was a good idea, but as I read a couple of sample chapters I thought, that is what we do here. Let the women get together to share an evening together, and the result is peace, friendship, and understanding.

I am a firm in my own religion, and I believe that if everyone believed and lived according to my religion, we would have not only worldwide peace but also flourishing civilization. But since we don’t all believe the same, my plan B belief is that if everyone earnestly strived to live their own religion, emphasizing truth, goodness to one another, and strong families, then civilization would have more than just a fighting chance; it would just about be guaranteed.

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