Friday, June 11, 2021
Friday, May 28, 2021
Monday, May 3, 2021
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 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 slowWind 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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Friday, March 19, 2021
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.