Neta (NEE-tuh) Jackson's THE YADA YADA PRAYER GROUP can be recommended on many levels and from many perspectives, but the one that has stuck with me in the week since I finished the novel is her fresh, nonjudgmental take on interracial and interfaith relations. All too often, the most well-meaning Christians preach peace among different races and religions, but we don't practice it --- we're far too busy staying comfortable in our own denominations and churches that mirror our own habits and beliefs (and anyone who has read conservative pundit David Brooks's analysis of "red" versus "blue" America, referring to liberals and conservatives, will know that this is true).
Jackson not only practices what she preaches (she and her husband/writing partner Dave attend an interracial Christian worship community), she writes about it, too. Her protagonist, Jodi Baxter, and husband Doug live in Chicago's diverse Rogers Park neighborhood, having moved there in order to answer the Lord's call to build bridges across the racial divide. Caucasian Jodi, a third-grade teacher, decides to attend a spiritual women's conference with her principal, African-American Avis. The two women couldn't be more different: Jodi is casual, bubbly and enmeshed in a happily chaotic life with a spouse and two teenagers, while the elegant and low-key Avis lives alone and seems to be quite happy to keep it that way.
But if Jodi and Avis seem to be worlds apart, they find that their differences are infinitesimal compared to those between themselves and the women with whom they are thrown together in their conference prayer group. From irrepressible Florida to reluctant Yo-Yo to near-perfect Stu to nervous Chanda and beyond, this is a group that could have only been brought together by administrative chance --- or by God's hand.
Almost immediately God's hand is felt when one member's son is injured and the group decides to keep a nightlong prayer vigil by the woman's side. After that experience, "Prayer Group 26" (as they were designated by stickers on their conference packets) decides to keep in touch via email --- and to take on their special name, derived from a chance remark by Yo-Yo and shown to be nearly perfect by Ruth (a Messianic Jew whose Yiddishisms are a funny counterpoint to the African-American women's speech patterns).
Soon the "Yada Yadas" have made all sorts of plans, including a round robin of visits to each other's home churches. But their true camaraderie is not without problems and pain. Misunderstandings and miscommunications are frequent, and Florida's quest to be reunited with her long-lost daughter causes one of the worst of these. Still, each time the Yada Yadas find fault or don't connect, their powerful individual faiths shine through. Jackson's depiction of these very different yet very sincere faiths is one of the shining strengths of her book. The author does not try to pretend that just because we are one in Christ Jesus, we are one and the same.
THE YADA YADA PRAYER GROUP is a truly refreshing read. However, it's also a book with a deeply felt message. All along, we have seen the prayer group through Jodi's perspective, and her perspective is that of a woman who has led a happy and comfortable life. She brushes away the dissatisfactions that surface from time to time or tries to deal with them in a super-efficient, elementary-school teacher way. Finally, Jodi winds up --- very much through the fault of her own --- in a situation that cannot be dealt with via email, or swept up into a casserole like so many leftovers. It's what she and the Yada Yadas do then that makes this little novel a must-read.
Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on September 1, 2003