“If you tell me what is going on in my community in five years then I can tell you probably what we would be doing.” This five year plan for the interfaith group Women Transcending Boundaries (WTB) is precisely what one might expect of an organization with its fingers on the pulse of the local community. Organized in 2001 by Betsy Wiggins and Danya Wellmon, WTB is an example of a bridge-building interfaith organization that emerged from the tragedy of 9/11. Soon after the terrorist attacks, Wiggins reached out to the Islamic Society of Central New York, with a desire to offer support to the women of the masjid (mosque). Wellmon, a leader at the ISCNY, accepted Wiggins’ invitation to meet for coffee. There at that meeting, in the breakfast nook of Wiggins’ kitchen, a friendship—and soon an organization—was born. The two women bonded over their common concern for the backlash playing out against Muslim women in the Syracuse in the wake of September 11, 2001. Two weeks later, each brought nine friends to Wiggins’ home for the first meeting of the nascent organization. Over a decade later Women Transcending Boundaries boasts a mailing list over five hundred women—college students, retirees, professionals, and homemakers—in addition to a rotating leadership council of fifteen. The exponential growth of the organization has only deepened members’ commitment to responding to the needs of their community, a focus that remains at the heart of the mission and work of Women Transcending Boundaries.
Through myriad programs and initiatives, WTB exemplifies a commitment to service that engages “head, heart, [and] feet.” The organization sponsors local and international service projects and hosts monthly meetings, educational visits to religious centers, and cooking classes for members to share their favorite family and traditional recipes. Often these service projects promote literacy and address issues affecting women and children: for example, in 2003 the organization raised over eight thousand dollars to build a school in Pakistan. Bi-annual international dinners serve as fundraisers for these efforts. Currently, WTB is a proud supporter of a community garden on Syracuse’s north side, a commitment they share with neighbors, refugees, and other local organizations.
Acts of Kindness Weekend (A-OK! Weekend), launched in 2010, is an excellent example of how the organization’s programming gives legs to its ideals. Organizers noticed that when the economy continued to decline, everyone was affected; many local non-profits “who had been doing very good work for many, many, many years” were “really struggling.” “One of the greatest gifts,” Wiggins explains, is that “we have formed relationships with so many other organizations…that care about our community.” She described the decline of support for local non-profits as a kind of “slow shatter” as opposed to the “huge explosion of 9/11,” threatening to dissolve the community’s infrastructure. “The idea behind A-OK! Weekendis to bring to public awareness the good work our non-profits are doing and at the same time, provide an opportunity… for volunteers to get involved with this community.” Wiggins adds, “And our hope is that it won’t just be for that weekend, that people will understand that there is this organization that can use their help all year long.” The first A-OK! Weekend involved over 100 organizations and drew volunteers to serve at seven project hubs around the city.
Wiggins attributes the success of WTB to their strong relationships with their stakeholders. Lacking the resources of a larger organization, she explains, “we depend on the generosity and vision of…the Syracuse community to value the projects Women Transcending Boundaries is involved in.” In addition to the success of A-OK! Weekend, there are other telling signs that members of the community welcome the work of Women Transcending Boundaries. Wiggins describes the practice of “Circle of Care” where women and men, members and non-members, contact the organization to share their concerns and to ask “Would you hold me in the light, or chant for me, or pray for me?” And they do. Many involved with Women Transcending Boundaries, described by Wiggins as more like “a sisterhood,” understands this as a service—and a blessing—to help these individuals in their most vulnerable times.
WTB strives to make sure that all women involved with the organization “feel like their time, energy, and their opinions are valued.” A concern about the community is the only prerequisite to be involved in the group’s work. While there are many traditions represented in the leadership of the organization (including Bahá’í, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Wiccan, to name just a few), belonging to a particular faith tradition is not required to become a WTB member or to take on a leadership role in the organization.
The depth at which the women engage one another and their community is evident in their programming and in their presence. “ If there were a tragedy like 9/11 again our community come together. There would be an immediate community response and we would gather people together to examine whatever it was that had happened and determine what an appropriate response would be. In contrast, ten years ago there were public ceremonies but there wasn’t a real forum for people to come together.” Out of tragedy, new friendships and purpose offer hope.
Women Transcending Boundaries began when two women refused to allow fear to build walls of mistrust. The organization continues to thrive; two women meeting for coffee became twenty, then forty, eighty, and now includes hundreds of women reaching out to make Central New York a better place. They charge themselves to “shar[e] [their] experiences with the wider community, to educate, and to serve.” In a recent PBS interview profiling WTB’s interfaith efforts in the decade since 9/11, Wellmon noted: “We have so much more that we can build here, something positive, than to, you know, stay focused on what divides us.” In a world where boundaries are all too common and bridge building is often an arduous, long-term commitment, these women have proven they are up to the challenge.
 “Interfaith Relations Ten Years On.” Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. PBS. 2 September 2011. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/september-2-2011/interfaith-relations-ten-years-later/9416/ ↩