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Interfaith Dialogue Group of Michiana women still going strong 20 years later

The year was 2003 and the pain from the Sept. 11 attacks was still raw.

Two Catholic women, Sister Mary Anne Farina and the late Reg Weissert, saw how many Americans were lumping all Muslims in with the radical Muslim terrorists who carried out the attacks.

They approached the Islamic Society of Michiana, and soon three Catholic women and three Muslim women began meeting monthly. Over the years, protestant women joined, then later some Jewish women.

On Tuesday about 50 women gathered at the Islamic Society to celebrate twenty years together. They’ve met at churches, synagogues, mosques and libraries. They’ve never been concerned with a formal structure or keeping meeting minutes.

In the beginning they were most eager to learn each other’s traditions and customs around births, deaths, weddings and holidays. As they became friends, their talks became more substantive, discussing current events and the everyday issues that we all face as Americans.

Rabia “Yasmin” Shariff, who is Muslim, was with the group from the beginning.

“In the beginning it was a lot of tiptoeing around each other, but once we got to know each other they would ask about families and what’s going on with the parents, and health, and grandchildren,” Shariff said. “It’s really a wonderful group and we’ve learned so much.”

Marzy Bauer, who is Jewish, has been with the Interfaith Dialogue Group since the mid-2000s. She recalls being motivated to reach out to the Islamic Society at that time after a Christian group in Florida burned a Quran.

“The people at Temple Beth El, where I’m a member, were very upset that that would happen in this country,” Bauer said.

Some other women from Bauer’s temple also joined.

“If you get to know someone as a person, you see beyond the stereotypes. So it’s no longer, ‘That’s a Muslim.’ It’s like, ‘That’s my friend.’ So I’ve had people in my religious tradition come up to me and say, ‘Well you know, all Muslims are terrorists.’ And I can say, you know you’re wrong. I can tell you that because I know Muslims and they’re not terrorists.”

Birdie McElroy, who is Christian, joined the group two months after it started. She said it’s been fascinating to learn about other religions.

“But what I’ve learned most of all is that we’re all the same really, just different ways of looking at life because of where we were born or what we’ve been taught,” McElroy said. “But I feel like once you move beyond your limitations, that you can expand your understanding and your love of others, and that’s what this group is about.”

Parrott, a longtime public radio fan, comes to WVPE with about 25 years of journalism experience at newspapers in Indiana and Michigan, including 13 years at The South Bend Tribune. He and Kristi live in Granger and have two children currently attending Indiana University in Bloomington. In his free time he enjoys fixing up their home, following his favorite college and professional sports teams, and watching TV (yes that's an acceptable hobby).