Women’s Voices

Women’s Voices began in 2010 when a group of women from diverse backgrounds met at an interfaith program organized by Nancy Agafitei, then a Branch Librarian at a Harris County  Public Library in the Houston area. Their shared curiosity about other people’s cultural beliefs and traditions led them to forge deep friendships. Those friendships led to the formation an interfaith book club in 2012 that continues to meet today. The book club is open to all women who want to engage in respectful discussion on topics of spirituality and religion.

Nancy said that the group’s first selection was The Faith Club: a Muslim, a Christian, and a Jew, by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner. She explained, “Every year we choose another book and continue our conversation, even moving to Zoom for a time when the pandemic would not allow us to meet in person. Today we call the group ‘Women’s Voices.’”

Safe Place to Meet and Learn

When women provide a space where those present feel safe a close community forms, wounds heal, seeds of hope grow, and much more than discussing books takes root and grows. Nancy asked members of the group what drew them to participate and shared their responses with me.

Mary Davis, a member of a United Church of Christ congregation, said she joined because she was missing the daily diversity in her life that she treasured when she was teaching and had a wider variety of contacts and interactions in her life. “I was missing the variety of experiences from my mostly white, middle-class life. Besides the great camaraderie, I appreciate the interactions with these women and their religious communities.”

Feeling Valued, Accepted, and Appreciated

Bertha Ibarra Parle, a Catholic, said, “We come from different religious traditions, yet we each feel valued, accepted, appreciated.  Through the readings and discussion, we are challenged to grow, to learn from each other. We are all on different paths, all with the same purpose: to know and love God and serve others.”

Samia Nazir, a Muslim member of the group, said, “Previously I was involved in the Islamic Art Society, a majority female-dominated organization. I am also involved in the Hijabi Project 101 where I feature YouTube biographical stories of ladies who wear the Islamic headscarf. With each new female featured, this has become an ever-enlarging sisterhood for me. With the intention of further expanding my female kinship, I joined the Women’s Voices forum.

She added that Women’s Voices provides a wealth of experience shared by the ladies, each with a unique vantage point coming from different experiences, at different stages of life. The group includes atheist, Catholic, Muslim, married, widowed, divorcing, single, conservative, and liberal. Though the differences are endless, participants form a common bond.

Sharing Vulnerabilities and Secrets

Presbyterian Elizabeth Jeter agrees. “The fact that we have come from different faith traditions and have opened up in that area has led to our opening up in other parts of our lives: our vulnerabilities, our secrets, our fears, our joys. It has led to our feeling safe and wanting more time with each other.”

Penny Leas claims no particular faith affiliation, but finds, “As a result of joining this wonderful group, I’ve spent the last fifteen months helping Afghan refugees receive clothing, housewares, carpets, and furniture to help make their families more comfortable as they adjust to life in a completely different culture and part of the world.”

Better Understand Our World

Hindu member Ooma Lakshmanan said she joined, “To better understand the world we live in. I found like-minded people who I think I can truly call friends.”

Episcopalian Linda Barry said, “ I have come to call people of many faith traditions and no faith tradition friends. I have broadened my understanding of God and I see God in those I meet as a result of my connection with this group.”

Baptist Ann Sullivan noted, “My brain and my heart have grown through the books we have read and the connections I have made with women of many faiths or no formal faith connection.”

Diane Hunt, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints community, said those who participate in such a group should “Expect to make new and genuine friends. Expect to have your ideas and beliefs and reality challenged. Expect to grow firmer in your own faith and beliefs. Expect to be enlightened, loved, and listened to, as well as lift, love, and listen to others.”

Mary agrees. “If you are interested in expanding your horizons and learning about other cultures/religions/experiences this is your group.”

No Monopoly on Truth and Goodness

Asked about things they learned that they hadn’t realized they needed to learn, Mary said, “Through this group, I learned the world is a lot smaller. When the floods hit Pakistan last year, they affected family members from this group. It wasn’t just something that happened on the other side of the world.”

Diane, “I do not have a monopoly on truth and goodness. Anyone that brings joy and goodness to the world is worth knowing.”

Samia said, “I learned to be a listener so I can learn. We think our own views and trials are the most overriding narrative in the world till we hear the personal accounts of others. In this forum, I had to detach my emotional self from anything I shared. This forced me to be objective about my experiences. It felt like a big step towards growing up, which I will probably be doing in other ways till the day I die.”

How Much Alike We All Are

Linda noted, “My life is enriched by new ideas. It is critical for me to hear the voices of people whose lives are different from mine. I see how much alike we all are.  I see how I may worship in a different way from you, but I have come to know that no matter how a person worships he/she was created by God and is much loved.  And there are things to learn from each person I encounter that enrich my life.”

Penny said, “I have spent much of my life meeting and working with people from different countries and faith traditions and I believe this experience is invaluable to becoming a more open-minded and well-rounded person.  Having lived my whole life in Texas (thus far) I realize how easily I could tuck myself into a silo and never meet anyone with different experiences than my own, so instead I purposely expose myself to people who have a broader experience of the world through their faith, their culture, and the details of their specific lives.

Diane summed up the value of getting to know people from cultures different than our own. “Anytime we expand our circle of relationships to include those who look or think differently than ourselves, there is space to understand and love more deeply. An ability to sympathize and even empathize becomes a reality as we share our vulnerabilities and listen to learn. Interacting with others who desire to understand makes the world more tolerable, good, and joyful.”

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. Retired Librarian Nancy Agafitei has put together a list of resources the group has used. You can download it here. Share it with a friend or sign up for your own free subscription at HowWiseThen. I will not sell your information. Select a monthly newsletter and/or weekly articles about whatever’s on my mind that week.

Mary Brewster’s Love Life and Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures: available wherever books are sold. Bookshop.org/Mayflower; Mary Brewster
Amazon.com/Mary Brewster’s Love Life
Autographed copies are available on my website.

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