In the wake of the 2014 shootings of William Corporon, Reat Underwood and Terri LaManno at the Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom, several programs took shape in Johnson County with the goal of increasing understanding in the community. One that’s still going strong is Strangers No More.
The idea behind it is to bring women together to understand each other’s faiths — particularly Christianity and Judaism — better.
It came together after former Kansas State Rep. Nancy Brown and Sharon Ritter, who was president of United Methodist Women at the Church of the Resurrection, read an open letter written by Rabbi Mark Levin. His letter contended that people of different faiths in the community were strangers to each other.
Brown, who recently lost a battle with cancer, reached out to Judy Hellman, who was serving as the associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau. The two knew each other from the time they spent together helping found the MainStream Coalition.
“I grew up having Jewish friends and was really distressed that they might be feeling alone, afraid, ostracized and not an important part of the community,” Ritter said. “Speaking from the Christian perspective, as the majority in this city, it’s certainly incumbent on us to make the first move.”
They all met together, along with Hellman’s sister Marcia Rittmaster, and planned a one-time program where a pastor and a rabbi addressed a mixed group of Jewish and Christian women. The women then sat together at tables and talked with each other about their religions’ similarities and differences.
The program was so popular that they continued to plan other formal events but also had a group that met frequently for coffee to ask each other questions and discuss issues of faith.
“It’s all pretty much based in faith, but the topics vary,” Hellman said. “Anything comes up. Even when you start a topic, it can go anywhere, which is kind of the fun part about it.”
Those topics might include the Christian idea of grace, anti-Semitism or how your faith informs your view on gun violence.
“Anti-Semitism is certainly something that I think everyone wanted to learn more about. Most of us as Christians have never experienced any kind of religious discrimination, and almost all Jews probably have at some time,” Ritter said.
There are some ground rules.
“No proselytizing, no politics, and don’t discuss the Middle East, because that’s too divisive. There’s no way to talk about it at an hour and a half meeting,” Hellman said.
Women joining the discussion feel comfortable asking questions they might otherwise feel awkward bringing up.
“It’s hard for some of them to understand how we could not believe in Jesus. It’s such a big part of their lives,” Hellman said.
Overall, the goal is understanding.
“I think that Jews learned a lot about our beliefs and are trying to understand some complex topics, such as the trinity, at least the way we see it,” Ritter said. “Each group gets to define for themselves what their religion is. It prevents someone coming and saying, ‘You guys think this,’ instead of sitting back and listening to what the person who’s actually in that category believes or feels.”
Once a year, the group gets together to do a service project, such as making children’s birthday kits for the Jewish Family Services food pantry or collecting books for Operation Breakthrough.
Even after outgrowing the space at the cafe where they originally met, they’ve continued to meet about twice a month. With the pandemic, they’ve shifted their discussions to Zoom.
“There’s a genuine interest in each other’s beliefs and practices, and the welcoming hands of friendship that are offered is an indication that we share more than what divides us,” Hellman said.
Not only do the meetings foster new relationships and knowledge, they also can help attendees study their own religions with a deeper focus.
“I think it’s possible to learn more about another religion and even increase your own faith. It’s not one or the other. You can actually deepen both understandings,” Ritter said.
The next Zoom discussion is from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 3. Anyone interested in joining those discussions can inquire at the group’s Facebook page, Strangers No More: Women Building Bridges to Understanding.