Twenty years later, no one can quite remember who was in the group. They know that the original gatherings had six Christian women and six Muslim women but as to who those individuals were, they just cannot recall. Longtime Women’s Interfaith Dialogue member Jane Pitz does know that her friend Reg Weissert initiated the gatherings.
Recently five women sat together and reflected on South Bend’s Women’s Interfaith Dialogue as they plan for the 20th anniversary celebration later in September. It’s a diverse group: Jane Pitz is a Catholic who attends Our Lady of Loretto on the campus of Saint Mary’s College. Sarah Shaikh is a member of the Islamic Society of Michiana (ISM). She and Jane have both been involved with the Dialogue for many years. Posi Tucker is a member of Temple Beth El and Bonny Hoover a member of Sinai Synagogue. Stephanie Mirza, also a member of ISM, is the most recent member of the Dialogue. Collectively they are proud of the origins of the Women’s Interfaith Dialogue and eager to discuss its future.
The year was 2003 and the September 11 attacks had just happened. Reg Weissert who was once described by the National Catholic Reporter as a “veteran Catholic Peacemaker” had noticed the unearned malice and suspicion directed towards Muslims both nationally and within the local South Bend community. She felt empathy towards those who were being unfairly discriminated against. However, she also realized that her feelings were nonspecific - because she didn’t know any Muslims personally.
Reg Weissert brought this concern to a priest who directed her to a Holy Cross Sister - Marianne Farina, CSC - who, at the time, was working closely with women from the Mosque. Sr. Farina agreed to help Weissert connect with a few Muslim women she knew. Originally called the Christian/Muslim Women’s Group, its purpose was to build relationships that went beyond the stereotype, rooting them in the kind of narrative empathy that is nurtured through relationships and encounter.
Jane Pitz and Sarah Shaikh were not part of the original group of attendees. However, they had joined not long after the dialogues began. Each can recall the personal invitation that led to their attendance at the Christian/Muslim Women’s Group. They have now been involved for nearly two decades.
They recall that the dialogue project was originally exclusively between Christians and Muslims. However, they know that congregants from Temple Beth-El and Sinai Synagogue were invited to join in the conversations approximately ten years after it began. Since then, both Posi Tucker and Bonny Hoover along with many Jewish women have been regular attendees and they too have made wonderful connections through the women’s group that has since been renamed the Women’s Interfaith Dialogue to reflect the inclusion of other faith traditions.
The dialogues have generally been organized as monthly gatherings on Tuesdays around noon. Until recently they rotated locations with meetings held at the Mosque (ISM), Temple Beth-El, and Little Flower Catholic Church. Just within the past year the dialogue has traveled to new sites including La Casa de Amistad (a local Latino serving organization), the public library, and a non-denominational Christian location South Bend City Church. During Covid, members of the Dialogue met monthly via Zoom.
The dialogues do not generally include a formal meal. However snacks are provided taking into account specific dietary considerations so that everyone can partake. Some years the women have also been warm recipients of an invitation to join the Mosque’s iftar, the main meal that is eaten after the fast during Ramadan. The Women’s Interfaith Dialogue has not historically met during the summer as vacation plans and other travel make it hard to gather.
In the early years, the gathering was set up with presentations. The women gathered around tables arranged in a large open rectangle - somewhat like a college seminar. However, as the number of women who attended began to grow, that arrangement became impractical. As a result, the organizers decided to break women up into smaller groups. This is when the dynamic of the women’s group shifted. Originally it had been a little bit more focused on information sharing (of faith traditions and cultural practices) but the small group settings allowed it to become more interactive. It seemed then that the conversations became more personal.
Since its inception the dialogues have begun with a prayer. That prayer has usually been the Muslim, Jewish, Christian Prayer for Peace from Pax Christi USA. However, sometimes other prayers or reflective practices have been used. More recently individuals from humanist, Baha’i, and even Voodoo backgrounds have attended the Dialogues, prompting the organizers to adopt an opening prayer or reflection that would be even more inclusive.
Different Practices/Shared Values
When asked if there are any topics “too hot to handle” the members of the Dialogue laugh a bit, not because the question is bad but rather because they hear this question often. They say that there are few topics that are off limits but they tend to avoid politically charged subjects.
However, the women are quick to say that they find much more that they have in common rather than what sets them apart. Moreover, they note that many of the traditions that they discuss have less to do with religious practices and more to do with culture. For example they cite the use of kosher meat as similarities between Muslims and Jews and the reverence for the Virgin Mary as similar between Catholics and Muslims. Topics for conversation have included fasting (practiced at different times and with different restrictions by all of the shared faith traditions), life cycle events (such as burial rights and wedding celebrations), and how their traditions practice hospitality or “welcoming the stranger”. They see perhaps the greatest connection in the fact that all of the participants are women. One even referred to the dialogue as almost like therapy because of the way the women support each other.
Organizers Discuss the Future
The Women’s Interfaith Dialogue has always been organized by a group of volunteers. The current organizers include the aforementioned Jane Pitz, of Loretto, as well as Bonny Hoover, of Sinai Synangogue and Stephanie Mirza from the Islamic Society, and Dona Bailey-Weiler of South Bend City Church. These women determine the location for each gathering as well as the topics that will be discussed.
When speaking about their hopes and dreams for the future several themes emerge: the inclusion of more young adults and the desire for more hosts and places to visit. They also long for more representation from different faith traditions and ethnic backgrounds. The organizers admit that the current group can feel like an echo chamber as no attendees of conservative churches attend - however they want to be inclusive and have discussed the need for more outreach.
Women’s Interfaith Dialogue has been a prophetic witness in its mission and vision. For nearly twenty years it has been bringing together people from different backgrounds, cultures, and traditions, building intentional community by encouraging deeply rooted relationships.
In these polarized times there have been more and more calls for the interchange of ideas and cultures. Yet, silos remain a consistent scourge in our country. Many could learn the wisdom of Reg Weissert and Jane, and Posy and Stephanie and Sarah and Bonny and the others who have walked before them. As so often happens: women lead the way.