Breaking the ice on interfaith dialogue

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The Tribune

Kathy Hanson

Emily Hull’s shy remark broke the ice for an interfaith circle of about 15 women who met for the first time Saturday in the kitchen of the Darul Arqum Islamic Center of Ames.

Before it was her turn to speak, Hull had heard introductions by about three-quarters of the women, who ranged in age from teens to 70s. Mostly Muslims and Catholics, the women described their countries of origin, the years they’ve lived in Ames, their education and credentials, their families and hobbies, and their reasons for seeking an interfaith group.

After summing up her life history — a move from Washington State to pursue doctoral studies in chemistry at Iowa State University, a conversion to Islam in 2007, a husband from Pakistan, and a 2-year old daughter — Hull said simply, “I like to sew.”

What began as an orderly thread of introductions erupted around the table into a melee of confessed sewing failures, boasts of successes, and quips, puns and anecdotes on the subject of sewing.

It wasn’t the topic facilitator Sue Stanton had planned for the group, which she dubbed “Kitchen Table Talk.”

The diversion did, however, accomplish Stanton’s main goal for initiating the group and scheduling its inaugural meeting to coincide with Interfaith Harmony Week, a global observance begun last year by a United Nations resolution.

“I wanted to provide a safe, comfortable place for Muslim women to interact with women of other faiths,” she said.

When the conversation turned to the subject of violence, the topic Stanton had brought to the table, the women expressed opinions about the different ways in which men and women sometimes approach and solve problems.

Haifa Akili, a member of the Muslim community, said women hone some of their conflict-resolution skills by parenting several children at a time who have different personalities and temperaments.

“Women figure out different solutions to problems,” she said.

Lois Lehmkuhl, a member of St. Cecilia Church, said changes in Iowa’s gun laws, for example, scare her

.

Nermin Sabry, who is principal and teacher at the Islamic Center’s religious school, shared Lehmkulh’s concern.

“What kind of message are we giving to our children?” she asked.

Stanton said she typically presents a problem to discuss for the first hour of the interfaith groups she facilitates, “to see if just by chatting and discussing, we could begin to solve the problem.”

Sue Prins, a Christian who affiliates with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), said

the sewing conversation boiled down a metaphor for the group’s task.

“If the sewing machine skips stitches, don’t give it away because you think it’s broken,” Prins said. “Change the needle.”

Such change happens, Stanton said, when people of different faiths meet and intentionally seek what they have in common.

Pictures this week of Christians shielding Muslims in Cairo so the Muslims could pray in the midst of violent government protests, Stanton said, underscored the reason for hope that peaceful dialogue is possible among people of different faiths.

To jumpstart interfaith dialogue in Ames, Stanton launched an interfaith outreach she calls OASIS in April 2007, on behalf of St. Cecilia Catholic Church. Since its foundation, the group has met bimonthly in conjunction with the Ames Jewish Congregation and the Darul Alqum Islamic Center.

“It has acted as safe harbor for (more than) 400 people in respectful dialogue both religious and secular,” Stanton said.

Rose Tondra, a member of St. Cecilia Catholic Church, said visiting each others’ places of worship helped her understood better the “sense of the holy and the mystery of God” that the people of the other faiths were engaged in.

“They all have a sense of reverence that helped me understand what they were about,” she said.

Akili, who also participates in the OASIS group, said she’s discovered that all religions are based on similar values.

“God desires the happiness of man, and the religions are a means to ensure that happiness,” she said. “Different religions should not lead to conflict but to the opposite; they should lead to unity for all human beings.”

About Interfaith Harmony Week

Proposed in 2010 by King Abdullah II and Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, of Jordan.

Approved by a United Nations resolution, and will fall on the first week of February of every year to promote harmony between all people regardless of their faith.

The Ames interfaith group OASIS will meet from 2 to 4 p.m. today at St. Cecilia Catholic Church, 30th Street and Hoover Avenue, Ames.

Kathy Hanson can be reached at (515) 663-6933 or khanson@amestrib.com.

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