Women's voices for interfaith engagement

Women of faith have a vital role to play in rebuilding from the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Panelists’ own
Women of faith have a vital role to play in rebuilding from the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Panelists’ own

A webinar marking World Interfaith Harmony Week highlights the role of women in post-COVID cooperation

(LWI) - Women of faith have a vital role to play in promoting more effective dialogue and cooperation in a world struggling to overcome the divisive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. That conviction was shared by Jewish, Buddhist and Christian participants in a webinar organized by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELCF) to mark the 1- 7 February observance of World Interfaith Harmony Week.

The online encounter, entitled ‘Women and Interfaith Engagement: sharing lessons learnt during COVID-19 and beyond’, showcased the urgency of reaching out across religious and ethnic divides to promote greater solidarity and support for those worst affected by the global pandemic.

In opening remarks, the WCC’s Program Coordinator for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation, Rev. Dr Peniel Rajkumar, shared hopes that the discussion would counter common perceptions of interfaith dialogue as an “elitist” and abstract occupation. The goal, he said, is to highlight “how women, through their interreligious engagement, have been agents of hope, hospitality and healing” in a world struggling with COVID-19, as well as “many other pandemics.”

Theological, emotional and practical engagement

Rev. Dr Elina Hellqvist, interim director of the ELCF’s Office for Global Mission, noted that interfaith dialogue is a relatively new area for the church in Finland, where two thirds of the population are Lutheran and may rarely encounter a person from another faith tradition. But she emphasized how much practical engagement goes on at grassroots level, such as the interaction of children from different faith backgrounds in playschool or other educational contexts.

In Finland, she said, "we see more women involved in interfaith dialogue than in many other parts of the church life,” including ecumenical engagement, which is often seen as “men's business”. While women’s “practical attitude to everyday life” can be seen as a strength, it can also distract attention from “the big discussions” about faith values and principles, she added.

“I come from a church that is very preoccupied with rationality, theological statements and theological reflection,” she continued, but it is important to have a holistic approach, integrating “emotions and everyday interaction” while searching for the “theological answers.” At this time of COVID-19, it is also an important task for all theologians and religious leaders to combat disinformation and fear around the vaccines, she said.

A special kind of resilience

Dr Debbie Weissman, former president of the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ), noted how many of the nations and U.S states led by women “seem to have done somewhat better in fighting the pandemic". Women have been “marginalized in our own cultures and faith communities,” she said, so “maybe have developed a certain kind of empathy or identification with others who are similarly marginalized,” resulting in the development of “a special kind of resilience.”

Referring to her 2017 book entitled ‘Memories of a hopeful pessimist,’ Weissman said she is pessimistic about “the resurgence of anti-Semitism and other forms of racism” but hopeful about the ongoing efforts to encourage dialogue and bridge the digital divide. There is “too much emphasis on needing an enemy to be strong,” she commented, adding that “we need to take pride in our ethnic, religious and gender identity without being prejudiced against those who are different from us.”

Dr Gaya Gamhewage, head of Learning and Capacity Development for the World Health Organization's Health Emergencies Program, spoke from her perspective as a woman shaped by the Buddhist values and culture of her native Sri Lanka. Describing herself as not “a religious person, but a woman of faith,” she said getting to know people from all faith traditions through her work has helped her to understand “the connectedness of humanity.” Young women need role models, she added, showcasing the ability to be both strong leaders, as well as “people of faith and compassion.”

First International Day of Human Fraternity

For centuries, Gamhewage continued, women’s disadvantaged position in society has enabled them “to see things from a different perspective, to embrace vulnerability, to have humility, to have discipline, but also to really ache and hurt while others are in pain.” Seventy percent of the world’s health force is made up of women, she noted, yet only twenty-five percent of the people in health leadership are women and many of those who died in the first six months of the pandemic were women health workers.

The younger generation may carry the burden of the pandemic for the rest of their lives,” so faith communities must tackle “barriers that hinder participation and inclusion.
Rev. Dr Elina Hellqvist, interim director of the ELCF’s Office for Global Mission

Participants spoke of the long-term consequences of COVID-19, including mental health issues and increased domestic violence in many countries. Women of faith, they said, can model the kind of “listening and learning” from marginalized communities that is needed to rebuild resilience. Rev. Hellqvist said “the younger generation may carry the burden of the pandemic for the rest of their lives,” so faith communities must tackle the “barriers that hinder participation and inclusion,” ensuring that “all can have a voice” in the search for lasting solutions.

As moderator for the online conversation, LWF’s Program Executive for Public Theology and Interreligious Relations, Rev. Dr Sivin Kit highlighted the variety of “spiritual insights”, as well as “scientific perspectives and practical examples” articulated by the “three women of faith from different religious, academic, and social backgrounds.” The webinar took place on 4 February, established by the United Nations this year as the first International Day of Human Fraternity.

LWF/P. Hitchen