Carol Zonis

Carol Zonis is a member of Temple Kol Ami and one of the organizers of a multifaith women's group.

Every month for the last eight months, seven women meet on Zoom for wide-ranging discussions of faith, tradition, culture and womanhood. Their stories, drawn from their experience as Jews, Christians and Muslims, are building the foundation for a multifaith project rooted in years of collaboration among their congregations.

“It’s all about having conversation, building bridges of understanding, finding common ground rather than focusing on things about our faith and practice that might be different,” said Carol Zonis, a member of Temple Kol Ami and one organizer of the multifaith women’s group. “Although when we have ventured into those conversations, they’ve been marvelous.”

Zonis and the other six women found each other through the multifaith efforts of their respective faith leaders: Rabbi Jeremy Schneider of Temple Kol Ami, Pastor Josh Prather of Redemption Church and Imam Didmar Faja of the United Islamic Center of Arizona.

During the past four years, Schneider, Prather and Faja cultivated a relationship that included initiatives, interfaith study sessions and a trip to the United Arab Emirates. Two years ago, they held a retreat that brought together members of their respective congregations to start conversations and find ways for lay leaders to work together.

That’s where Zonis and Brittany McFadden, a member of Redemption Church, first met. The pair hit it off and started brainstorming a multifaith storytelling project with the help of Cheryl Stover, a member of the UICA recommended by Faja. Finally, at the beginning of 2020, a group of seven women — two from TKA, two from Redemption Church and three from UICA — came together with the intention of telling stories and sharing their experiences so that each member could learn about the other two faiths.

While the initial game plan for the group involved sharing meals and inviting more members for in-person meetings, that plan was disrupted by the pandemic almost immediately. The group only met in person once before switching to Zoom and, as they adjusted to the new online reality, they put plans to expand the project on hold.

Part of that decision, McFadden said, was rooted in the group’s desire to get to know each other better before adding more members.

“We felt like we actually needed to build relationships and have hard discussions and learn what happens when someone brings up a topic that’s really touchy or says something that is taken offensively. How do you work through that?” McFadden said. “So we wanted to be our own guinea pig before we would bring other women into that conversation.”

On the virtual medium of Zoom, the format of the conversation also shifted, from offering storytelling prompts to a more fluid and open discussion, where any member can pose a question. The result is a genuine heart-to-heart on “subjects delicate and not-so-delicate,” Zonis said.

“We intend to talk for an hour, we usually end up talking for an hour-and-a-half. And we stop only because we have to stop at some point,” Zonis said. “The group of us has formed a marvelous bond.”

At their most recent meeting, Stover recalled, the group asked her if she’d experienced a difference working with men in Islam versus Christianity. She hadn’t: “Men are men,” Stover said. As the women explored the relationship between men and women in their respective faiths, they came to see that there weren’t as many differences as they once thought. In terms of restrictions on women, “every one of the religions has their own issues, good or bad, and it doesn’t define the religion,” Stover added.

While Stover found teaching about her own faith and learning other women’s stories uplifting, she said, it isn’t as easy for the other two women from UICA. But as the months go on, each member of the group is beginning to find her voice.

“They’re also learning and they’re also opening up to the questions that are asked, so it’s really good,” Stover said. “I know it’s a challenge for them sometimes, but it’s good for everyone because we’re getting out of our box and we’re learning to be comfortable with who we are around those who are not like us.”

While the last few months have been an excellent chance to learn and open up to one another, that isn’t the only goal that Zonis, McFadden and Stover have for the group. In October, the women from the Multifaith Neighbors Network were able to come together around another common cause: giving back to their community by delivering meals to Family Promise, a nonprofit that provides temporary housing to families experiencing homelessness.

“Part of our group’s commitment is that we will serve and seek the good of the city together,” McFadden said.

TKA became a faith partner of Family Promise earlier this year, and it was Schneider, Zonis said, who approached her and asked if she could work with her Christian and Muslim peers to organize a joint week of food deliveries.

“There wasn’t a moment of hesitation” from the other women, Zonis said. “We all understood this was a way not just to help families who need the help, but for us to work on something together.”

And it was easier, she said, working with people who she already had a relationship with — people who wouldn’t be surprised to receive more than a few emails from her, checking in to make sure everything ran smoothly.

“They know me, they understand my craziness,” Zonis said.

With seven nights’ worth of food to prepare, the women divided the work: McFadden and Stover each organized volunteers for two days and Zonis organized food for three days. Their teams put together a menu of meals, some prepared and some bought, with variety in mind: meatloaf, pasta with meat sauce, roasted chicken and mashed potatoes, barbecue sandwiches and potato salad, chicken and rice, pasta bolognese and pizza.

While the women dropped off meals at Family Promise without meeting the families who would receive them for safety reasons, it was a fulfilling experience and a reminder of what can be accomplished when people of different faiths come together, Stover said.

“Each one of the ladies has a pure heart, and they’re willing to serve and they’re willing to go above and beyond to help others,” Stover said. “So I don’t see any limit in what we can do.”

The multifaith group accomplishments at this point are only the beginning. Zonis hopes to broaden membership to include more women, and McFadden envisions it growing into a network of small multifaith gatherings, with the current Zoom meetings planting the seeds for other women to host similar storytelling sessions in their own homes when the pandemic passes.

“This is just the start,” Stover agreed. “It’s exciting to see where God is going to move us, and God is going to help us to accomplish things. And with the love and the respect that we have for each other, we’re going to be able to accomplish many things.” JN