So, there are these two Muslims, two Christians and a Jew ... It could be the opening line for another corny joke, but it actually describes the members of a local faith club, the Multi-faith Women of Hampton Roads. The group formed in January 2009, when
resident Donna McDermott corralled some like-minded women — Episcopalian Lois Winter, Muslims Zizi Noor and Heba Elkobaitry, and Reform Jew Nancy Lazarus.
The catalyst for McDermott's interfaith outreach came from reading the book, "The Faith Club: A Muslim, a Christian, a Jew — Three Women Search for Understanding," by Ranya Idliby, Priscilla Warner, and Suzanne Oliver. Two of the authors will speak at an interactive seminar hosted by the multi-faith group at the United Jewish Community Center on Sunday, May 23.
Attendees will have an opportunity to speak to the authors and to form their own groups based on interest and geography. "We're hoping for a spinoff, that something will come out of this," says Lazarus, who speaks frequently at local schools with her friend Elkobaitry.
The informal group meets twice a month at restaurants and coffee shops. "It's not so much about the religions, but about reducing ignorance, respecting what people believe. It's about understanding and respect," says Elkobaitry, who grew up in a large Muslim community in
and misses the diversity she took for granted.
All five members of the group comment on the Peninsula's homogeneity. "It's 95 percent Christian. We want to get away from miscommunications and misunderstandings," says Elkobaitry, who wears Western dress. Noor, who grew up in Egypt and wears a head scarf, says cheerfully, "You can't miss me." She echoes her younger American-raised friend about the misconceptions. "Do you really have a magic carpet?" is a question Noor has encountered.
The whole group talks briefly about head coverings. Elkobaitry's daughter, Hoda Elshishtawy, 25, chooses to wear a hijab; when she demonstrated it at a recent school presentation the change it made in her appearance had a real impact on the students, the women observe. "She's very beautiful, she has long, dark hair," says Winter. Noor retorts quickly, "People who cover up aren't ugly. They have hair," which draws laughs all around. Both Muslims agree that often people's first reaction to a head covering is, "What is wrong with her? Is she sick?"
A head covering also played a role in the group's inception. After reading "The Faith Club," McDermott was at Ross' store in Jefferson Commons Shopping Center when she saw a woman wearing a hijab. She introduced herself and explained her quest to learn more about the Muslim faith. The woman directed her to the Hampton Mosque, which Noor and her husband, Ahmed, were instrumental in founding. McDermott called and reached the answering machine with its message: "If this is an emergency, you can call my home number..." "It was an emergency," McDermott says, grinning, so she called and talked to Zizi Noor. "She was so gracious and lovely and she said 'I have a young Muslim friend who would be interested.'" Fifteen minutes later her phone rang and it was Elkobaitry saying she'd love to do it and that she had a Jewish friend, Lazarus.
The group met at a
at 9 a.m. and were still talking at 11:30 a.m. "We didn't know what we were going to do," says Lazarus. "We just started talking about different things." They also watched the movie "Paper Clips" about how a small group can effect change. Winter interjects her favorite quote from
, "Never doubt that one person can change the world. It's the only thing that ever has." She knew McDermott from a four-year ministry class the two attended. "She has thrown herself into it completely," she says. "We're helping to give people access, to get the information out."