Shared from the 11/4/2018 Houston Chronicle eEdition


Interfaith book club gives women chance to explore faith

Members come from many diverse backgrounds, and the only requirement is that they be open-minded

Michael Wyke / Contributor

Nancy Agafitei, a Christian, and Saadia Faruqi, a Muslim, have founded Women’s Voices, an interfaith book club.

When Nancy Agafitei met Saadia Faruqi, neither imagined they would join forces in the name of spreading tolerance and understanding.

Faruqi was simply searching for a way to get the word out about her mosque in the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in north Houston.

For Agafitei, it was the start of a personal journey. She wanted to learn more about her Muslim neighbors.

About eight years ago, Faruqi, the Pakistani American author of the children’s series “Yasmin,” asked then-branch librarian Agafitei, who is now retired, if the location would host a small exhibit about Qurans.

“For me this was asimple decision,” Agafitei said. “Public libraries provide the community with access to all kinds of information, so I booked a room for them.”

The event was such a success that Faruqi felt emboldened. She decided to take a chance and ask if Agafitei would be interested in hosting a book club at the library to discuss interfaith selections.

“Before I could even do anything, Nancy emailed me and said, ‘Let’s start a book club,’ ” Faruqi recalled.

They went to work and formed an interfaith group of women, where members could share stories, ask questions and dig deeper into belief systems.

“Women’s Voices: Community Conversations” meets at 12:30 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month at the Barbara Bush Library, 6817 Cypresswood Drive in Spring.

Participants agree to read a selected text each year and have a set couple of chapters to finish before the meeting. The book serves as alaunching point for discussions.

Formal meetings stop during the summer, but members continue to gather for potlucks and field trips.

Now, Women’s Voices is back in session. The group held its first meeting for this year’s book, “God of Love: a Guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” by Mirabai Starr, in September. New members are welcome to jump in at any time.

Women of all faiths are invited — as long as they are open-minded, Agafitei, the group’s facilitator said. She guides readers through a range of topics, from prayer and marriage to raising children and celebrating holidays.

“With most good books all you need are a couple of questions to get everyone started,” Agafitei said. “Everyone contributes, and everyone talks. We’ve laughed together; we’ve cried together. And we’ve made alot of friendships.”

Each member of the group also serves as an ambassador at her place of worship, bringing the lessons she’s learned at the interfaith group back with them.

About 35 women showed up for that first meeting eight years ago. Agafitei offered to host the group at her church, Hosanna Lutheran, 16526 Ella Blvd., and she selected the first title, “The Faith Club: a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew — three women search for understanding” by Rayna Idliby, Suzanne Oliver and Priscilla Warner.

“We started from scratch,” Agafitei said. “There was no other organization like this.”

A book club provided an approachable and safe way to examine important issues, she added.

“But it’s free-spirited,” Faruqi said. “You don’t have to read the book. The aim is just to bring people together and talk about what similarities we have and learn about each other’s faiths.”

Over time, the group has grown and changed. They moved their meetings to the Barbara Bush Library. The women became a tighter knit circle of friends.

In 2014, one of the members died, and women of all faiths worshipped together at the funeral to mourn her loss.

“Some of us have suffered serious illnesses, so we have started an interfaith prayer chain to support each other in the healing process,” Agafitei said. “Meetings have expanded to include visits to several mosques, Hindu temples, and Orthodox and Baptist churches. We have participated in celebrations for Hanukkah, Ramadan and the Christian holidays.”

They have also joined in service projects, including making quilts for the homeless and stocking food pantries with canned goods.

“Everyone has their own stories to tell,” Faruqi said. “Everyone has something to say. We’ve had people from all different traditions, and we’ve had people who don’t believe in any religion.”

She personally feels like her faith has changed because of the group. “We all have this mind-set that ours is the only way,” she said. “Interfaith dialogue is the opposite of that. Our religions are much more similar than we realize.”

Agafitei said having to explain her own religion helped strengthen her beliefs.

“Most of us would say that it makes us clarify our faiths,” she said.

Plus, the group is fun, Faruqi said. “It’s affirming,” she said. “It opens up a way for you to see things in a different light.”

Bertha Parle joined a few months ago, looking for new opportunities to learn after retiring as a professor.

She’s Catholic — attends good Shephard Catholic Church in Spring — and was looking forward to learning more about other religions firsthand.

“I love the interfaith discussions,” she said. “It makes you stop and think about what you’re doing and why someone else does it differently. You really grow from this experience.”

Faruqi said members come from all around.

“But you don’t have to come to our group,” she said. “If you live far away, start a group like this yourself. You will see yourself change, your perceptions change. And you won’t want to lose that.”

Agafitei also hopes the group in Spring will inspire others to start similar groups in other parts of Houston.

“Somebody might decide this would be neat to do in their area,” she said. “We have ideas to help. I’m always willing to share that information.”

“The aim is just to bring people together.”
— Saadia Faruqi

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