The Who, What and Why of WISDOM – Part 2

The presentation by the WISDOM panel at the NACCC Annual Conference continues, where former WISDOM Board member Gigi Salka shares her experience as a part of this women’s interfaith organization for nearly a decade. She provides anecdotes from our 5 Women, 5 Journeys signature program that WISDOM has been doing over the years – along with our monthly e-News, which you can subscribe to here.

Five Women Five Journeys – How Different Are We?

Five Women Five Journeys

This unique WISDOM program features personal stories of women of different faith traditions – how their childhood impacted their beliefs today, what the challenges are for women in their faith tradition, what parts of their religion are misunderstood, how reaching out to someone from a different faith has enriched their lives. To inquire about a Five Women Five Journeys Program for your organization, contact Paula Drewek at Drewekpau@aol.com.

Gigi’s presentation took me back through the many times we have served together – not just on the 5W5J panels, but also in many of our other community service and education programs, dispelling stereotypes, and building space for understanding as we find common ground. Here is Part 2…

Gigi Salka on What WISDOM Does: Interfaith is Challenging Myths

Good Afternoon. My name is Gigi Salka and I served as a board member with WISDOM during the early years. I currently serve on the Advisory Board. My continued commitment to WISDOM is not based only on the wonderful work that we do bringing people from different backgrounds together, but because of the strong friendships I have developed with these ladies over the years and the new friendships I make along the way. WISDOM is not a job that we do, it is who we are. It is the life we live every day, and the choices we make along the way. Saying “Salam” to a Muslim in the grocery store, enjoying an interfaith Seder with our Jewish friends, observing a Christmas mass, and celebrating with our Hindu friends during Diwali. WISDOM is a place where women bond across faith traditions by sharing their life experiences. We have shared seeing our children grow up, graduate high school/ college and even getting married; we have shared the loss of loved ones and family members; and we have stood strong together when our communities have been challenged with stereotypes and negativism.

Over the past ten years, WISDOM through our interfaith activism has strengthened our community. It is imperative for all of us to take the first step reaching out beyond our tight inner circles – it is only by stepping out of our comfort zone that we can begin to develop the relationships so crucially needed for interfaith understanding; as a friend once said: “It is only when the uncomfortable becomes comfortable that we can begin to make a difference.”

WISDOM has been the agent that provides the safe space for people to come together dispelling the fears that people have of meeting the “other” or venturing into unknown spaces like houses of worship different than their own. People are afraid to lose their own faith, they are afraid of proselytizing, they are afraid that they must compromise their own beliefs for the sake of peace. In reality, the women of WISDOM have found that their own faith is strengthened and deepened due to the dialogue with other faiths. Women are eager to share their faith traditions and find that we have more in common than we have differences. They find that peace is accomplished through mutual respect and understanding without compromising one’s own beliefs. At WISDOM we work diligently to ensure no one feels they need to compromise. For example, we take great care in scheduling our events so that they do not conflict with any religious holidays or holy days. As you can imagine, that becomes quite a challenge. Fridays are the Muslim holy day, Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath, and Sunday is the Christian holy day, including other high holy days in the other faith traditions as well. But we always make it work.

Another challenge we face, is food. Our programs always involve breaking bread together. We have found that breaking bread together breaks down barriers and gives people a chance to get to know each other on a more personal level. The challenge is making sure we are respectful of everyone’s faith tradition. During our Soul Sanctuary Program at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church and a tour of the Charles Wright Museum, we wanted to include a “Soul Food Lunch”. What is soul food? Ribs – which is pork, our Jewish and Muslim friends cannot eat, catfish – which has no scales therefore our Jewish friends can’t eat, and the salad vegetables that consisted of carrots and onions which our Jain friends couldn’t eat because they are root vegetables. But we made it work, and had a wonderful time.  We strive to make everyone comfortable.

Unfortunately, despite WISDOM’s dedication to bringing people together, and the personal stories we have with each other, it is always difficult to get publicity for our programs and their impact. “Good” news doesn’t interest the media.  It is the faith based communities that are the leaders in making a positive difference but it is hard to get the message out.  WISDOM addresses this issue by providing resources on our website, and publishing our monthly online newsletter which details community interfaith events and articles highlighting interfaith initiatives nationally.

WISDOM is focused on dispelling stereotypes and encouraging dialogue through our signature 5W5J panel. It is a panel of 5 women from 5 different faith traditions speaking of their personal stories in their faith. For example, what was it like growing up in your faith tradition? What do you see as the role of women in your faith tradition?  These personal stories form a connection with our audience and display the real friendships among the panelists without getting into theological dogma. We have presented the 5W5J program 53 times since 2008 in public schools/ colleges, libraries, hospitals, senior citizen centers, houses of worship and even at Saks Fifth Avenue. We presented all over Michigan, not just Metro Detroit, including Ohio and Salt Lake City Utah.

I will share with you an interesting story: 5W5J was first presented at the Birmingham Temple along with a potluck dinner. It was one of the first programs that WISDOM hosted. As most of you probably know, Muslims pray five times a day. During the program, it was time for the Muslims to perform their prayers, so they excused themselves, found a quite space and conducted their mandatory prayer which lasts around 3-5 minutes, and returned to programming as usual. This is a perfect example of people coming together sharing their faith stories, living their daily lives together, and experiencing the beauty of the differences and commonalities God has blessed us all with.

Another 5W5J story: WISDOM was presenting to 5th and 6th graders at a local middle school. Keeping in mind the age of the audience and the venue (a public school), the panelists made sure to present their stories in an educationally appropriate format. During the Q&A portion of the program, a 5th grader asked the question: “Why are you here? You just want to convert us.” As the WISDOM panelists always do, they reassured the student that these are personal stories and experiences of ladies from different backgrounds sharing their stories and no one was there to convert anyone. The teacher, who is known for his support of diversity and inclusion, used this as a teaching moment for his class. He explained the importance of learning about the “other” to create a more inclusive school environment and community.  This incident highlighted to us the importance of the work WISDOM does. Children aren’t politically correct and most often don’t have a filter when they voice their opinions; and their opinions are usually formed from the adults in their lives. People are scared of what they do not know.

WISDOM encourages religious leaders and people of faith to prioritize the need for dialogue and not wait until a community is being targeted and stereotyped to intervene – WISDOM has developed those community relationships and is always there to stand in solidarity with our neighbors in the good times and the hard times. WISDOM helps build those bridges of understanding and friendship now – not as a reaction to certain events, but truly build an inclusive welcoming community of neighbors.

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