Associate Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU
Women no longer strangers, now work for understanding and peace
I often find myself saying, “We don’t have to wait for the worst to happen, in order to be our best toward our neighbor.”
This has become somewhat of a mantra in our interfaith efforts here in West Michigan as the Kaufman Institute strives to build bridges and foster relationships between multifaith congregations and communities. Certainly, horrific events like the hostage situation at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, illumine for us the importance of fostering understanding to combat hatred and the power of solidarity when faith communities come together in support of one another.
Our local interfaith community has grown together in large part due to the tireless efforts of women across different traditions who have committed themselves to that work of building understanding through connection. For example, Sylvia Kaufman initiated the Jewish-Christian-Muslim Triennial Dialogue in Muskegon, networked area universities and seminaries into an Interfaith Academic Consortium, and established the Kaufman Institute at Grand Valley State University.
Likewise, Ghazala Munir, Marchiene Rienstra and Lillian Sigal co-founded the Interfaith Dialogue Association, a grassroots organization that has for over three decades strived to advance knowledge, understanding, tolerance, and acceptance. Across the region, the Sisters of Faith group continues to meet in places of worship for the purpose of building bonds of friendship and sharing the beauty of each other’s traditions.
At the national level, filmmaker and producer Kirsten Kelly has been following the work of another interfaith effort led by extraordinary women, the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. This group was established by two women, one Muslim and one Jewish, who dared to believe they could bring women together across their faith traditions to join hands in stopping the surge of white supremacy and hate crimes in our country. After seeing the Sisterhood featured in The New York Times, Kelly and film partner Katie Taber set out to learn more.
“In the first months of 2017, with the rise of hate and the Muslim ban announced, we saw the powerful response of the Sisterhood and how their work and mission were approaching hate in a new and more hopeful way,” Kelly shared. “What was so compelling was that they were NOT fighting hate with hate. They were intentionally building relationships with those across differences. They were standing up strongly in solidarity against hate.”
The Sisterhood recognized that authentic relationships built on trust were essential for advancing peace and understanding. As Kelly observes, they undertook this work “by deepening bonds of friendship, with creating opportunities for dialogue across differences, and leading by example of listening with open minds and hearts. In a world that was fast becoming about quick judgments, blame and violence, we saw this story as an antidote to the chaos and division.
“What I love about the story of the Sisterhood is that they brought this work - this hopeful activism - into their homes,” she adds. “They intentionally focused on providing the space and time to build trust and friendship. This is not done overnight. It is done with time and intention. They make room for differences of opinions and allow for sharing different perspectives which requires deep listening.”
Kelly’s 2021 documentary film, Stanger/Sister, follows the story of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom as they work to bring people together at a time when our country couldn’t be more divided. It showcases the power and difficulty of combating hate and violence with compassion and empathy. Ultimately, it is a lesson in vulnerability.
“My favorite line in the film is ‘We must come to this with our armor down.’ To me that is a different kind of listening - it is listening without proving right or wrong,” Kelly notes. “I think it’s important to showcase these stories to show how it is possible to live together, support one another, allow for differing opinions and faiths to coexist, and this can make your own life and your own faith deeper and richer.”
As a native of West Michigan, Kelly reflects on her own growth and responsibility in building bridges between religious, secular, and spiritual communities. “I think growing up in a majority white, Christian community, I have learned that we need to carry a heavier load in terms of reaching out to those of other faiths and supporting them - and to make this work crucial to our lives and faith. I have also learned that by examining other faiths, and really understanding the rituals, it makes me go deeper into my own faith.”
In hearing each other’s stories, we open our hearts to say, “This isn’t just my community. This isn’t just your community. This is our community, and it is made all the more beautiful by the life we share together.”
We invite you to join us for our upcoming screening and discussion of the Odyssey Impact film, Stranger/Sister on Feb. 9 at 6:30 p.m. via Zoom. The discussion panel will feature Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom co-founders Sheryl Olitzky and Atiya Aftab along with director/producer Kelly, and will be moderated by Jennifer Howe Peace, senior advisor for the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. You can veiw the film's trailer here. Information and free registration can be found here: www.gvsu.edu/interfaith/strangersister
As we take the next step in being the best towards our neighbors, may we each follow the lead of these incredible women as we examine our own relationships and share our lives with one another. This relationship building is crucial for eliminating hate and bringing an end to violence, as we move together from fear to hope. Simply put, this work must begin at home.