“Eye-Opening” Experiences with the International Association of Liberal Religious Women

By Barbara Kres Beach, founding president, International Women’s Convocation

At Dulles Airport, outside of Washington, DC, I saw a Sikh gentleman behind the United Airlines counter.  I smiled and beckoned.  “Could I ask you a question?”  He motioned to his supervisor to come over.  I finally persuaded him that it was he to whom I wanted to talk.  He came to the edge of the counter. “In Birmingham, England, I visited a Sikh Gurudwara, and I am referring to it in a Webinar I will give in a couple of days.  Can you help me pronounce it correctly?”  He said it; I repeated.  He said it again, and again, with slightly different inflection and gestures to help me understand.  I must have got it; he nodded and smiled, reaching over the counter to shake my hand.  Before I left I thanked him again; he reached out his hand, smiled, and grasped my hand in both of his.

International Association of Liberal Religious WomenA residual interpersonal, inter-religious benefit from attending the International Association of Liberal Religious Women conference?  You bet!  In addition to scheduled speakers, circle groups, groups of young people speaking, there were several trips.  One was to a Sikh Gurudwara, where we learned the tenets of this faith, enjoyed a delicious vegetarian lunch, and participated in the worship.   Another was an amazing visit to Coventry Cathedral—bombed and tragically destroyed during World War II—with an adjacent contemporary cathedral dedicated as a peace memorial.   With such visits, how could we not recommit to inter-religious dialogue and peace-building?

The International Association of Liberal Religious Women (IALRW) is a 100+ year old organization founded by Unitarians and others, which brings together women of many religious faiths—Buddhist, Muslim, Shinto, Christian, and others. They are Malaysian, Philippine, American, British, Indian, Dutch, and Japanese.

Meeting in Birmingham, England in August, the organization serves to promote friendship, communication, and cooperation between like-minded liberal religious women.  Members accept that each may belong to a different faith group, yet all share common values of striving for peace, justice, and harmony–in the heart of the family, the community, and the world.

For their 100th Anniversary, I was honored to be keynote speaker in Cochin, India, in 2011.  This year they asked me to discuss “Sustainable Livelihood,” which offered me the opportunity to share International Women’s Convocation’s (IWC) mission-driven programs in this area.

Perhaps IWC is a curiosity to IALRW.  How can a small group of determined women from different countries accomplish so much in so few years?  My answer is our passion for focused international work and our effective grass roots-driven work for social justice and change.

An attendee asked me “Why do you call your group The International Women’s Convocation”?  My immediate response was “because our name reflects the importance of our convening together.”  It also reflects our inclusivity.   Most of our members are Unitarian Universalists, but like you, we have always explicitly included all women of progressive faith.”   She smiled.

Many of the truly eye-opening events were part of the conference: exceptionally insightful speakers, programs of dance and culture, and several groups of women in their 20s and 30s sharing their vision for justice and peace.

One of the most meaningful presentations was an original one-woman drama written and acted by Lilith Takahashi, a young woman from Japan.  She enacted with insight her traumatic rape experience and its long aftermath.  “In Japan,” she said, “we were always taught to honor our professors.  When my US professor in graduate school came to my door, I let him in.”  In her wrenching performance “I Am a Survivor,” Takahashi discussed her experience with therapists and friends, some of whom even blamed her.  Her performance unleashed our inner woman.International Association of Liberal Religious Women

Circle groups, a conference mainstay, immediately opened up to Takahashi’s work.  The women recounted deeply personal, sometimes emotionally charged, stories of their own abuse, abandonment—and later, their healing and redirection.  Some admitted their healing was incomplete.  To my American ears, the vulnerability and trust that the women showed toward one another was astonishing—and beautiful.

Thinking back on the conference, I reflected on the exceptional leadership of Kathy Matsui, who has served as IALRW president for 8 years and is a member of the IWC Global Sisters Advisory Council. The newly elected president is Dr. Kamar Oniah Kamaruzaman, an amazing woman of Muslim faith.  She is an Associate Professor at the International Islamic University Malaysia and Director of the International Centre for Alliance of Civilizations.

Questions?  Want to talk about this?  Send me an email (barbarakresbeach@gmail.com) and we will set a time when I can call you.