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Seeing the Light of Many Faiths: Women Transcending Boundaries

It started with coffee. In the tense and emotional days following the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedies, Betsy Wiggins, a Christian, was worried that Muslim women in the Syracuse community might face discrimination. She contacted The Islamic Society of Central New York to ask if women in the congregation needed help with transportation or shopping. Soon, she was chatting over coffee with Danya Wellmon, one of the mosque’s female leaders. Two weeks later, Ms. Wellmon and Ms. Wiggins each invited nine friends to congregate and initiate conversations across various faith traditions. The 20 women present at that inaugural meeting represented the United States, Jordan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Algeria and Egypt, and a variety of faiths: Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslim, Jewish, Zen Buddhist and various Christian denominations. Ms. Wellmon recalls that it was difficult to coax some of her Muslim friends to attend that first meeting, because they were fearful of an anti-Muslim backlash in the wake of 9/11, but she encouraged them to come and share their feelings. “I wanted the others to know these women had the same concerns for their families,” Ms. Wellmon says. Above all, she and Ms. Wiggins wanted to establish a safe space where this diverse group of women could listen to one another and speak freely. The meetings became monthly, and doubled in size to 40 women, and then again to 80. Informal discussions over potluck food and coffee soon led to more structured programs in houses of worship and public spaces. After a long discussion at one of their 2001 meetings, a consensus was reached to name the group Women Transcending Boundaries (WTB). In 2003, WTB began setting up a formal governance structure with bylaws, and in 2004 obtained 501(c)(3) status as a nonprofit organization. WTB’s governing counsel plans the group’s programming, but activities are often initiated by a member’s personal connections or through invitations from other organizations. During the group’s first months, women from the local Islamic society invited WTB members to join them for a meal to break their Ramadan fast, and, courtesy of another invitation, the group participated in a Christmas tea at Dewitt Community Church. This autumn — a dozen years after those first gatherings — WTB members will join women of the Sikh Foundation of Syracuse to learn about Sikh traditions and values. Programs often go beyond a lecture-style presentation to involve an activity (such as a labyrinth walk or meal) or in-depth discussions, says WTB President Joy Pople. “I look at it as a lifelong learning adventure.”

One of the organization’s first program series focused on Christian, Judaic, Muslim and Buddhist traditions surrounding life transitions of birth, adolescence, marriage and death. WTB members shared their faith traditions for these rites of passage–ranging from Christian baptisms and Judaic and Islamic circumcisions to adolescent confirmations of faith (such as Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and a personal declaration of faith in Islam), to death rituals and beliefs (such as the Buddhist belief in reincarnation and the Christian and Muslim belief in heaven). These rites of passage were translated through a personal lens. One Muslim explained the marriage contract she has with her husband. A Catholic shared how she was comforted by Christian teachings on resurrection after the death of her son.  WTB member Liz Spence says what stood out to her more than the differences in beliefs were the similarities. “It was amazing how similar we all are.”

That’s not to say WTB meetings skirt difficult topics. At one early meeting there was a discussion about Muslim families who were too fearful to inquire after missing loved ones who had worked at the World Trade Center, or even to claim their dead from the disaster. At another meeting, Ms. Wellmon recalls a Palestinian woman and a Jewish woman whose family had settled in the West Bank tell their family and personal stories. While their families were on opposing sides of a political struggle, sharing their personal stories helped them connect and even exchange hugs. “It doesn’t always end up that way, but that was very powerful,” Ms. Wellmon says. Service in Action WTB embraces diversity. Along with Christians, Jews and Muslims, it includes Buddhist, Wiccan, Bahá’í, Hindu, agnostic and atheist members. One point the diverse membership has found in common is a commitment to helping others. And they do so through a dizzying list of projects and connections. Here’s a taste:
  • WTB members help refugee women at the Syracuse-based Center for New Americans sew clothing and make crafts, and find outlets to sell their handmade goods.
  • WTB partnered with other nonprofit groups to build the Tapestry Garden – a community garden for refugees and other local residents.
  • WTB raised funds to support a secular school for underprivileged children in rural Pakistan.

On the 2010 anniversary weekend of 9/11, WTB rallied Syracuse area organizations for a citywide volunteer workday, encouraging neighborhood groups to take on projects in neighborhoods other than their own. WTB initiated service projects in commemoration of 9/11 in 2011 and 2012 as well. In lieu of a formal work project this year, WTB asked its members to perform and report their own acts of kindness. (Participants reported handing garden flowers to passersby, donating groceries and clothing to the needy, and volunteering help to nonprofits, family and friends.) Members drive WTB’s charity and service projects, and the group and its activities continue to evolve with the organizations’ membership, says Ms. Spence. (Currently WTB has 100 members, and 500 subscribers to its email listserv.) For information on its current charities and activities, or to read archived meeting notes dating back to WTB’s founding, visit the organizations’ website: WTB.org. (There is also a membership/donation form on the site.)

Oprah and Beyond The all-volunteer women’s organization has grabbed national and international attention, and has been featured in The New York Times; CNN International; Women’s Day; O, The Oprah Magazine and a number of other publications. A WTB delegation attended the World Interfaith Harmony Assembly at the United Nations in 2012, and WTB representatives presented at the North American Interfaith Network conference in Toronto in 2013. In April, WTB hosted a “Journey to the Tent of Abraham,” – a walking tour that brought participants into a mosque, a synagogue and Christian churches, and ended at a non-denominational chapel on the campus of Syracuse University. In an exit survey, walk participants expressed an ongoing hunger to connect with others from different religious traditions in personal conversations, just as those first 20 WTB women did one October day in 2001. In response to that desire, WTB programs over this fall and winter will focus on faiths that are less familiar in mainstream America: Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Onondaga (a local Native American tradition), and Sikh. Ms. Spence says participating in the organization has helped her connect with women she might otherwise never have the opportunity to talk with. “These are women I don’t see socially, but I have such a kindred love for them. When I see them, I just hug them tight.” Ms. Wiggins says she had no idea that simple act of sitting down with Ms. Wellmon would blossom into connections between so many women. “I thought all I was going to do was have coffee with Danya. I had no idea the women we invited would become a dynamic group… I didn’t know we had touched a nerve in the community and that we would become a salon of discussion for many spiritual women with complicated questions.”

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