Weston-Wayland Interfaith Action Group

This profile was last updated in 2014

The Weston-Wayland Interfaith Action Group (WWIAG), a partnership of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Baha’is is committed to interfaith encounter on several levels. The group combines formal dialogue, lectures, informal social potluck gatherings, and advocacy in the community to approach the issue of religious diversity from a variety of entry points. WWIAG’s mission is to “build community by developing a better understanding, acceptance and appreciation of individual religious and cultural differences,” through a threefold process of “education, dialogue and action.”

History

The Weston Interfaith Action Group is a not-for-profit organization that was formed by a small number of Christian and Jewish residents of Weston in 1988 who, according to their webpage, wanted to “encourage sensitivity to the increasing diversity of the town’s population.” Their first program was a 10-week workshop on understanding the Holocaust, led by another Boston-based organization called Facing History and Ourselves. The same program was successfully repeated in 1990. The 1990s saw increased participation and leadership from the Muslim community, which was well-represented in Weston’s population. In 2000, the group decided to include the nearby town of Wayland in their organization, and changed their name to reflect more clearly where many members worshipped. By 2005, WWIAG had grown to include members of the Baha’i faith and diverse Christian groups such as Christian Scientists and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (i.e. Mormons). The organization is open to all faiths.

Structure and Leadership

Because the group is not based in one particular religious tradition, the programs rotate among member religious organizations such as St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, the Islamic Center of Boston (ICB), or Temple Shir Tikva; programs are also held occasionally at community facilities like Weston High School. The core leadership committee is comprised of about 25 representatives and is led by three co-chairs from different religious traditions, who rotate every two years. The leadership group meets monthly during the school year to develop and plan programs and events. There are several sub-committees, such as publicity, hospitality, and membership, which help to implement the various programs.

Education

Lectures and Presentations
The first step in WWIAG’s threefold process of community building is education, through which members learn about the faiths represented in their organization. Programming includes lectures by local clergy and/or well-known scholars such as Bishop Krister Stendahl, Rabbi Harold Kushner, Sister Mary Boys, Dr. Diana L. Eck (director of The Pluralism Project) and Dr. James Carroll. The group also sponsors panel discussions or presentations by representatives of area faith communities. Past topics have included “Life Cycles and Traditions for Christians, Jews and Muslims,” three faith perspectives on “Spirituality and Healing,” and a series about wedding traditions in the Christian, Baha’i, Jewish, and Muslim faiths. In a presentation called “Beyond the 11th,” local widows talked about reaching across cultural divides to help Afghan widows who are also victims of terrorism. WWIAG also hosted a speaker from No More Victims, an organization that brings wounded Iraqi children to the United States for medical care. For nine years, the group has held the annual Peg Kerwin Memorial Presentation, named in memory of one of their original members. In 2007, they hosted Pulitzer prize-winning author Christopher Hedges, who spoke on his latest book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. Emphasis is placed on members’ personal stories, so there have been programs about a Muslim family’s hajj (Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca), a Christian’s interfaith pilgrimage to holocaust sites and a Jew’s trip to Israel in search of interfaith efforts for peace. Several members of WWIAG were involved with the Anti-Defamation League in the creation an interfaith camp for teens called “Camp IF.” At several WWIAG programs youth participants in Camp IF have presented their experiences of exploring other faith traditions and strengthening their leadership skills. Book Discussions
In addition to lectures and presentations, the group also sponsors discussions of about five books per year, sometimes relevant to a particular speaker (for example, when Diana Eck spoke in 1997, the group read her book Encountering God). Other books that they have studied include some of Karen Armstrong’s works (A History of God and Muhammad), Carol Amway’s Daughters of Another Path (about American Christian women who have converted to Islam), Bruce Feiler’s Abraham, R. Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus (the story of a dialogue between Jewish rabbis and the Dalai Lama about living in exile) and Maria Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World (about how Muslims, Jews and Christians created a culture of tolerance in medieval Spain). The group has also watched videos for educational purposes, such as a Bill Moyers’ interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu on forgiveness and reconciliation, and the video “Weapons of the Spirit,” about resistance to the Holocaust.

Dialogue

Dialogue is the second component of WWIAG’s community-building model. All educational opportunities (lectures, videos, panel discussions, etc.) that WWIAG presents are usually followed by a time of small group dialogue. Each small group has a facilitator (generally one of the members of the WWIAG leadership team) who employs discussion guidelines adapted from Leonard Swidler’s book, The Dialogue Decalogue. On these occasions, participants learn by engaging with the personal stories of their neighbors from other faiths. Annual potluck dinners provide an additional opportunity to engage in informal discussion while enjoying foods from different cultural and religious traditions. For several years in a row, the ICB has also hosted an interfaith iftar (the meal that ends the daily fast during the Muslim observance of Ramadan). The leadership team fosters its own internal sense of community by attending retreats that provide time for reflection and relationship-building.

Action

Advocacy in the Community
In addition to fostering education and dialogue, WWIAG models the importance of community action. Laurie Kay, a member of the leadership group, has stated that WWIAG “gives people a voice who might need one” in the face of the town’s changing religious demographics. She said the group is always attempting to make the community aware of its presence and its function as a resource for addressing religious diversity issues. The group has played an important, practical role in increasing sensitivity to religious issues. Involvement with the Weston School Administration
In the early 1990s, WWIAG participated in public discourse about the local garden club’s annual practice of decorating the public school doors with Christmas wreaths. The community was deeply divided over the issue and held earnest discussions. WWIAG agreed with the superintendent, who drew the line between teaching about religious holidays in an educational context and celebrating religious holidays. It was decided that hanging Christmas wreaths on public school doors was inappropriate because they had no clear instructional purpose. However, Cathy Nicholson, a member of the leadership group, said the tradition was well-established and difficult for the community to let go of, in spite of the increasing diversity in town. Recent interactions with the school administration have revolved around the observance of religious holidays as well as the portrayal of religion in classes. In the spring of 2003, WWIAG wrote a letter to the School Committee recommending that Weston’s high school graduation be changed from the traditional Friday evening, which conflicts with Jewish Sabbath observance. After thoughtful discussion, which included the realization that altering the date would conflict with other religions’ observances, the committee voted not to change the graduation day, which, according to Nicholson, demonstrated the earnest challenge of accommodating religious difference in the public square. On another occasion the Weston high school agreed to permanently reschedule its annual fundraising event from fall to spring so it would never conflict with the Jewish High Holy Days. WWIAG leadership member Tahera Razvi raised the issue of Muslim students fasting during Ramadan, especially those involved in sports. Her daughter Ruheena, who graduated from Weston High in 1993, discussed the importance of teaching religion in the context of history courses, raising her concerns that history textbooks do not portray a clear picture of Islam. In general, WWIAG members said they have found the Weston school administration to be receptive and open to accommodating and appreciating diversity in the public schools. WWIAG also provides a yearly calendar of religious holidays, which is included on its webpage, in its annual mailing to members, and has also been distributed in the past to all teachers in the public schools.

Expanding the Community

Networking Interfaith Organizations
In 2004, WWIAG began an initiative to network interfaith organizations in the “Metro West” area of Boston. “We realized we were tripping over each other,” Kay said, in terms of resources and programs. The group gathered representatives from interfaith groups in several towns, including Lexington, Needham and Wellesley, to discuss how interfaith groups could consolidate their efforts in bringing speakers to the area or programming large-scale events. Nicholson stressed that the intention was for the groups to maintain their individual identities as community groups while sharing resources and operating on a broader scale. Kay mentioned that the groups’ individual identities are essential for building relationships among local communities and addressing issues specific to those communities. Over time, it proved difficult to maintain a local focus and coordinate among many towns, but WWIAG was able to maintain a relationship with its closest neighbor, the Wellesley Interfaith Action Group. In 2008, WWIAG will celebrate its twentieth anniversary, and they are planning to collaborate with the Wellesley group on several public events. Muslim Membership
After 9/11, Muslim groups were overwhelmed by requests to participate in interfaith groups in the area. However, Muslims were integrated into WWIAG quickly and smoothly. Though Muslim membership has increased, there are still fewer Muslims than Christians and Jews in the group. According to Malik Khan, the president of ICB and a member of the leadership group, this is because there are fewer Muslims in the area. Many new immigrants, he explained, have never been exposed to different religions. In Pakistan, his country of origin, there is less religious diversity. Here, he believes, it is an opportunity and a necessity to interact with as many different people as possible, because, he concluded, “you should know the people you live with.” Future Directions

Original research, some of which is reflected here, was conducted by Tracy Wells.