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Houston woman builds bridges in faith community

by Kathryn Haueisen

Nancy Agafitei knows how to plan events that help people explore their faith.

As a former church council president and Women of the ELCA circle vice president at Hosanna Lutheran Church in Houston, Texas, planning events was a task she took on regularly.

When she received a special request from a patron at the library where she worked, she discovered a new passion: bridging the divide between the various faith traditions in her community.

It began when Muslim author and speaker Saadia Faruqi of an Ahmadiyyah Muslim Community asked if she could use the library for an Islamic book fair. Agafitei agreed, and a friendship that has evolved in amazing ways.

Wanting to learn more about Islam, Agafitei applied and received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for her library in 2012. The grant theme was Bridging Cultures: Muslim Journeys.

“One of the grant terms stipulated that we develop a thematic program with community partners,” she said.

Agafitei reached out to two Muslim communities to create presentations about Islamic artistic traditions that included paintings, tiles, videos and speakers.

She has been instrumental in getting her church, Hosanna Lutheran, to partner with Muslim neighbors since.

She helped form monthly discussion groups based on the book, “The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew – Three Women Search for Understanding.”

From that, a women’s group evolved into an interfaith book club that continues to meet five years later. The 23 women who attended a recent meeting represented various faith traditions, including Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, Episcopal, Baptist, Muslim, Unitarian/Universalist and Buddhist.

God’s work, our hands

Three years ago Agafitei invited Muslim neighbors to join Hosanna’s annual “God’s Work. Our Hands” community outreach efforts. Women from both faith traditions now work together to make flannel quilts to donate to a community assistance organization.

In addition, the Ahmadiyyah Muslim Community and Hosanna Lutheran have jointly hosted a blood drive and memorial event to remember the lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Last spring a Bible study member at my church mentioned she’d never met a Muslim,” Agafitei said. “Our WELCA quilting group took that as a challenge to visit to a local mosque.”

The group made six fleece quilts to donate to the Muslim community. They toured the mosque and then ate lunch together.

“It was an enlightening afternoon for everyone,” Agafitei said.

Agafitei said she is passionate about “helping people discover that we’re really all the same.”

Now retired, she said,  “I have deliberately not planned too rigidly what lies ahead. I want to be free to explore options and continue some of the old paths, such as my book club, while exploring something new.”

Agafitei is person who takes the Women of the ELCA purpose statement to heart by promoting “healing and wholeness in the church, the society, and the world.”

Kathy Haueisen is a retired pastor who lives in Texas with her husband and spends her days writing, gardening and wondering what her grandchildren are up to these days. Her most recent call was assisting congregations with capital campaigns through what is now the Mission Investment Fund Capital Campaign Services. She blogs regularly about people and programs making a positive contribution to society at www.howwisethen.com.