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Friday, June 11, 2021

New Eyes: The Gift of Being a Walking the Walk Group Leader | by Marilyn Berberich

I love to collect quotes. Maybe it’s hereditary. My father kept a folded piece of paper with favorite quotes in his wallet. I stitched a quote quilt and hung it by my desk.

One of my favorite quotes is by Marcel Proust – “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” When I stepped into the role of Walking the Walk Group Leader seven years ago, I envisioned wonderful afternoons of dialogue, meaningful service experiences, plentiful opportunities to learn about other faith traditions, and happy times building community with the amazing teens who had signed up for the program. What I didn’t realize was that I would also be getting new eyes. I would never see the world the same way after each Walking the Walk journey.

So what does it mean to have new eyes? For me, it meant some consequential exchanges. I traded assumptions for surprises. There was no “one way” for just about anything. Each faith community was unique, each student was unique, and each session was unique. I quickly realized it was wiser to be flexible and intrigued by differences than to wed myself to preconceived ideas and plans. Without new eyes, learning experiences could vanish right in front of me.

I traded being locked into thoughtfully crafted agendas for lingering with times of connection and discovery. It’s no secret that I love being well prepared. Crafting Walking the Walk sessions brought me great joy. However, seeing faces light up, watching students lean into conversations, and hearing laughter break out were moments that needed to be savored. My blueprint for the session was a starting place, but the afternoon came to life as the session unfolded in its own special way. Closing reflections convincingly underscored how personalized each student’s experience had been that day.

I traded aspirations for expertise for aspirations of humility. If you want to put pressure on yourself, try to become an expert. Every time I drifted in that direction, I felt waves of panic. There was no topic we would touch on at Walking the Walk that I could claim to have mastered. I knew I was on more solid ground when I modeled curiosity and challenged myself to generate and ask a compelling question. It was delightful to come to grips with the fact that I would be a perennial student. I would visit the same church, synagogue, mosque, gurdwara, or other place of worship for multiple years and always leave with some new learning or understanding. What a handsome reward!

I traded worries and a penchant for predictability for a willingness to be comfortable with discomfort. My first year as Walking the Walk Group Leader was marked by a steep learning curve. The folks at Interfaith Philadelphia, and Margie Scharf in particular, were my borrowed relationship capital. I was just a rookie doing my best to extend goodwill and establish my own personal connections. There were missteps and awkward situations. Occasionally there was feedback that rattled my confidence. Now and again, I was sure I wasn’t cut out for the job. And then came a moment of clarity… the path to understanding is rocky; it has blind curves; there’s no opportunity for speeding. And, yes, this is exactly what I signed up for! My heart woke up and my courage signed on for seven glorious years as a Walking the Walk Group Leader.

I have many beautiful photos and mementos from my Walking the Walk years. They make me smile, and they trigger marvelous memories. But most of all, they make me grateful for the wonderful mentors, religious leaders, and superstar students, and student group leaders who journeyed with me. They made my world shinier. They gave me new eyes.

Marilyn Berberich has been the Walking the Walk Group Leader since 2013 and finished her tenure with her eighth cohort this past May. 

Friday, May 28, 2021

An Introspection Into My Interfaith Engagement Journey | By Neil Reeves

    When I decided to attend seminary, I had to accept my call and determine which seminary to attend. Initially, I planned to attend a seminary that taught mainly my faith tradition. At this seminary, I would have the opportunity to interact with students whose faith traditions can also be found in many African American communities. The alternative was to attend a seminary that offered a variety of theological perspectives. I knew that my post-seminary work would include some interfaith work. I have always believed deep down that people of different faith traditions are more alike than they are different. So, what decision did I make? I chose the latter and decided to attend Lancaster Theological Seminary (LTS), a seminary that in 2020 had student representation of 18 denominations.

I am so glad I chose a seminary that stretched me beyond my theological comfort zone because it gave me the opportunity to learn from others whose views and practices differ from my own. Through LTS, I also secured an internship with Interfaith Philadelphia, an organization whose primary mission is interfaith engagement and understanding.

Learning from others about their faith traditions has allowed me to become closer to my faith tradition. I meditate more on the beliefs and rituals of my tradition - some of which I now embrace more. I am also more curious about the beliefs of other faith traditions and their worship practices. Interfaith engagement has also enabled me to become a better listener and forced me to reflect on my internal biases and stereotypes about others. Another benefit of my journey is that I am establishing new relationships with people with whom I may be able to partner in the future, to work on societal issues that are important to me - including mass incarceration, homelessness, fatherhood, and economic inequality and empowerment.

I have learned a lot but still have more to learn. I must admit this journey challenges me daily. Due to the time I spend using my technological gadgets, engaging in volunteer work, studying, and following through with my own family commitments, I often find myself with my head down, immersed in my own individual bubble and echo chamber. It’s comfortable there and honestly feels busy enough. However, this self-centeredness causes me to ignore those people, experiences, and views that are not within my immediate and daily surroundings, including those whose faith traditions differ from my own. I welcome the opportunity to meet this challenge by intentionally remaining in dialogue with my fellow seminarians, connecting and establishing relationships with people I meet through interfaith events, and attending worship spaces unfamiliar to me. I must continuously rise to meet this challenge and do my part to make the world a better place by eliminating subconscious biases I may have against others.

Neil Reeves is currently a Seminary Intern with Interfaith Philadelphia. He is a second-year student at Lancaster Theological Seminary and serves as president of the men’s ministry at Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Delaware.

Monday, May 3, 2021

The Sacred Blessings of Poetry | by Eva Whittaker

I often feel that when I need it most, poetry finds me. Often, I’m introduced and enlightened to poetry through teaching or friends. I remember reading this glorious little book inspired by William Blake’s beautiful poetry when I was small, and feeling inspired by the worlds and magic his words were able to conjure. But when there is something that is going unsaid inside me, or something I want to put words to but cannot, poetry captures what I'm feeling or experiencing. 

When I’ve felt lost or alone, or full of reverence for community or the natural world, I often find that poems hold all that I cannot express with words I might never have found. Mary Oliver or Derek Walcott or Joy Harjo or John O'Donohue spoke to me, and provided knowledge or love, and most importantly, accompaniment. Their words become embodied and feel like blessings. Every meeting and reading feels deeply spiritual to me, an affirmation of where I am in my life and in the world.

This is form that holds complexity with grace, not diluting life or love or change, or something like buttoning and unbuttoning one’s shirt, through written expression, but allowing us to speak and hear and feel the depth of everything we experience alone and together. Our lives are full of so much which defies words or language - but in poetry, these things become felt and we are able to know deeply that which the words might only point to. 

I remember celebrating Poem in Your Pocket Day (April 29th) in school and feeling warmed by the words and ideas I carried around all day. This year, I had two poems in my pocket as I walked around my house. One is Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye. She writes:

"Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,        you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend."
(You can hear her read her poem here.) 

The inevitability and the imperative of kindness feel especially resonant with me - something I hope to embody in all the ways I move through the world. This is also a deeply important reminder that when we are able to come into a relationship with hardship, good things may grow from mistakes and experience.

The other is Beannacht, a Blessing by John O'Donohue. He writes, to close his blessing:

"When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home..."

"...may a slow

Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life."
(You can hear him read his poem here.)  

This beautifully encapsulates how I feel poetry - sometimes as a beam of light and guidance, sometimes as a warm comfort and safety.

These poems illuminate both my present and my path forward. They both affirm the heart-hurt and suffering I've felt and seen around me over the course of this year, and allow me to move from grief into mourning - from stagnancy into growth - as Theologian Serene Jones explains. I am grateful for their guidance, and for the thoughtfulness of the imaginative and thoughtful people who brought them into being. As April moves into May and Spring comes more fully into being, poetry allows me to open up more fully to the greenery and light, and recognize the generative and the sacred in all that surrounds me.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Vaisakhi Reflections: Sikh Teachings on Injustice and Inequality | by Ashvinder Kaur Mehta

This spring, as my Jewish, Muslim, and Christian brothers and sisters observe Passover, Ramadan, and Easter, respectively, my Sikh community celebrated Vaisakhi on April 13th. Traditionally, this has been a time for harvest festivals in the Punjab, but we also commemorate the first Sikh initiation ceremony into the Khalsa Panth, a community of initiated Sikhs committed to equality, justice, and oneness as established by all of the Sikh Gurus, beginning with Guru Nanak.

It was Vaisakhi 1699 when Guru Gobind Rai, our 10th Guru (spiritual leader bringing one from darkness into light) called for five volunteers from the Sikh community and initiated them into the Khalsa, naming them the “Five Beloved Ones.” Each was from a different caste and, in order to foster unity and demonstrate equality of all, Guru Gobind Rai had all newly initiated Sikhs take on the last name Singh (lion) for men and Kaur (princess) for women, and gave Sikhs their distinct visible identity to instill courage and confidence to stand up to injustice. He also had the Five Beloved Ones initiate him into the Khalsa, thus becoming Guru Gobind Singh. This cemented Guru Nanak’s teaching that no one should be considered inferior or superior based on their color, race, culture, creed, or socioeconomic status.

While Vaisakhi is a time of celebration, it also serves as a reminder of the life of Guru Gobind Singh, the struggles he endured, and how deeply committed he was to stand up against injustice even through so much personal loss, including the deaths of both of his parents and his four young sons. This commitment remains central not only to identify as a Sikh, but truly living the teachings in our everyday lives. However, in recent years, this has become a growing challenge for me.

The last five years have been an exhausting roller coaster of emotions. While racial and social inequities have long been a part of American history, watching the surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans, ongoing Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, the devastating injustices against Black communities, and a distinct lack of empathy for those wanting to flee violence and seek safer lives for their children has been overwhelmingly disheartening and soul-crushing. I have felt moments of total despair and deep sadness about the world around me.

I joined Interfaith Philadelphia in 2003, at a time when Sikhs and other minorities were being increasingly targeted following the tragic events of 9/11. Over the years, I have participated in and witnessed the success of programs like Walking the Walk, Visionary Women, Alternative Spring Breaks, and the Peace Walk, all of which met the mission of interfaith dialogue, mutual respect, and understanding. While the interfaith movement has succeeded in breaking many barriers, my experience has been that participation mainly includes like-minded people already open and receptive to the mission of interfaith. But how far are we willing to go to address the serious issues of racism, sexism, xenophobia, classism, casteism, and social injustice? Do we have the courage to engage in the difficult discussions and actions it will take to truly make a dent in the injustices that exist today and that have been so clearly exposed in the last five years? Do we have the courage to challenge our friends and neighbors by engaging in hard and uncomfortable conversations? I have found myself doing just that with my friends and family - by listening and sharing perspectives to hopefully provoke deeper thought into our own biases and behaviors that need to change.

While this may not have been the initial objective of interfaith dialogue, I believe it is time to draw on lessons learned and take on the difficult task of healing the divisions in this nation. Interfaith dialogue serves to dispel misconceptions and allay fears amongst faith communities, but we now desperately need to quell the false narratives against minorities and break the ever-growing divisions with truth, understanding, and a keen awareness of the intersections of these inequalities. This is no small task! But a necessary one that I believe is the next step.

In my moments of despair at current events, Vaisakhi reminds me of the Sikh expression of Chardi Kala, which is to live in a state of eternal optimism and joy, even during the most challenging times. So in the spirit of Chardi Kala, I pray that we can all do our part to collectively move towards a less divisive and more compassionate world.

ਸਭ ਮਹਿ ਜੋਤਿ ਜੋਤਿ ਹੈ ਸੋਇ ॥ ਤਿਸ ਦੈ ਚਾਨਣਿ ਸਭ ਮਹਿ ਚਾਨਣੁ ਹੋਇ ॥ Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Page 663

Sabh meh jot jot hai soi || tis dhai chaanan sabh meh chaanan hoi ||
The Divine Light is within everyone; You are that Light. Yours is that Light which shines within everyone.

Ashvinder Kaur Mehta has been a fellow with Interfaith Philadelphia since 2015, and has dedicated her time and experience to consulting on issues that impact the Sikh community and supported interfaith education and programs like Walking the Walk. She is currently part of a Gurdwara in Upper Darby. 

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.