The deeply rooted friendships among the leadership team of the Weston-Wayland Interfaith Action Group (WWIAG) form the core of the organization’s efforts. Entirely volunteer-driven since its founding in 1988, this non-profit interfaith group is well recognized in the greater Boston area as it continues to fulfill its mission “to build community by developing understanding of our cultural and religious similarities and differences through education, dialogue, and action.” WWIAG has strived to balance collaboration with other interfaith entities while staying true to its roots of serving the locality in which it is based.
In 1988, WWIAG grew out of the reality that the community was becoming more diverse and some residents wanted to know their new Jewish neighbors. At the same time, a handful of anti-Semitic incidents occurred at Weston High School. Co-chair Cathy Nicholson describes: “At a PTO seminar on discrimination, participants were asked to think what would make Weston a more hospitable place to live. Some of us wanted to know more about each other’s religion.” The conversations began between Christians and Jews with a 12 week course on the Holocaust led by Facing History and Ourselves in the fall of 1988 and expanded to include Muslims in 1995.
WWIAG’s strength was tested on September 11th, 2001 after the death of a leadership member’s son on the American flight from Boston. Members of WWIAG joined together with many others at a Newton synagogue to honor his life. Then they united as a group to support their Muslim friends at The Islamic Center of Boston in the nearby town of Wayland. Tahera Razvi recalled: “People from the group [WWIAG]…were there so we could pray in peace.” Razvi remembered one member stating, “We will be here; we will be standing in front of the Islamic Center to make sure that everything is safe and your service is held.” By supporting members’ respective faiths, WWIAG offers a trusting place to tackle difficult issues. Although the group steers away from politics, the leadership team has grappled with challenges like the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through films, workshops, and book discussions.
In 2014 a Hindu group joined WWIAG for a short time. Historically WWIAG has largely been an Abrahamic interfaith endeavor, but they aspire to diversify and aim to be as inclusive as possible. In recent years, WWIAG has sought to respond to a national increase in Islamophobia by focusing on educating community members about Islam.
The group focuses more on action than conversation. Its commitment to promoting interfaith awareness is based on building relationships among attendees of their programs through dialogue and also exerting influence over controversial community issues like educating public school administrators on why children observing in Ramadan cannot eat lunch and might face health risks if required to attend gym class. WWIAG’s regular yearly programming for the public includes two educational events as well as a winter potluck dinner, recently with interfaith musical entertainment. WWIAG’s potluck dinners represent the collective and hospitable nature of their work and nurture relationships among those who attend. Meat and alcohol are forbidden in order to comply with kosher and halal rules. There is also an annual retreat for the leadership which all members are welcome to attend.
WWIAG sometimes holds events in neutral, non-religiously affiliated spaces, such as a local library or community center. At other times they rotate among houses of worship so that members can explore each other’s sacred spaces. WWIAG’s programming is based upon community needs and interests. For example, in 2010 the group held an Interfaith Hospice Program series, educating the public about multi-faith perspectives on optimal end of life care, grief, bereavement and healing. WWIAG also seeks to support their neighbors in times of unrest. For example, when a rally took place at the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland to protest a hate letter they received, WWIAG members were there to support their Muslim friends.
WWIAG is well-established and as such, other organizations periodically approach the group to ask for help in times of community need. For example, the Weston Superintendent recently asked WWIAG to help the town respond to an anti-Semitic incident in a local school. WWIAG invited the Weston PTO to co-sponsor their upcoming program titled “Discrimination: Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, Racism” to learn what can be done to foster understanding of “the other.” Speakers included the Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Massachusetts, the former Executive Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of New England, the Minister at Roxbury Presbyterian Church, and the Director of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard. The event concluded with a presentation by local students involved in Students Together Opposing Prejudice (STOP).
WWIAG is a grassroots organization that is deeply in touch with the communities it serves. Like many other organizations, WWIAG actively seeks new membership and has been pleased to recently see more young people joining their leadership team, which in 2017 consists of 16 people. At monthly leadership meetings future events and initiatives are planned. Three spokespersons represent Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
Founding member Joyce Pastor describes the structure of the group as “very loose, but what we do is not loose.” Member Laurie Kay describes, “You just feel like you have everybody on your side…the bottom line about this group is everyone works to make our educational programs successful and no one feels left alone in their work.” Those involved over the last 29 years recognize the role and impact WWIAG has had on their own lives as well. Nicholson notes, “It has definitely enriched me and made me more open and respectful of other people. I have learned a great deal from my friends in WWIAG about their traditions. But it has also made me look inward at my own.” Nicholson believes that the need for local grassroots interfaith groups such as WWIAG is stronger than ever.