After tea and homemade sweets, the Soul Sisters are ready to get down to business.

But first, the women - two Catholics, two Jews, and two Muslims - hold hands around a dining-room table in Voorhees.

They listen silently as group member and host Zahida Rahman recites lines from the opening chapter of the Quran, including:

"Ihdena seraatal mustaqeem."

"Show us the right path," she translates.

For the next 90 minutes, the six South Jersey women, most of them retired professionals, have a conversation centered on faith and grounded in friendship.

There's much laughter, a tear or two, and plenty of fun. Nothing, it seems, is off the table.

"It really does matter if you have people who can listen," says retired educator Jane Kopas, 80, of Maple Shade.

Along with fellow Catholic Pat Sandrow, a social worker from Cherry Hill, Kopas launched the group's monthly sessions in September 2011.

No one seems to remember who came up with the "Soul Sisters" name, but they all love it. As do I.

"We found that we do better without planning what we're going to talk about in advance," explains Cherry Hill resident Harriet Schulman. (She introduces herself to me as "one of the Jews.")

"Meaningful topics just come up over dessert," Schulman adds. "It's the chemistry."

Subjects personal, philosophical, theological, and political indeed are in the mix on the recent evening the sisters graciously include me as a guest.

I ask questions at the beginning and end of the session. But mostly, I listen.

"This whole thing about banning the burkini," says Cherry Hill resident and retired businesswoman Farhat Biviji, a self-described retired grandmother of five and a Muslim.

"Where do they come off with that? How can you just decide one particular group of people cannot express their identity?" Biviji, 63, asks in a tone of gentle exasperation.

"I couldn't believe it. They don't want somebody to go to the beach and enjoy themselves?" says an incredulous Charlene Fenster, 72, a retired museum educator who is Jewish and lives in Cherry Hill.

"The main problem is the media," says Rahman, a board member of the Muslim American Community Association in Voorhees.

"There are so many good people, and they don't show that."

Rahman and her late husband, Zia, led an effort to defuse community tensions over the association's first mosque in the township in the early 2000s.

She and the other future Soul Sisters became acquainted through interfaith efforts made by the Diocese of Camden and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Southern New Jersey after the 9/11 attacks and a subsequent uproar over the proposed Voorhees mosque.

"The Soul Sisters are important because they're a grassroots effort by people of different faiths to understand more about one another's spiritual journey," says the Rev. Joseph Wallace, diocesan director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the last 25 years.

"They help to foster greater understanding, and peaceful living."

Wallace didn't add, "in these angry times." But with current discourse about differences often uncivil at best and at worst unhinged, the tone around the table at Rahman's house is not only refreshing, but heartening.

"The group helps to make my world wider, and bigger," says Kopas, who taught at the University of Scranton for 23 years. "It has helped enlarge my vision."

Says Sandrow: "These five ladies truly are my sisters. We have connected with each other for a reason: God in our lives."

The Soul Sisters, she adds, "have been such a blessing to me. And I love them dearly."

The women agree that the time spent breaking bread, talking, listening, learning, and praying together has created a familial bond.

They've supported one another during personal crises and the occasional disagreement at the table - most often about social issues.

"The person who is being disagreed with doesn't feel threatened," Schulman says. "We have definite differences of opinion, but we don't get heated."

"We don't have to," says Sandrow.

Says Biviji, "This is what I believe: Just because I'm right, you're not wrong."

Imagine that.

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan