Jackie Purcell was telling a friend last week about her book club, an eclectic and ecumenical gathering of women that includes Christians, a Muslim and a Jew.
Well, that’ll be contentious, he told her, given the renewed violence in the Middle East and the heightened tension it has created between Muslims and Jews around the world.
“But he doesn’t get it,” Purcell told 10 of her fellow club members gathered in a Glendale, Wis., living room on a recent Thursday night.
“This is the safest place to be . . . where there is understanding on the table,” said Purcell, an Episcopalian from Port Washington, Wis. “I can’t imagine being anywhere but here when this is going on in the world.”
Purcell and her fellow bibliophiles have come together as a “faith club” inspired by the 2006 book by three New York City women — a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew — whose collaboration on a children’s book in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks gave way to a profound and sometimes difficult probing of their own and each others’ faiths.
The resulting memoir, “The Faith Club,” has generated hundreds of groups around the country, they say, founded by readers hungry for a more meaningful connection with people of different faiths.
“When you get to know another person as a human being, your whole thought process is forever altered. You can see the world from all ways,” said “The Faith Club” co-author Priscilla Warner, who is Jewish.
“When I hear stories like this,” she said of the evolution of the Milwaukee-area group, “it really refuels me. I remember the early days, and I’m so excited that others are going on this journey.”
The local group’s journey began with Rachel Gutridge, now a retired Grafton, Wis., schoolteacher, who was looking for a way to talk about her Christian beliefs. Her pastor recommended Marcus J. Borg’s “The Heart of Christianity,” and she drafted a few of her colleagues, some already retired, who dubbed themselves “The Borg Babes.”
They followed with a second book, then happened onto “The Faith Club.”
“And we realized there was so much more we could be doing here,” said Mary Metz, one of the original members.
They invited retired teacher Sue Zellin, who is Jewish, to join, then “went fishing,” they say, “for a Muslim.”
They caught Rafat Arain at a Muslim-Catholic interfaith event, and they immediately clicked.
“It was just coincidental, but I believe it was God’s work,” said Arain, of Brookfield, Wis., who has forged a deep bond with her fellow members.
“I love these women,” said Arain. “We have so much in common, as mothers, as wives, as human beings.”
That was apparent Thursday when they met at Gail Proite Adams’ home to take up the first two chapters of Bruce Feiler’s “Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths.”
Easy laughter peppered the conversation as they meandered from the book to their personal lives — their families, their work — and back again.
Arain and Zellin touched briefly on the conflict in Gaza.
No attacks. No recriminations.
There was a subtle defense of each side, a shared mourning for the loss of life and a recognition that it would beget only more violence.
Gutridge brought them back with a passage from the “Abraham” book that speaks to conflicts like those in Gaza and touches on the essence of the faith club movement.
“The relationship between a person and another human being is what creates and allows for a relationship with God,” Feiler writes, quoting a source who’d studied in both Catholic and Jewish schools.
“If you’re not capable of living with each other and getting along with each other, then you’re not capable of having a relationship with God.”
Interestingly, members say, there can be more dissension among Christian members than their Jewish and Muslim counterparts.
“Mary and I are of the same faith . . . but we argue all the time,” said Purcell.
The book club has deepened their understanding, not just of each others’ faiths, but of their own, they say.
Zellin, for example, is now in weekly Torah study, inspired by Arain’s command of the Bible’s Old Testament.
“I felt like she knew more about my religion than I did,” Zellin said.
Their biggest concern now is how to keep the group a manageable size. Nearly everyone who hears about it asks to join.
And while members want to increase their diversity, they fear losing the intimacy their small group affords.
So they are encouraging others to start their own faith clubs.
“It’s just taken on a life of its own,” Metz said. “It’s just wonderful that people want to do this.”