The Who, What and Why of WISDOM – Part 1

The Who, What and Why of WISDOM – Part 1 June 26, 2016

As an Advisory Board member of the Michigan-based interfaith organization, WISDOM, I had the opportunity to be part of the keynote address at the 62nd annual meeting of the National Association of the Congregational Christian Churches, held in metro-Detroit this year. WISDOM is a non-profit interfaith organization, and its acronym is quite a mouthful: Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in Metro-detroit. But our message is simple. We are women who are leaders in our own ethnic and religious communities, but realize it is important to reach out across all that divides us, to build relationships – to build peace, one friend at a time.

Trish Harris, one of the founders, Gigi Salka (a former Board member, like me) and I were invited to present a session about WISDOM at conference at the request of Rev. Mimi Biedron (whose friendship with us “WISDOM sisters” will be told another day). We attempted to bring more than a decade of WISDOM’s efforts to build a more pluralistic society to an audience of several hundred from around the country, all in less than an hour. Our joint keynote really tied in to the theme of the NACCC Conference, Who is Your Neighbor? (Luke 10:29), and the audience was able to obtain copies of “the WISDOM book,” Friendship and Faith. Trish, a Roman Catholic, Gigi, a Muslim, and I were able to explain the who, what, why of WISDOM’s  efforts respectively in each of our speeches, explaining our mission statement as we did so.

WISDOM Mission Statement
To Provide concrete modeling of women from different faith traditions working together in harmony for the common good.
To Empower women to take a more active role in furthering social justice and world peace.
To Dispel myths, stereotypes, prejudices and fear about faith traditions different from our own.
To Nurture the growth of empathy and spiritual energy that result from our projects and interfaith dialogue.

As I heard each of our speeches, I thought this was the beginning of a great three-part story on how a Catholic, a Muslim and a Hindu shared the importance of being involved in interfaith activities, with Congregational Christians as they gathered to answer the question “Who is Your Neighbor?”… Here’s Part 1.

Trish Harris on WHO is WISDOM: The Beginnings of WISDOM as a Way to Build Peace. 

I’m here this afternoon to share the story of a small group of women who came together 10 years ago and have been prodding Detroit’s interfaith consciousness ever since. At first, I believed that Gail, a Jew,Shahina , a Muslim and I, a Roman Catholic Christian met by chance, but now I clearly see God’s hand in our meeting, our friendships and in the foundation of WISDOM (Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in Metro Detroit.)

The most difficult thing about putting today’s remarks together was how to distill and communicate a meaningful message from 10 years of lived and shared experience in the space of 10 minutes….quite a challenge, but here we go…

Detroit is blessed with a degree of diversity not found in many places in our country. The diversity is mostly due to the influx of different populations settling here as a result of the availability of jobs in the auto industry. If I wanted to enumerate the different ethnicities, and nationalities that have made Detroit their home, it would be a lengthy list, suffice it to say that you would be hard pressed to name an ethic group or nationality not represented in Metro Detroit.

What is diversity? … How have you personally experienced diversity? … And probably most importantly, what do you believe about diversity? In that examination of belief, have you ever really thought about why God didn’t create us all the same? He certainly could have if he had wanted to…. Is there a reason and purpose to our creation in different sizes, shapes, colors and creeds? … Perhaps, just perhaps, God created diversity as a divine teaching tool for you and me, that in grappling with the challenges and joys of diversity we can grow in our love and understanding of each other and the God that created us.

WISDOM has used our faith in a higher power and relational skills, which seem most prevalent in women, to increase acceptance, understanding and respect among people of difference and to provide a safe space for encounter, where friendships can begin and be nurtured between individuals and faith communities.

Over the last ten years, WISDOM, an entirely volunteer nonprofit, has produced or sponsored 172 programs of various types, ie. (House of Worship visits, movie and book discussions, public forums on critical topics, Life cycle programs, programs based on race or faith tradition, and programs on women’s issues.) We have used community service programs as a way to gather together people who would not normally come in contact with one another, and jointly do “good” for the community by, feeding the hungry, improving the environment, and helping our school children. We have partnered with public schools, colleges, hospitals, senior centers, houses of worship, other nonprofits, faith affiliated organizations, individuals and businesses. WISDOM has presented at Harvard, at NAIN – the North American Interfaith Network conference, the World Views Seminar at University of Michigan, and at the Islamic Association of North American conference in Chicago. We have received the Hindu American Foundations “Friend of the Community Award “for our support and encouragement that the Hindu Community has a seat at the interfaith table in Metro Detroit, and will receive in October, the IFLC – Interfaith Council of Metro Detroit, Interfaith Leadership Award for significant and sustained efforts at building interfaith bridges of understanding and relationship among individuals and faith communities.

WISDOM has provided Detroit, a diverse but segregated (mainly due to “white flight “to the suburbs) a powerful, positive model of women from different faiths working for the common good of the whole community. We have developed and implemented both educational and community service programs to both increase the intellectual understanding of different faith traditions and encourage the growth of personal relationships. If the truth be known, the biggest impact and change in the community has occurred not through an understanding of other’s belief systems but through getting to know each other as women and human beings… the biggest changes have come through changes in our “hearts” not our “heads”.

What started as three women meeting for coffee and then for dinners to talk about the possibility of bringing women together to learn about their differences but also discover their common humanity ,continues to stand as a constant reminder of what is possible through commitment, and faith in God ,and in each other.

One of the things that have kept going has been working together on programs and projects. A primary project was the writing of our book “Friendship and Faith” which took us over a year of time and tears to bring to fruition. In its birthing, we were changed, we grew more cohesive as a group, surprised at our ability to create a book and more comfortable with taking on new challenges and succeeding.

“Friendship and Faith” creates a window into the daily lives and faith worlds of women from different faith traditions; it is an intimate glimpse into a very personal world usually reserved for good friends and family. This book extends the reach of WISDOM’s message of the importance of relationship and empowerment to places we will never physically go and to people we will never meet, except for our images created on the printed page.

This book dealing with the crossing of boundaries and building bridges of understanding and respect, is being made available to you by your host committee. Friendship and Faith and the bibliography in your conference information packet, may be helpful in starting your examination of both “Who is My Neighbor” and your own interfaith journey.

Another project that was integral in keeping us together and moving us forward was the development of the  Five Women/ Five Journeys Program, which Gigi will speak to you about along with some Myths and Challenges in interfaith work.

I would like to conclude my portion of the presentation by sharing a simple story and asking you a question.

Whenever anyone begins a new endeavor into unknown territory, we all are challenged by myths, stereotypes but most of all, by our own fears.  In this analogy, the unknown territory is represented by a boiling pot of water.  Let’s talk about three possibilities.  There are people who are like eggs. When you drop an egg into boiling water, it hardens and toughens and becomes inflexible. Other people are like carrots. When you drop a carrot into boiling water, the carrot gets mushy and soft and loses its backbone. But some people are like beans… coffee beans. When you drop a coffee bean into the boiling water it shares its essence and transforms the water around it.

Which one will you be, the egg, the carrot or the coffee bean in your journey of reaching  out to people different than yourself … “How deep is your heart and how wide is your embrace?”

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