After successfully starting a group for discussing the similarities and differences between their three faiths, Suzanne Oliver, Priscilla Warner, and Ranya Tabari Idliby wrote The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew--Three Women Search for Understanding
(2006), a book about their experiences. The memoir chronicles how these three women found common ground and developed a close enough relationship to talk at length about the thorny issues that often divide believers of different faiths. The book features sections written by Oliver, Warner, and Idliby in the first person, detailing individual experiences, as well as transcripts of their tape-recorded conversations. By the end, each of the women has developed a clearer relationship with her own religion, as well as profound respect for the religions of her two club members.
Several months after the terrorist attacks that toppled the World Trade Center buildings in New York City on September 11, 2001, Idliby’s kindergarten-aged daughter asked her whether Palestinian Muslims like them celebrated Hanukkah or Christmas. Idliby realized that she had been putting her moderate Islam beliefs on the back burner for too long, and resolved to teach her daughter about her heritage through an easily accessible children’s book. Before long, her idea grew. The book’s new concept was to tackle all three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, so she asked Oliver, whose children went to her daughter’s school, to contribute a section on what it is like to be an Episcopalian. In turn, Oliver turned to her acquaintance Warner, a Reform Jew, to be a coauthor as well.
When the three women first started meeting in the fall of 2002, their idea was to teach their own children, and any children who read their book, about religious tolerance. The book would explain their faiths’ commonalities, drawing on their experiences of belonging to the liberal, non-fundamentalist branches of their religions. But what Oliver, Warner, and Idliby soon realized was that their meetings were broadening into dialogues about their beliefs about God, the thorny issues within their faiths, their dedication to social justice, and their fears and hopes for themselves and their loved ones.
These biweekly meetings turned into a “faith club” where the women could use the time in whichever way seemed most pressing: “Whenever someone had a particular subject she wanted to discuss, she was free to call a meeting and set the agenda for that meeting.” Soon, these conversations seemed “sacred” and invaluable to the women, who each came into the group with unresolved issues around faith and belief.
For Idliby, her belief in God has never been in doubt, but her ability to find kinship with her fellow Muslims was complicated by the fact that she practices a very moderate version of the religion. As someone who doesn’t cover her head or do many of the other things prescribed by more conservative worshippers, Idliby often felt she wasn’t “a real Muslim.”
Warner, on the other hand, was deeply connected to Jewish culture, traditions, and community, but had a less secure connection with her faith, which had always seemed secondary and stressful to contemplate.
Finally, Oliver, who had migrated from her childhood Catholicism to the more liberal Episcopal Church as an adult, seemed the most at ease with both her religious community and her own beliefs – although this ease came with a rigid adherence to doctrine.
For the two years that the women met to talk, they didn’t shy away from thorny problems. In the book, they touch on anti-Semitism, prejudice against Muslims, and the fundamentalists who have come to define the public face of Christianity. At the same time, they find surprising common ground, like the fact that Idliby’s childhood Islamic education included the Gospels and the Torah. As she writes, “Muslims are required to believe in the Gospels and the Torah. Your God is the Muslim God, too.” For Suzanne, this was a highlight: “Muslims believe in the Gospels and the Torah? Our religions were closer than I had ever thought. It was thrilling.”
Having to articulate their beliefs on a biweekly basis caused each of the women to really think deeply about the way she connected with her faith, her values, and what the practice of her religion would be like going forward. For Idliby, the feeling of not belonging eventually faded after she found a community of like-minded progressive American Muslims to join. Warner resolved some of the unease she felt in talking about God and praying, seeming to connect a newly found element of faith to her strong sense of Jewishness. Moreover, Oliver’s seeming sense of complete security was undercut by her shifting beliefs, which caused her to start questioning some of her more dogmatic attitudes.
The book ends with a chapter that explains how readers can go about creating “faith clubs” of their own – an idea that has proven popular. They suggest books to prompt discussion, questions to get conversation flowing, and how to keep the open-mindedness that is necessary to have an enriching experience.