How to Start an Interfaith Group
Janice Harris Lord, Daughters of Abraham
It takes time to build trust, even among sub-groups of one faith or members of any group. No matter how open-minded you are, you (yes, even you) have some stereotypical ideas. Begin with a small group of representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). This does not mean that you do not respect other religions; it simply keeps discussions more focused since all three of these faiths believe in One God and have roots back to Abraham.
In starting the original Daughters of Abraham, the wife of a Christian minister asked her husband to approach a rabbi and an imam he knew to see if they would invite 5 or 6 women of their faiths to meet with 5 or 6 Christian women to explore starting a group; thus make a group of 15 to 18. This step may not be necessary if a handful of women from the three faiths are already friends. These women do not need to be faith leaders, but they should be interested in improving interfaith relationships and be comfortable sharing their own faith pilgrimages without a need to proselytize others. This initial group will probably want to meet for several months to move beyond tolerance to mutual respect and appreciation of each other before attempting to reach out to the larger community to grow the group. Once this small group begins inviting their friends, it will grow very fast.
Early meetings might offer the opportunity for the women to share basic information about their faith, correct myths or misunderstandings, and identify common beliefs. We have found that it works best just to announce a discussion topic and invite everyone to share. At the end of each gathering, a discussion topic can be chosen for the next gathering. Some group choose to develop full year calendar of discussion topics before the beginning of each year. This is fine, too, if allowance is made for an emerging significant topic to replace something on the calendar as needed. Prepared “presentations” are not very successful because not enough time is generally available for relationship building and discussion. Over time, we decided that the Jewish women would share their thoughts first, then the Christians, and then the Muslims since their faiths were born in this chronological order, and so much was built upon the previous one.
Decide what you want to accomplish.
Our goal was not to develop a short-term educational dialogue that would last only a few weeks but to provide a warm and inviting setting for the building of long-term, enduring relationships. In other words, we wanted to grow in respect and love for one another. While women may come and go from the group when they choose, we aim to be a welcoming family where many of us remain together for years. From time to time, we actively seek out women from a particular faith to keep the balance at our meetings fairly even, but generally the attitude is “come as long as you find it meaningful.”
When you are ready to formalize your group, you may want to develop a statement of purpose or mission statement. The one we developed is:
Daughters of Abraham is a group formed by women of three faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – to enhance understanding of our spiritual and cultural similarities. At our monthly meetings, we share ideas and values to promote good welfare among the communities.
Remember that an interfaith program is not a melting pot program.
A Daughters of Abraham group is more like a mosaic than a melting pot. It is not realistic, or even useful, to seek to reduce each faith to a common denominator. However, it is reasonable to focus on multiple manifestations and expressions of a common theme such as peace or anti-violence. Never expect all groups to pray the same way. The original Daughters of Abraham group worked together to develop a prayer that was acceptable to all three faiths. This prayer is used at many of the meetings. The prayer is:
Our God, the soul that you have implanted within us is pure. You created and formed it, breathed it into us, and sustain it each and every day. So long as we have life, we will be grateful to you, Adonai/God/Allah, our God and God of our mother and father, Creator of all life, Sustainer of every human spirit. Blessed are you, Adonai/God/Allah, in whose hands are the souls of all life, and the spirits of all flesh.
A successful group acknowledges differences but seeks more to identify commonalities. It is important that differences of opinion be shared honestly but respectfully. Secrets or gossip outside the group has rarely been a problem, but, when it has been, we have tried to address the concern with the whole group as soon as possible.
Identify a strong communicator to facilitate meetings, but diversity leadership.
One significant person other than a discussion facilitator must maintain a current and accurate e-mail and snail mail list of all those who want to be informed of gatherings of the group. This list is passed around at each gathering to assure that addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail address are current, and that new group members can sign up. Even though most people now use the Internet, not all of our elder women do, so those who prefer to be notified by mail or phone should be if possible. This notification e-mailer, however, is not necessarily the group facilitator. We have found it best to rotate facilitators, depending on the meeting site. We have intentionally NOT elected officers because we want the feel of the group to be circular and democratic rather than vertical and structured.
Meet at different places.
The sites of meetings should rotate among the faiths, perhaps at a church one time and a synagogue, temple, or mosque the next. The host “site” may select a discussion facilitator from their own membership. We enjoy having food at our gatherings, and the host site prepares the refreshments. That way, each faith group only furnishes refreshments 3 times a year, excluding Ramadan month when we join our Muslim sisters in fasting. We have regular monthly gatherings from September through May. In addition, we have a couple of special activities in the summer. One is a pot-luck supper where spouses join us for a wonderful meal. This has become so popular that we are considering having more than one a year. We also have a book review retreat day each summer at the home of one of the group members. A few of the books addressed have included The Secret Life of Bees, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of three Faiths, The Kite Runner, The Faith Club, Pretty Birds, and The Lemon Tree. (Full list is available upon request.)
Make the setting symbolic of your intent.
We have our gatherings in a circular setting, usually with tables so notes can be taken by those who enjoy that. The host site sometimes uses colorful tablecloths or table decorations representing their own faith symbols or holidays. Sometimes the tables are plain. The circular setting assures that no one is “up front” and that the discussion facilitator is on equal plane with everyone else. As the group grows, a microphone that can be passed around will be needed. Also, since COVID, many of our gathering have been on Zoom, and some have been hybrid (a live gathering that can be joined by Zoom for those choosing to stay at home.)
Be considerate of holy days and times.
Muslims pray in mosques on Fridays at noon. The Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday. Some Christian denominations worship on Saturday. Jewish Rosh Hashana initiates a 10-day period of reflection in the fall that ends on the Highest Jewish Holy Day, Yom Kippur. Plan meetings and events that do not conflict with these sacred times.
Discuss whatever you want to.
Following are some discussion topics our group has addressed: Prayer styles, Holy Books, Holidays, Common Heroes of the Faith, Basic Beliefs, Death and Dying Rituals, Marriage Rituals (We brought our wedding pictures for this discussion), and Forgiveness (This meeting discussion followed a meeting in which a Holocaust survivor shared her concentration camp experiences), Modesty Concerns, The Next Generation, Stereotypes and Biases (This gathering included distributing 3 X 5 cards in which each women filled in the blank for “Before joining Daughters of Abraham, I thought Jews…” this statement was given for Christianity and Islam also. The 4th statement was, “Now I believe that….” In order to avoid embarrassing anyone, the cards were shuffled and redistributed. Each woman read aloud the card she drew and then shared what she wanted to about whether her experiences was similar to or different from the author of the card.) We have found that a discussion topic for the next meeting often develops out of the current discussion.
For More Information
Visit our website If you would like more information about Daughters of Abraham or Contact Us.