Women from Unitarian Universalist and Muslim congregations in Silver Spring, Md., meet each month.
The group was brought together by Qur’an-burning Florida pastor Terry Jones. Well, not directly, of course. Jones would never approve of such interfaith fraternizing.
More properly, the group developed out of the friendship between the Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay, senior minister of the UU church, and Tazeen Ahmad, a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, which is headquartered in Silver Spring.
A little background: following Jones’ initial effort to burn a Qur’an in 2010, the UU congregation reached out to members of the mosque. Even before that, Maclay had received a Qur’an from Imam Shamshad Nasir of the Ahmadiyya Community.
When Jones came back into the news again in April 2012 for burning another Qur’an, Maclay donated hers to a new scripture library at her congregation. It was the first book for the library.
A church member wrote about the gift in a letter which was published in the Washington Post. Word spread through the Muslim community about the gift and Ahmad got in touch with Maclay. “The letter inspired me. I felt like I had to reach out to her,” said Ahmad.
The two women decided to work together. The question was how. Ever since 9/11 UUs in Maclay’s congregation had expressed interest in establishing relationships with local Muslim communities, but no one was quite sure how to go about it. There would be initial get-togethers, but after that it was hard to find a way to continue.
That question was still in the air in 2012. “We were trying to figure out what would be the glue that would allow us to continue to meet long enough to forge relationships,” said Maclay. “Our goal was to build community. Muslims in this country are incredibly isolated and that’s a dangerous and unjust situation.”
Ahmad too had been looking for ways to create community with other groups. She echoed Maclay’s observation that it was challenging to keep an interfaith relationship going. “Initially people are always very nice, but then after the event that brought us together we go our separate ways. We wanted to connect on a deeper level.”
The two figured it might be easier for women of a combined group if they had something to focus on besides each other. To determine what that might be, Ahmad and Maclay met once a month for a full year for lunch. “I shared about who I am, how I live, what kinds of relationships I have,” said Maclay. “She talked about what she did and what she cared about. We had really good conversations and it made a huge difference. The more I got to know Tazeen, I knew we could make this work.”
At the end of their year of meeting together the two decided to form a book group, inviting women of both faiths. Almost 20 women gathered in Maclay’s living room for the first session. Now, for almost two years they have met in members’ homes for a dinner and discussion about the book of the month. At the end of the evening they pick a book for the next month.
Ahmad, who has just completed a journalism degree program, said there was a little apprehension at the first meeting, “but by the end we were all very comfortable with each other.” Most of the women come directly from work, and discuss the books over a meal that is sometimes quite elaborate, given the multitude of cultures that are present.
“Food creates a very comfortable atmosphere,” said Ahmad. “What I notice is how happy everyone is to be there, and how animated the meetings are.”
Books the group has read include The Spiral Staircase, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Train to Pakistan, Caleb’s Crossing, Gilead, and Nathan the Wise, a German Enlightenment play.
“The books give us an opportunity to look at issues from different perspectives and to learn about the misconceptions we might have about each other. That’s been the beautiful part,” said Ahmad. One of the books the group read was Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time. Said Maclay, “It was a different experience when half the people in the room were of that faith.”
Maclay believes the group will endure. “We’ve built important friendships and a real understanding of each other as individuals. We have long-running jokes together. The group is important to us all, but what’s been a wonderful surprise, it’s also joyous to us all. We love each other and we love being together. I hope this never ends.”
Photograph (above): Participants in the UU/Muslim women's book group in Silver Spring, Md. (© Don Berkemeyer).
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.
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