“I’m sorry,” she stammered, “I’ll say it now: I’ve only had an hour sleep, so I’m probably not at my best.” She removed her coat so hurriedly you would have thought she was 30 minutes late for the interfaith women’s event I was helping my friend set up for. In fact, Jill was 30 minutes early.
“I feel terrible,” she continued, struggling to remove her scarf. “I really do, but I came. I came anyway, because I had to come. I just knew, I had to come.”
“Welcome,” I smiled as I unfolded the tin chairs and set them in a circle. Jill followed me.
“I didn’t come because of the faith part,” she continued. “I just want to say that up front. I didn’t come for that at all. I came because, well, I am hoping that this group will be…different. There’s something about it being all women, or maybe it was the way you all wrote the description, talking about creating a place for people to care for one another, but I am just really hoping that I won’t feel like I usually do.”
“I want to…matter,” she said.
In a small group with Jill later that night, I learned that she lived in public housing alongside old Scottish men whose jokes were lewd and made her uncomfortable, though she sat with them in the stairwell talking all the same. She hopped from one local group to another: The first Friday of each month, she attended a discussion group on this topic; every other Tuesday, she attended a discussion group on that topic; and the second Wednesday of the month, she attended a book club. She liked it, she said, liked having her mind challenged. But she always came home depressed. She was “cerebrally challenged,” but felt empty—she pointed to her stomach—“here. Inside.” Because at the end of the evening, everyone simply put on their coats and went home. She couldn’t talk to them about how hard it was living in public housing and how badly she wanted a different life. She didn’t feel cared about. Seen. Or as though she really mattered.
The other women in our small group nodded as Jill spoke. “We didn’t come for the faith part either,” they admitted. Like her, they came because they wanted to matter. And I wondered, Is there any other reason to do anything?
Fast forward three months to yesterday. I am sitting in another interfaith women’s circle, this time in New York City. Many of the women here have come because of the faith element, though they define “faith” loosely. They are in the midst of a heady discussion about what they can do to make more women feel welcome in their midst. Should they use the term “interfaith, or perhaps multi-faith, or multi-religious?” One person says, “We should really be saying trans-faith.” Another person says, “We should really be saying nothing at all. Labels are left over from the patriarchy.” We have been sitting and talking for hours, and all the while, I can hear is Jill’s Scottish brogue in my ear, can hear her saying: It’s not this hard. They’ll come if you make them feel like they matter.
I try to break in to share this point of view, but I can’t get a word in edgewise, which I suspect is because I am much younger than everyone else in the room and new to the group. And when I do speak, I feel ignored. The next speaker quickly picks up where the person before me left off and I am overwhelmed by a feeling that I, personally, do not matter here. So I stop talking. And it makes me sad. Because I realize that I often feel this way in interfaith women’s circles, and have all five years that I have been attending and organizing them. I realize that I leave these circles with the same feeling that Jill described having when she leaves her various discussion groups–a feeling of being cerebrally challenged but empty inside.
And suddenly I think, “Oh shit. We are not the answer. These groups. These circles. We’re not the ones we’ve been waiting for. At least not yet. Though the women here are good women, we’re…just another discussion group.”
So many of us have left organized religion because we didn’t feel that we can be our authentic selves within it. Now, instead of the hyper-local religious communities we were once a part of as much because we lived in the same neighborhood as anything else, we self-construct communities, hand-picking people with the same interests as us, like these interfaith women’s circles. We can be authentic in self-selected groups, which is important. But as our sense of community shifts from hyper-local to (forgive me for using this word) the glocal, it feels to me like we’re losing that sense of deep mattering that can only come from a face-to-face, come-what-may-I’m-with-you-not-because-I-like-you-but-because-we-are-in-this-together mentality that I have personally only ever witnessed in organized religious institutions—churches, synagogues, temples and mosques.
I’m talking about the kind of stick-with-it-community that provided when my mom free babysitting when her son with born with Cerebral Palsy and both she and my dad had to work and go to school–an Episcopal church. I’m talking about the kind of community that meant one man came over to my parents’ house at 3am one night when my dad wasn’t well and I had called him crying, because I didn’t know what to do–an evangelical (gasp) church. I’m talking about the kind of community that organized to bring my family meals every night when my mom was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (I still remember a delicious ham and scalloped potatoes delivered with the potholders stuck in the handles of the serving dish)–a Episcopalian-Evangelical Church. That kind of community. The kind that few book clubs, cooking classes, or interfaith women’s circles provide. The kind that makes you feel like you really matter, because you do.
But how do we create a community in which people can be their authentic selves–gay, straight, virgin, not-so-much-a-virgin, believer in one thing or believer in another–and also have all of the amazing things that good organized religion offers those who believe and behave in very particular ways? Like the room to be a total emotional wreck every once in a while? I loved the allowance for that in organized religion. Like being cared for when you need it and feeling responsible to care for others when it is their turn?
In the interfaith women’s circle in Scotland, I admitted to Jill that I didn’t know where she could go for that kind of community today.
She smiled at me. “We may not have come to an answer tonight, but it is a miracle that we even asked this question together,” she said. “I’ve never been able to do that before.”
She’s right. For now, we start here–with simpply asking the question.