For the members of Weston-Wayland Interfaith Action Group (WWIAG), the deeply rooted friendships of the ever growing committed leadership group form the core of their efforts. Entirely volunteer-driven, this 23 year-old interfaith group is well recognized in MetroWest Boston, in part because of its collaborative partnerships with other interfaith leaders and organizations. The mostly affluent and richly diverse towns of Weston and Wayland offer an unusual setting for interfaith involvement, yet the story of WWIAG is about learning to actively engage with the other.
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 anti-Semitic incidents occurred at Weston High School. Co-chair Cathy Nicholson describes: “At a public school seminar on discrimination, participants were asked to think what would make Weston a more hospitable place in which to live. Some of us wanted to know more about each other’s religion.” The conversations began between Christians and Jews and expanded to include Muslims in 1995. Historically, the group transcends conversation through action. Their commitment to promoting interfaith awareness is based on building close relationships among group members through dialogue and exerting influence over controversial community issues like educating public school administrators why children participating in Ramadan might face health risks if required to attend gym class.
WWIAG is as a grassroots organization that is deeply in touch with the community it serves. Like many other organizations, WWIAG actively seeks new membership. WWIAG counts over 400 people on their mailing list and recently extended beyond the Abrahamic tradition with the addition of a Hindu member of the leadership group. Founding member Joyce Pastor describes the structure of the group as “very loose, but what we do is not loose.” Leadership meetings are always open to the public where votes dictate future events and initiatives. 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.”
WWIAG’s frequent potluck dinners represent the collective and hospitable nature of their work: members share responsibility for food preparation; meat and alcohol are forbidden (fish is acceptable according to halal practice). Potlucks also provide a personal context for nurturing relationships among members: at a recent barbeque, a birthday celebration was an important part of the evening. Other public events such as film screenings, guest lectures and annual meetings rotate between houses of worship so members can explore each other’s sacred spaces.
WWIAG’s mission is “to build community by developing a better understanding, acceptance, and appreciation of our individual, cultural, and religious differences though education, dialogue, and action.” By applying this mission to the challenges of the local community, WWIAG has helped change the character of local interfaith relationships. For example, Pastor explains how the community has benefitted from WWIAG’s work especially related to anti-Semitism: “I believe it is all about education. The Jewish-Christian piece we educated about, the Jewish piece has come a long way since I came into town. Now the challenge, I think, is educating the local and wider community about Islam.” WWIAG’s focus has changed over time to fit the needs of their community, but the goal of acceptance remains the same. Kay, described by WWIAG members as an “incredible organizer,” states that WWIAG “comes together to not allow one faith to ever stand alone in their concern.”
WWIAG’s strength was tested on September 11th, 2001 after the death of a leadership member’s son on a flight from Boston. Members of WWIAG joined together with many others at a Newton synagogue to honor his life. Then, as a group, they united to support their Muslim friends at The Islamic Center of Boston in 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 member’s respective faiths, WWIAG offers a trusting place to tackle difficult issues. Although they steer away from politics, the leadership team has recently grappled with challenges of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through films, workshops, and book discussions.
Ten years after 9/11, WWIAG faces new challenges of expanding membership to younger generations and offering programming that appeals to people of non-Abrahamic faiths. However, those involved over the last 23 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.”