Eating Cookies, Drinking Coffee with “The Stranger”: 12 Years of Women’s Dialogue

receiving award for web and fbSister Catherine Cleary and her collaborators – Lisa Killinger (Muslim, above center) and Linda Golden (Jewish, above left)) – recently received a Human Rights Award sponsored by Church Women United for their work with the annual Muslim-Christian-Jewish Women’s Dialogue. Sr. Catherine’s remarks from the event follow:

I am filled with gratitude and surprise for this honor.

Our Muslim, Jewish and Christian gatherings have been such a gift and joy to me for the last 12 years that it never occurred to me that anyone would recognize them as worthy of an honor.

So, thank you from the bottom of my heart!

Before I tell you how we began these Faith Conversations, let me share a bit about my background, and how I developed such deep interest and appreciation for people whose faith is different from mine.

My great grandfather, Thomas Cleary, came from Ireland and settled on rich farmland in Central Illinois.

His son, Michael, my grandfather, soon recognized that the land, though rich, needed draining to prevent flooding. He called on his neighbor, an Amish man; together they put in tile to drain off excess water, making the soil very valuable and fertile.

My father inherited that farm. Our nearest town was Gridley, population 500. It was settled by and for the Amish community, and it was where we shopped for groceries.

With the Amish to the east of us and families of all denominations to our west, I grew up respecting those who believed and looked different from my family and me.

Later, as a Benedictine Sister, I studied for a semester in Jerusalem and served in Africa in ministry.

It was 1988 when I went to Jerusalem. There was a lot of tension between the Jewish and the Muslim communities. We were often stopped by Palestinians who would say, “You know our situation don’t you?”

To insure the safety of children, schools were closed. This meant a lot of children were on the streets, often throwing rocks … since they had no baseballs or footballs.

The situation was frightening at times. My heart ached for the families I visited, many of whom lived in crowded conditions. Some actually occupied caves as their living space.

Later, I traveled to Tanzania, a country in eastern Africa on the Indian Ocean. Having traveled for 26 hours, I finally arrived at the Catholic convent where I was to live and teach Benedictine Spirituality. The Sisters were gracious, very welcoming, and all seemed well during my first few hours there.

But, much to my surprise, I was told to rise early and go with a Sister to meet the Town Leader, who was Muslim. He was uneasy & even suspicious of my visit there. He had called an early morning meeting with me, seeking assurance that I posed no threat. Happily, the court appearance was simple and successful.

Nevertheless, the incident put me on alert. The majority of the people I lived among were Muslim. Throughout the entire day, a Muslim Iman prayed and preached through a loud-speaker system. Now and then, when they stopped, Christian ministers took over the speaker system. It seemed to me there was constant competition between the two religions.

The Muslim people I got to know during my travels were as dear to me as the Christians.

So my heart broke every time I watched the televised violence that sprang up repeatedly in the Middle East. And when the United States invaded Iraq in March, 2003, I knew I had to respond some way. I looked to other women of our area for ideas.

Lisa invited me to her home to consider the situation. Rather than despairing and simply saying, “We will pray about it,” we felt called to create a time and a place where women could come together to pray, to share their faith, and to get to know each other.

We faced some constraints. For example, we knew many Muslim women would feel insecure about speaking and understanding English. We also knew that our custom of women going out alone at night would be foreign to many of them. They might be hesitant.

But we believed that by calling women of all faiths together, we would grow in our understanding of one another. By sharing our stories and faith, we would create bonds that would lead to peacemaking in schools, grocery stores and neighborhoods.

A care giver was arranged for the children who needed to come with their mothers. We chose to hold the Dialogue on Monday night, because that might be the only night women would be free to attend. We chose to invite women only, because, as one committee member said, “If men come they will out-talk the women.”

Our first Dialogue was held in September, 2005 in the Moline Mosque. It far surpassed my hopes, and has done so every year since that first time.

What I observe during these special evenings is that everyone who attends feels a reverence, a hush, a seriousness and joy.

I hear a lot of talking and laughing at the tables.

I sense seriousness about being asked to pray with people of other faiths. There is a tone of awe as we say prayers together with Jews, Muslims, Christians.

It’s as if we are thinking: I am not apart from them; they aren’t just the Jewish family who lives across town. No, I am eating cookies and drinking coffee with them. I am sharing my faith with a Christian or with a Muslim whose children go to school with my children.

Our faith calls us to welcome the stranger in our midst. The seriousness of this command to “love the stranger” appears no fewer than 36 times in the Old Testament.

Jesus teaches that what we do to the stranger in our midst we do to Jesus himself.

We are all on this journey together. Our enemies are not Jews or Muslims or Christians, but arrogant self-righteousness, fear, ignorance and xenophobic paranoia.

Thank you.


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