By Jennifer Peace
16 Ruth said, "Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”…
22 So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab.
- The Book of Ruth, Chapter 1
Finding voice necessarily involves finding conversation partners. It is in conversation that I hear my own voice more clearly. As I reflect on my own interfaith journey and the path to my current position as the assistant professor of Interfaith Studies at Andover Newton Theological School and the co-director of the Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE), I think with gratitude of the countless women and men who have walked and continue to walk with me. Any reflection about my own journey must include homage to these teachers, mentors, friends, family, colleagues, and companions. One relationship in particular stands out for me. This is the story I need to tell in order to explain how I found my voice in interfaith work.
Edie Howe, my mother-in-law, spent most of her career as a lawyer. But on the evening of September 11, 2001, First Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, hosted an interfaith service, and Edie found herself sitting between two women – one Jewish and one Muslim. She recognized a tension in that moment. Here she was, sitting right next to these women who were equally distraught by the tragedy of the terrorist attacks, and yet she had no idea how to reach out to them. She didn’t have the shared language to bridge from her faith to theirs. This disconnect added to her feelings of helplessness in the wake of the attacks and she was struck by a profound desire to do something – to find some way of responding to the impossible destruction with an act of hope.
While she was aware of the distance between herself and these women in the pew, it also dawned on her that they all shared a common ancestor – Abraham. Building on that connection, she founded The Daughters of Abraham, at once a book group and a movement focused on creating shared space where women could get to know each other. For Edie, who had been in women’s book groups for years, it was a natural leap to graft this new idea onto a familiar model. She set about enlisting other women from each religion to help her.1
I joined her in the first group, and it has been running continuously for the past nine years. What started as one book group has grown to more than 20 groups around the country and counting. 2 The model and the ground rules for starting a group are laid out on the Daughters of Abraham website.
“It took me 59 years to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” Edie said to me one day. Describing the impact of the book group, she explained,“I now think in a sort of 3-D paradigm. I cannot think about Christianity without thinking about Judaism and Islam. They are inextricably linked in my mind forever.” Edie exuded a sense of energy when she talked about this work. It inspired her and through her, it inspired others. People who are living their vocations are infectious.
But sadly, Edie’s epiphany arrived a few short years before her diagnosis of breast cancer. Sometimes I picture the two of us in a relay race of sorts. While I was in Berkeley, working on my dissertation in the history of religions, engaged in interfaith organizing with the United Religions Initiative and the Interfaith Youth Core, she was in Boston working as a lawyer. When my husband and I moved back East and began to build our family, Edie left the practice of law to go to seminary where she began her own interfaith work as a pioneering member of the interfaith student group formed by seminarians at Andover Newton and rabbinical students at Hebrew College. When she started working on Daughters of Abraham we got to work side by side for a while, sharing our commitment to interreligious understanding. We had the kind of mutual respect and affection for each other that led Edie to once say she thought of us as Ruth and Naomi. When she ultimately handed the baton back to me for good, it was a bittersweet moment for both of us.
Three months before she died, Edie called me over to her house with great excitement. She wanted to show me a grant proposal she had helped develop. The proposal was to the Henry Luce Foundation for a significant investment in the interfaith work that had been emerging between Hebrew College and Andover Newton. Edie was to be the project coordinator and she had just learned that the grant proposal had been accepted.
I read through the proposal and marveled at the creative work outlined in the pages. When I got to the budget page I saw that Edie had crossed out her own name and written in mine. Edie watched me as I read the edited lines. Before I had a chance to say anything she said, “You don’t have to do this. It is completely up to you. I just think you would be perfect for this work and I don’t have the energy to do it.”
I was silent, taking in all the implications of her offer. “You don’t have to say anything,” Edie continued. “Just think about it.”
In the ensuing weeks, Edie arranged meetings, made phone calls, encouraged, cajoled and convinced all of us that this was exactly what should happen. From the very first informal conversations, there was a powerful sense of “rightness” about it on all sides. I gave notice at the educational nonprofit where I had been working, and Edie sent me an enormous bouquet of flowers when I took the position.
Edie died in July of 2008, the very month the Luce grant began. I see the fruit of her labors in the work I continue to do at Andover Newton. Though I can no longer talk to Edie over a cup of tea, I still think of her as an essential conversation partner. We found in each other both echo and amplification of our own vocations. I am left with a profound sense of gratitude for her role in the trajectory of my own interfaith journey as I continue to do my work, while holding out the baton to those coming up beside me.
1 So many women were central to making this vision a reality. Rona Fishman and Anne Minton joined Edie in the first steering committee. They were joined soon after by Saadia Baloch, Sepi Gillani and Cheri Koller-Fox to balance the steering committee with two Jewish, two Christian and two Muslim members. The hard work, ongoing dedication, and countless hours put in by the founding steering committee got the idea off the ground and transformed the book group into a larger movement. In addition, the support of Rev. Dr. Mary Luti, senior pastor at First Church in Cambridge who led the interfaith service that first inspired Edie, was essential.