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Friday, April 2, 2021

Here is the Church, Here is the Steeple: Supporting Sacred Places in the COVID-19 Era | By Danielle Lehr Schagrin

My dad taught me the old nursery rhyme: with his fingers laced inward, index fingers pointing up, and thumbs meeting, he’d recite, “Here is the church, here is the steeple. Open the doors, see all the people!” He would move his thumbs to reveal the “congregants” inside. Then, he would change the rhyme to describe church on Monday, this time lacing his fingers on the outside of his hands: “Here is the church, here is the steeple. Open the doors, where’s all the people?” Feigning shock, he would shift his thumbs to show his empty palms. 

This lighthearted rhyme has taken on new poignancy in the age of COVID-19. Although many houses of worship have remained open throughout the pandemic—often providing food, shelter, healthcare, and other essential services—others remain closed, opting to continue with communal worship via Zoom. Even with confidence in in-person worship on the rise in the United States, six-in-ten American Christians say they will spend another Easter worshiping at home, according to a recent study from the Pew Research Center. I’ll be one of them. 

It’s been over a year since I have set foot inside a church. I miss hearing the muted tones of the organ just before I enter the vestibule. I miss the smell of Easter lilies and old hymnals. I miss sitting in hued streams of light that pour through stained-glass windows. And while I’ll gladly continue to stay home until I am fully vaccinated, I won’t deny my eagerness to experience the unique spiritual comfort and awe I feel when I’m inside a church.

The absence has made my heart grow fonder for sacred places. Unfortunately, the antithetical adage of “out of sight, out of mind” may also ring true as church leaders anxiously wait to find out if their congregations will return after COVID. Without in-person attendance and regular income from collection baskets and parish fundraisers, our houses of worship face the possibility of permanent closure along with small businesses, museums, and other cultural institutions—but do we value sacred places as highly? 

Vanessa Avery, executive director of Sharing Spaces, Inc., encapsulated the value of churches in the Winter 2021 issue of Sacred Places magazine, a publication of Partners for Sacred Places. In her article about an interreligious church restoration project, Avery explained that “a church is not simply a body of believers, nor is it just stone and mortar. Sacred spaces demonstrate the history, interests, hopes, concerns, and values of the people who use them.” It is that combination of people and place, the meeting of the material and the spiritual, and the intersection of the past and the future that makes our churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and meeting houses worth preserving.

If you care about our historic places of worship and you want to communicate that value to others, there are a few things you can do to support the faith communities that maintain them: 

  1. Donate to a congregation’s historic preservation efforts. As many congregations and religious orders work to provide for the needs of their communities, vital maintenance and preservation work often goes undone. Ask your local place of worship about their preservation needs or consider donating to Partners for Sacred Places, which provides grant funds and training to congregations across the country. 

  2. Take a walk in a historic cemetery. In addition to being spiritually rewarding, visiting a local historic cemetery or churchyard is a great way to connect with your community’s religious history. Remember to be respectful and check the website or call ahead for visitor information. 

  3. Make your list of sacred places to visit. There are many religious sites in the Greater Philadelphia Area that welcome visitors for worship or guided tours. You may not be ready to visit just yet, but why not use this time to prepare? BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (Robbinsville, NJ), Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church (Queen Village), The Miraculous Medal Shrine (Germantown), Beth Sholom Synagogue (Elkins Park), Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church (Society Hill), and the Arch Street Meeting House (Old City) top my “to visit” list. Remember to be respectful and check the website or call ahead for visitor information.

Which sacred places top your “to visit” list? What do you miss about attending in-person worship? What other steps can we take to support sacred places during these challenging times? Share your ideas in the comments below!

Danielle Lehr Schagrin grew up in the Episcopal and Roman Catholic traditions. She is currently Director of Development & Marketing at Cranaleith Spiritual Center, a mission of the Sisters of Mercy in Northeast Philadelphia. A public historian by trade, Danielle is interested in the intersections of faith, community, and historic preservation.

Photo 1:

Thanks to a generous grant from the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, the church where I was baptized (The Church of the Redeemer in Andalusia, PA) is taking this time to complete vital restoration work on its stained-glass windows. This project will make the church more comfortable and energy efficient when it reopens for in-person worship.

Photo 2:

Last Easter, my husband and I took a long morning walk around Lancaster Cemetery , a Victorian-era cemetery in Lancaster, PA. The site is open to visitors and is still an active burial ground.

Interfaith Prayer: Pathways Towards Peace and Reconciliation | By Msgr. Gregory Fairbanks

Pope Francis recently completed an Apostolic visit to Iraq. Among the many memorable moments in that historic visit, the one that stood out for me was the interreligious meeting on the plains of Ur, the ancestral home of Patriarch Abraham. Abraham is revered by three major world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

As I watched that important meeting, and listened to the words of the participants, my thoughts went back to the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi in 2011. There have been several of these events, begun by St. Pope John Paul in 1986. Subsequent gatherings have occurred there since then in 2002, 2011 and 2016. I had the privilege of having a small part in the 2011 gathering.

A few days before the 2011 gathering in Assisi, many of the participants (which included approximately 60 Catholics, 60 Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant Christians, 65 Muslims, 65 Buddhists, eight Jews, seven Hindus, six Shintos, five Sikhs, four non-believers, three Confucists, three Taoists, one Jain, one Baha’i and one Zoroastrian) began to arrive at the Rome Airport. Three Vatican offices coordinated the welcoming of the delegates. I was working at the time in the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, and my ‘desk’ had responsibility for Christians of the Reformed tradition, Baptists, Anabaptists, Church of Scotland and the Salvation Army. The airport was filled with delegates of all the world’s religions, all gathering in Rome. One of the delegates quietly remarked to me as he witnessed the arrivals of so many religious leaders that he was astonished that such a gathering could be “pulled off.” We spoke several times over the next few days, and my initial pride in the event gave way to a deeper understanding of one of the many roles of the Papacy – an office of unity.

As a Catholic, I look to the Catholic Church for guidance and teaching. I look to the Pope as a spiritual leader, the Vicar of Christ on Earth. I know non-Catholics would not acknowledge this, and that is OK. The Pope, however, is in a unique position as the spiritual leader of the world’s largest religion. The Catholic Church is “catholic” – the word catholic means universal. It is present on every continent and is in almost every nation on earth. It was a gift to be a part of such of a gathering – and to have meet and prayed alongside so many religious leaders. It was the most “catholic” (universal) thing I have ever done!

If we cannot pray together or alongside each other – how can there be peace on earth and goodwill towards all? We cannot solve all the world’s problems, but we can come together and pray for peace and understanding. That is being truly catholic.

It can happen – if we dare to try.

Monsignor Fairbanks is on Interfaith Philadelphia's Board, and is currently serving as the Dean of the School of Diaconal Formation and as a professor of Church History at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, PA.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Naw-Ruz and the Celebration of Baha’i New Year | By Gity Etemad, MD

Baha’is all over the world will celebrate Naw-Ruz as the annual, celebratory feast of renewal - the spiritual and physical springtime. But for Baha’is, Naw-Ruz isn’t only a party – it serves as a symbolic reminder of the oneness of all the messengers of God, and the spiritual springtime they each brought to humanity. Naw-Ruz is a feast of hospitality and rejoicing.

As the first day of the Baha’i New Year, Naw-Ruz coincides with the spring equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, which typically occurs on March 21. However, since Baha’u’llah enjoined that this festival should be celebrated on whatever day the sun passes into the constellation of Aries – that is, the vernal equinox – Naw-Ruz could fall on March 19, 20, 21, or 22, depending on the precise time of the equinox. The Festival of Naw-Ruz follows with four days Ayyam-i-Ha for community service and gift-giving, and then 19 days of fasting finally ending by the festival of Naw-Ruz.

Baha’i communities typically observe Naw-Ruz and meetings that combine prayerful devotions with joyous fellowship. Since Naw-Ruz is an ancient Persian festival that goes back thousands of years the Baha’is from Iranian backgrounds may follow some traditions associated with the ancient Persian festival, but these cultural practices are kept distinct from the religious observance itself.

A prayer by Baha’’u’llah for Naw-Ruz:

Praised be Thou, O my God, that Thou hast ordained Naw-Ruz as a festival unto those who have observed the fast for love of Thee and abstained from all that is abhorrent unto Thee. Grant, O my Lord that the fire of Thy love and the heat produced by the fast enjoined with Thy praise and with remembrance of Thee.

Gity Etemad is a fourth-generation Baha’i, a founding board member of Interfaith Philadelphia, and currently represents the region’s Baha’i community on the Religious Leaders Council of Greater Philadelphia. You can find a description of her career and other interests here.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Love as Another Way of Being: Spiritual Wisdom from bell hooks | by Eva Whittaker

Some days, it feels as if my feet are on shifting sands. We are facing different crises on many fronts in our shared life. A global pandemic making wealth and health disparities, as well as our deep disconnection from each other, all the more clear. A profound sense of isolation. The history and present crisis of racial and social inequity and oppression, pushing us to live the questions of what an ethical and equitable society might look like. Just to name a few.

I’ve been reflecting on what it looks like to live my values right now. And I often feel as though I’m looking for some sort of hope or clarity, in any form really, to meet this moment. Spiritual practices like lovingkindness meditation or walking in the woods help me to restore some balance, but it’s almost inevitable to eventually feel the weight of isolation from our beloved communities or the sense that our lives are on pause. In this time, reading bell hooks’ All About Love feels like a tonic, and a sacred text. In this book, she writes wisely and incisively about community and about love as an active force in our lives.

hooks illuminates with incredible precision the crises we face as what she terms a ‘loveless’ society, and the importance of reorienting our shared lives toward a ‘love ethic’. She tells us that love is something more expansive, more persuasive than the ‘love’ society romanticizes, physicalizes and idealizes. Instead, she names love as a necessary embodiment of care, responsibility, compassion, humility, and integrity in every aspect of our lives. It involves cultivating personal and social awareness, which "enables us to critically examine our actions to see what is needed so that we can give care, be responsible, show respect, and indicate a willingness to learn".

In a society which does not promote this expansive understanding of love, we are left divided and out of touch. hooks writes incisively about the consequences of this lovelessness, and how it promotes fear of difference and intense disconnection. But “when we choose to love we choose to move against fear - against alienation and separation. The choice to love is a choice to connect - to find ourselves in the other”. This is wisdom many different religious and spiritual traditions impart, too. How we locate ourselves lovingly in relation to one another is empowering, and profoundly spiritual.

Seen clearly, this love is a transformative force which enhances our communal relationships, cultivates spiritual growth, and gives us different values to live by. Drawing on her own wisdom, and the wisdom of spiritual thinkers like Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King Jr, she writes that embracing and enacting love is a profoundly spiritual way of being – as well as something inherently political and necessarily communal. hooks writes, “we can collectively regain our faith in the transformative power of love by cultivating courage, the strength to stand up for what we believe in, to be accountable both in word and deed." This embrace of love is equally a commitment to a spiritual life for hooks, which requires “conscious practice, [and] a willingness to unite the way we think with the way we act”. This choice, to ‘walk our talk’, is a life founded on a “commitment to a way of thinking and behaving that honors principles of inter-being and interconnectedness.”

The way hooks emphasizes this courage and compassion as necessary elements of living by a love ethic reminds me of Interfaith Philadelphia’s motto, ‘Dare to Understand’. She writes of love like it’s a well, an aquifer – out of which flows hope and energy, strength and renewal, if we choose courageously (against the received ‘wisdom’ of our loveless society) to tap it. She teaches us "to remember that though our paths are many, we are made one community in love.” This is the ethos of interfaith work, and of building bridges of solidarity and trust across different ideologies and faith traditions, in order to create a more loving society. Reminding us of our responsibility to each other, and the spiritual nourishment that love provides, hooks illuminates another way of being for this time and all time. She gives us an expansive understanding of how to meet this moment of separation and suffering with equal strength and tenderness. I am so grateful for her wisdom, and her ability to see a long-view of our life together, which grounds me in hope.

If you want to read more about the impact of bell hooks’  broader oeuvre, find a wonderful commentary and 'starter kit' here. Thanks to Chelsea and my fellow interns for exploring parts of this text with me.

Monday, March 8, 2021

How a Paintbrush Helps Me Face Isolation and Heartache | by Bronwen Henry

It seems unreasonable, but it is true. A paintbrush, together with some pigment and a blank canvas, is a key conspirator helping me navigate isolation and heartache. These apparently simple tools have been essential in escorting me on a path to strengthen my sense of self, my connection with other people and my time of listening to the Divine.

The creative process is the opposite of numbing. When I create, a doorway opens to be present with my own suffering and the suffering of others. Though it is a solitary act, I find creativity helps me to identify with people near and far. The creative act gives me space to breathe, imagine, hope, cry, and pray.

The creative life has awakened in me a radical degree of compassion for myself and others. It is a space where I reckon with anxiety, fear, heartache, and failure. It is also a space where I dream and imagine a world within and around me that is more beautiful.

Let me give an example with a recent series of paintings. At the beginning of the pandemic, I released my first book, Radioactive Painting, which was focused on the surprisingly poignant topic of navigating isolation and finding compassion and creativity. To launch the book I had created a collection of round canvases.

These canvases each held prayers inspired by the Buddhist practice of lovingkindness or metta. In this practice of metta one holds expanding circles of awareness of people from self to unknown other, to friends, to people you may be in conflict with, ultimately to all sentient beings. Each canvas is created and named to reflect the intention to extend to ourselves and all beings these phrases of lovingkindness. In metta, we offer phrases such as “May we be protected. May we be surrounded by love. May we be courageous.” If at any point it becomes difficult to offer kindness to another you return to offering kindness for yourself.

While creating I often return to the metta meditation, wherein you offer kindness to self and others, in expanding circles, with no limit. More recently with the continued national movement awakening around racism, my time at the canvas has been a space for me to look deeply at my own history of privilege, the ways I contribute to and benefit from existing structures.This self examination is painful, confronting and necessary. This time at the canvas gives me the courage to look deeply at my complicity and flaws. It is also a time where if I stay with the discomfort and if I am patient, I find hints and insights on how I can be part of change.

I spend consistent time each week on my practice. Color and forms delight me as they emerge on a blank canvas. At the same time I do not put the results of my creative practice above the process. It is truly the process and how it transforms me and motivates me to participate in the world with more compassion that interests me the most. Though it appears I am the one doing the creating, the truth is that the creative act itself has shaped me. It is a space for my own identity to expand and grow in courage, compassion and a deep sense of connection to others.

Note About Author: Bronwen Henry’s faith has roots in a Christian context and continues to grow as a student of many faiths with much alignment found in Buddhist teachings and A Course in Miracles. Bronwen began painting in 2013 when she faced a thyroid cancer diagnosis that reignited her passion for (and prioritization of) the creative process. To read more of her story check out her book, Radioactive Painting, and to see more of her work check out or follow her on instagram.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

"It Takes Courage": An Interview with Ellen Firestone

Ellen Firestone is a human rights educator and activist, passionate about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We interviewed her about her background, vocation and faith, and the links to interfaith work for the UN’s Interfaith Harmony Week, February 1-7. 


Tell us a bit about how your interest in human rights education and the UDHR developed. 


For a long time, I knew I had a purpose but really did not know what that purpose was. I spent years trying to “figure it out” by reading books, taking classes, going to workshops and traveling around the world. I remember being about 34 years old and looked around one day and thought “this can’t be it, there has to be more to life”. Fast forward about 10 years, my son, who was starting his freshman year in high school, was invited to an International Youth for Human Rights Summit at UCLA in Los Angeles. He said to me “I’ll go, if you go.”

At the summit, we learned about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), met amazing people from around the world. I remember seeing my son sitting between one student from Morocco and another from Germany and thought: what a great education that is! We also heard real live people speak about horrific human rights violations that occurred either to them or to people in their country. It was difficult to believe that human beings were doing these types of things to other human beings. I had not learned about the UDHR in school, and I remember thinking, someone needs to make this document known.


How do you see your faith to be connected to this vocation? 


I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school for 8 years. When I was in second grade, I remember a nun telling us that she had a calling. I thought I had a calling too, but was not sure what it was. I also remember a line from the Bible that impinged on me. It went something like, to whom much is given, much will be expected. Even though I was not a millionaire, I knew I was given a lot in many ways. So I thought, what is expected of me? I do think having and following a purpose is spiritual and keeps a person on the path of a more spiritual and happy life, no matter what your “day job” is.

Why do you think education and dialogue around issues of peace, security and justice are so important today?  

I think the UDHR is as relevant today as it was when it was first adopted in 1948. Following that historical act, the General Assembly called upon all member countries for it to be disseminated and expounded, principally through educational institutions. Unfortunately, this has not occurred. Could you imagine what the world would look like had the UN followed through with this original intention? Part 2 of Article 26, Right to Education, says, Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance, and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. Education and dialogue are essential in order to have this document fully executed. 

How do you see the UDHR, human rights education and interfaith work to be related to one another? What ways could they influence each other for the better?


They are connected, can and should influence each other for the better.  Article 18 of the UDHR states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

I think the writers of the Declaration were very thoughtful about the words they used in each of the articles in the UDHR for us, in order to create and maintain a world of tolerance and peace - where all humans not only survive but thrive. Different people and cultures may have different views and that is okay - the key is to have safe spaces to communicate with each other, like what Interfaith Philadelphia does to foster more understanding. I love the tagline “Dare to Understand”. It sometimes really does take courage to listen to another’s viewpoint. It’s easy to listen to another’s view when they are similar to our own; it’s when we get into the differences that tolerance and courage are needed.

This post is in honor of the UN’s Interfaith Harmony Week. Many thanks to Ellen Firestone for celebrating this with us through sharing her experience and insights, and for her advocacy around human rights education. If you’d like to learn more, you can find more information on her website or listen to her podcast – Know Your 30 Human Rights with Ellen Firestone. You can also learn about your 30 Human Rights through this course from United Human Rights


Monday, January 25, 2021

Jacob's Nocturnal Encounter: Struggle, Engagement, Resolution, and Reminder | By Richard Hirsh

My favorite Bible story is of Jacob’s transformative nocturnal encounter with an unnamed and unknown presence:

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he    had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip    was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.”  

Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there.  

So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping on his hip. [Genesis 32:25-33] 

The story has been imagined in art in many ways, as can be seen in this sampling here. Most paintings collapse the deliberate imprecision of the Bible – “A man wrestled…You have striven with a being Divine…” – and represent the adversary as angelic, if often gender non-specific. The artists also choose different moments in this brief narrative as their subject.

The interpretations to which I gravitate are the representations by Odilon Redon, who did two paintings based on this story. In one the encounter is at the center, and in the other most of the painting is an opening of light and the two figures are depicted as almost incidental, blending into or emerging out of the background towards the bottom of the frame.

In the square framed painting, the moment Redon has captured looks to be “Said he, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.’ ”  In the rectangular framed painting, the moment seems to be “When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him."

Each human life seems to have its own versions of Jacob’s encounter, and usually more than one. Unanticipated, unexpected and unwanted, we often find ourselves entwined with a force or power, a situation or circumstance that challenges us, against which, the Bible writer suggests here, perhaps the best we can hope for is to “prevail” or “endure” – not to be a victor or to be vanquished, but to be transformed. 

As Redon suggests in his first painting, the nature of blessing is often imprecise: Jacob’s condition for release is a blessing, but what he receives is a change of name. On one level, this is an anticipation of the aphorism: Be careful what you wish for. But on a more consequential level, the text suggests that at key moments, our expectations and the actual way life unfolds are often out of alignment – but not unrelated. 

Put differently: what we are given to work with as we move through life are not the outcomes we anticipate or imagine, but those that emerge out of the encounter between who we have been and what we meet along the way, pointing us towards who we will now become as a result. 

There is a poignancy to the price Jacob pays for prevailing, as Redon suggests in his second painting. Jacob stands on one leg, the other rests in the hand of his adversary, who stands almost effortlessly, upright against Jacob’s grasp. The Bible reminds us: “The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip.” These defining encounters not only transform us, they extract a price from us – they leave a mark. We are never the same again. 

I find the interpretations Redon brings to this story to be among the most authentic reflections of the truth of encounter-engagement struggle-transformation as the path we have been given to walk through this life.