by Marc and Julie Anderson
OVERLAND PARK — It’s just a beginning.
And it only came about because Judy Ulitchny, a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood, “accidentally found a book.”
But let’s begin at the beginning.
In the fall of 2015, Ulitchny was in a public library. An avid reader, she usually selects books online and picks them up at the library. That particular day was different.
“That day, I was wandering in the stacks,” she said.
Spotting a nonfiction book titled “The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew — Three Women Search for Understanding,” Ulitchny picked up the book and eagerly checked it out. In the coming days, she became fascinated with the story.
It recounted how, after the events of Sept. 11, three women living in New York City agreed to write a children’s book to highlight the connections among the three religions. The idea was to promote peace, understanding and respect for one another.
Ironically, the project nearly fell apart.
As the authors started to explain their religious beliefs to one another, differences among them led to misunderstandings and more than one heated conversation. Yet, the women persisted in their conversations, eventually forming friendships as they learned to appreciate their differences and — at the same time — celebrate their similarities.
Ulitchny was so inspired by the three women’s story that she started asking herself: “What if? What if we just did this?”
Ulitchny shared the book with another parishioner, Melanie Irwin. Irwin read the book and agreed [that starting an interfaith club] sounded like a good idea, although neither woman was sure of just how to get the project off the ground.
“We didn’t really know what to do,” Irwin said.
Ulitchny sent an email to Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park. Taking additional book copies with them, the two women later met with Rabbi Rick Shapiro, an interim rabbi serving the congregation at the time. The rabbi put the two women in touch with Denise Pakula and SueAnn Strom, both members of the congregation.
The group was now four in number, but it didn’t have any Muslim representation. Ulitchny had sent an email to the general mailbox of the Islamic Center for Johnson County but, as of that time, had received no reply.
Some time passed, and again Ulitchny found herself at a local library. While outside the building, she happened to look up and saw a man and woman coming out of the parking lot at the Islamic Center. She approached them and quickly explained the project and the email she had sent recently. She had nothing but a coupon on which to write her contact information, so she handed it to the man and woman and left.
Ulitchny said she wasn’t sure if anything would come of it.
“I must have scared them,” she thought at first. Two days later, Rehana Syed called her.
Syed was friends with two other Muslim women, Nasim Chaudhri and Ayesha (Darlen) Jangda, and they, too, thought the idea sounded like a good one.
With seven different families’ schedules to consider, establishing a time for the initial meeting took a little bit of effort, Ulitchny said. Not everyone was able to make the first meeting in which group members started sharing their life stories.
Because the women had so much to share, it took them the first two meetings just to get acquainted, said Pakula, a fact that she found heartwarming.
“The more people get to know each other, they less they fear each other,” she said.
Since those first meetings in January 2016, the group has met regularly at least twice a month to discuss their faith traditions, to experience one another’s faith and to get better acquainted as women. So far, the group has attended a service at the Islamic Center, broken the fast of Ramadan with a dinner for them and their families at Chaudhri’s house and enjoyed a Hanukkah dinner complete with traditional foods such as latkes.
The group has plans to attend Mass at Church of the Ascension in Overland Park later this month.
These experiences, Chaudhri said, enrich one’s understanding of the world.
“Experience makes you smarter,” she said simply.
In individual interviews, others quickly agreed.
As a cradle Catholic, Irwin said she didn’t have much exposure to other religions. As the Catholic Church encourages the study of Scripture and Old Testament readings are part of almost every Sunday Mass, she was familiar with many of its stories.
She’s now learned how the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, form Jewish thought, beliefs and customs.
Chaudhri said that living in the Middle East provided her firsthand exposure to Christianity but not as much to the Jewish faith. The experiences of the Hanukkah dinner and the gifts of a menorah and a dreidel given her by Pakula and Strom have enriched her life.
The group, she said, has provided her “a friendly environment in which to learn about religion firsthand.”
Like Chaudhri, Strom said experiencing one another’s faith tradition in a comfortable way has inspired her.
“We experience [the faith tradition] first, and then we sit together and ask questions,” Strom said. She feels privileged, she said, to learn from this group.
Strom said she’s even found some interesting connections among group members. For example, she and Ulitchny both attended the same school district near Cleveland. The two would have attended the same high school, too, around the same time, if the district hadn’t built a new high school, thus preventing the two from knowing each other back then.
While the club has experienced the various faith traditions together, the club’s goal is not to change anyone’s beliefs nor water down any of the teachings of the various faith traditions. Rather, the club’s purpose is to enrich one another’s understanding and respect, especially in a world that’s often filled with disrespect and hatred.
“If you get to know each other, you won’t hate each other,” Syed said. Others agreed.
“People aren’t comfortable when they’re not familiar with [something different],” said Chaudhri. But once they have some exposure to something, “they are more comfortable and will respect it.”
Establishing respect, trust and a certain level of comfort is important to everyone in the group. Early on, the group unanimously agreed to maintain the group’s size at seven. It’s a size that members said has allowed for a tremendous amount of sharing as well as a high level of trust.
“We’re at a point now where that trust level has grown,” said Pakula. “Every time I leave our group, my heart is full.”
The group has discussed a range of topics, including the ones most people prefer not to talk about — religion and politics. Through it all, the seven women said they’ve become friends.
But, more importantly, they’ve become sisters.
“A year ago, if you had said to me that I would have had this incredible group of friends, I don’t know what I would have said,” said Ulitchny.
“I can see how our group can continue to be friends for a long time,” confirmed Pakula.
As friends or sisters, the club’s members support one another during challenges or times of struggle.
This past year has seen tremendous loss for Jangda. There have been two deaths within her family. She said, however, that her faith club has provided her with “a jacket of many colors.”
Her Catholic sisters were there to pray with her and offer a prayer for her loved ones. Her Jewish sisters lit a candle in memory of her loved ones, and her Muslim sisters served as what she termed as her “support unit.”
Syed said the “sisterhood” they’ve all experienced is something they all cherish.
“It’s a bond you cannot break,” she said. “We make it to keep it.”