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Friday, December 6, 2019

"The Voice of the Stranger" | by Pat Cody

The news, television, and movie industry sometimes focus on the chaos in the world, and they often point toward religious differences as a primary reason for the world's troubles. At times, I too found myself wondering, "maybe a world without religion is the solution."

But Thomas Merton once said: "God speaks, and God is to be heard, not only on Sinai, not only in my own heart, but in the voice of the stranger."

So what I've chosen to do instead, is to stop listening to the media and start listening to my neighbors.

Encouraged by Merton and others, I began to seek opportunities to listen to the voices of those who thus far have been strangers to me. After all, the world is not as big as it once was, but my neighborhood is bigger now than it ever was.

While seeking these opportunities, I was soon led to Interfaith Philadelphia and their "Gateways to Religious Communities" series. Since 2009, this program has given many an opportunity to learn firsthand the histories, beliefs and practices of many of the world's faith traditions.

Throughout the series, the enthusiasm of our diverse group of visitors, representing many religions, was infectious.

At the Sikh Society of Philadelphia we learned of the Sikhs' commitment to selfless service and standing up for the rights of others.

At the Islamic Society of Chester County, we learned that one of the five pillars of Islam is Charity. In this spirit ICC created "Youth Connecting with Communities", an organization that helps Muslim youth provide clothing and meals to people in their community, as well as engaging in interfaith activities with youth from neighboring churches and synagogues.

At the Mantra Lounge, where bhakti yoga is practiced, a core belief is: when we are able to see others not for their external coverings, but for the indwelling soul, and act according to that understanding, then we can achieve real unity.

Upon entering the meeting space at the Philadelphia Ethical Society, we were greeted with these words high up in the wall "The place where people meet to seek the highest is Holy Ground." We learned that one of the guiding principles of Ethical Culture is to "always act to elicit the best in others and thereby yourself."

At the Baha'i Center, we learned that the Baha'i faith seeks to foster the unification of all nations and people, "honoring all, and benefiting from the unique cultural and religious heritage each brings to the whole". The Baha'i Center actively nurtures the spiritual needs of youth through their Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program.

We also visited Reformation Lutheran Church in Media, a representative of my own faith of Christianity. We were made to feel welcome. I wondered what to say of our visit, but after checking out their website--well, why would I want to say more than that? The greeting on their homepage uses the word "Welcome" five times.

What more straightforward a message would I want my faith to convey than: WELCOME

So, far from being a problem, I have heard in the voices of these strangers a solution. A message of welcome, of love, of compassion, and respect for all life. A solution rooted in the teaching and practices of hundreds and thousands of years.

I am deeply grateful for this experience, and for the work of the interns at Interfaith Philadelphia who organized these visits, particularly Arisha and Hannah. 

Friday, November 8, 2019

Stay Curious, My Friends | by Megan Briggs

Quoting Albert Einstein, “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.” 

Although his talents were profoundly special, I at least can relate to his 'passionately curious' claim. I once heard something I try to remind myself of when I feel angry or sad about current events, or irritated with my spouse or two sons (ages 9 & 12): The most peaceful state of mind is the state of curiosity. When I think about the glaring reasons why our criminal justice system is a mess, such as racism and capitalism gone wrong… I tell myself, “Stay curious, Megan.” I try to ask myself, why? How did it get this way? What are the stems of human nature at play here? Where did history go wrong, and how might we course correct? 

Or even, how might the way I think things should be, differ from the way my neighbor thinks they should be? Or when I have to tell my son to pick up his dirty clothes for the third time, instead of getting frustrated… well… that’s a difficult one to find curiosity for. Or, how about when he resists doing his homework? Instead of getting angry, how about I find the curiosity to discover why. I might find out that the subject is tough for him; or realize he needs to run around outside before getting to his work; or that he just prefers that I stay in the room while he works because he is such a people person.

Curiosity is my mind’s baseline, which is what launched me into the study of psychology in college. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the degree, but I didn’t think too much about that. I craved learning about how humans think and behave. It was curiosity that pushed me through any fear-based reluctance to facilitating Coffee, Tea & Civil Conversations at Broad Street Grind, a local coffee shop in Souderton, PA. The owner of the coffee shop had a vision of hosting civil conversations where people from across the political spectrum come together to discuss a specific topic in a civil manner, and seek to understand. 

Image result for civil conversations broad street grind"

I offered to help him get these events off the ground, because this was the exact thing I wanted to be a part of-- not necessarily to facilitate them-- but that’s what ended up happening. So, going on two years now, every month a group of about 20 people show up to discuss topics such as immigration, guns, race, gender inequality, mental health, religion, etc.  We agree to a set of rules of engagement such as “We will not educate on a topic,” “We will speak out of our experiences and from our perspective” and “When I disagree with something, I will notice my feelings and choose to stay curious.”

At the top of each of these gatherings, I quote Brene Brown, who credits the Institute for Civility and Government with this definition: “Civility is the claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.” I’m passionate about the work of getting people together for face-to-face, intentional conversations, because I believe people soften when we look into the eyes of another while listening to his/her/their story. This work is my current role to play in hopes of creating a more peaceful society.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Of Music and Protest | by Harold Messinger

The Interfaith Music Project of Philadelphia (IMPP) is an answer to a question posed nearly three years ago:  The question, asked by James Pollard Jr, ( bassist and musician extraordinaire at Zion Baptist Church in Ardmore) and myself, Harold Messinger, (Cantor at Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley) was simple: How can we best respond to the hate-filled rhetoric coming from the White House, but do so in a way that brings people together rather than further dividing them.

It started with one song, "We Rise", written by Batya Levine, after she witnessed the protest at Standing Rock. Her song inspired James and me to record our own version of her song and create a video with our partner Sam Zolten, taking images from the historic Women's Marches and subsequent protests.  James and I have collaborated for many years and in 2010 had completed a project called, "These Songs of Freedom", songs of the Jewish Passover tradition alongside new and Traditional Gospel Music. For IMPP, we wanted to expand beyond our two Houses of Worship, and so, with the help of Abby Stamelman Hocky of Interfaith Philadelphia, we connected with Muslim, Mormon and Christian singers who were interested in our work. Recording commenced and in 2018, we released our second project, "Of Love and Protest". 

Our group continues to morph, expand, contract and grow. We are excited to feature young women as our principal singers and spiritual leaders, as they are an inspiration and a source of hope for a better future. Hearing and seeing people of different faith come together in song is powerful in and of itself. We are grateful to God for providing the opportunity to make space for these connections to flourish and grow, and look forward to performing on Nov 2nd at the Sisterhood Saalam  Shalom Jewish Muslim Women's Conference and later this year at Mount Saint Josepsh Academy. Our Music can be heard on Spotify:

Thursday, October 10, 2019

What Creativity Can Teach Us | by Chelsea Jackson

Many of you know me as the Community Partnerships Manager at Interfaith Philadelphia. In addition to this Im also a published poet, movie quote encyclopedia, and lover of all things creative. Today I get to talk a bit about the latter. 

I believe art and creativity are part of what makes us human. I live with the understanding that while not everyone considers themselves an artist, everyone has the capacity to be creative. Creativity is not a one-size-fits-all type of thing, and instead it takes many shapes and forms, permeating almost every aspect of our lives, from the music we hear in the supermarket, to the architecture that makes and remakes our cities, to the culinary masterpieces people post on Instagram.

I have been fascinated with creativity's power to stir something within us for a long time, and channeled this interest into my education. I studied Music Therapy in college and then moved to New Orleans to intern at a psychiatric hospital. My internship was a difficult, beautiful, stretching time, and I was fortunate enough to work with a Creative Arts Therapy team, learning from colleagues who led music, art, recreation, and psychodrama therapy sessions. It deepened my appreciation for creativitys power to comfort individuals even as it challenges them to grow, critically think, and heal. 

In graduate school, this appreciation expanded to include the role art and creativity play on the macro level, as it impacts whole societies, religions, and cultures. In fact, one of my final research papers on Art and Social Change used Mural Arts as a case study. Little did I know then that I'd be working the Mural Arts team on our Dare to Understand Mural! (It really is a small world!)

I use all of my past studies and experience in both my role at Interfaith Philadelphia and my own poetry, always striving to use creativity with intention and purpose, and stay open possibilities it offers for collaboration and learning. For me, creativity is about feeling the freedom to think outside the box and move beyond boundaries, and offers the opportunity to ask questions, problem solve, and wonder what we can make and remake together-- and thats how art and interfaith intersect for me, in these spaces of wonder and courage. 

If we approach art with a sense of wonder, then we make space to respect, understand, and appreciate both the art and the artist. Similarly, interfaith work invites people of diverse traditions, beliefs, and practices to respect, appreciate, and better understand one another. Whether it be art or interfaith engagement, this work takes courage. It takes an openness to be vulnerable, and navigate the vulnerability of others with care and respect. In this way the arts provide a unique space for Interfaith Philadelphia to do our work, offering individuals and communities opportunities to express and explore their religious/cultural identity even as they express and explore the identity of others.

Not only do I hope you'll join us for the interfaith art experiences we offer at Interfaith Philadelphia, but I hope that all of us always see ourselves as the creative people we are, and that we dive into both creativity and interfaith experiences with courage and wonder.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Art & Interfaith: "Will Beauty Save the World?" | by Rev. John Hougen

While the question may sound absurd to many, people devoted to the arts debate it with great seriousness. I believe the answer is an emphatic “Yes!” 
·     Yes, because beauty nurtures the human spirit, helping it flourish in the inhospitable climate of our times and culture. 
·      Yes, because artists also are prophets. They create beauty which expresses the ugly realities that must be faced, implicitly calling viewers to endure or overcome what is revealed in their art. 
·      Yes, because artists help us see the value, the dignity, and that which is sacred in the people and things around us, inclining us toward compassion.    
·      And, yes, beauty will save the world because, in each religious tradition, there have been artists who have used their skill to aid the devout in worship, prayer, and discerning divine truth -- as it has been revealed within that tradition. Religion, in spite of the evil done in its name, is a primary motivation for good in this world.  
[“Beauty will save the world” is a statement attributed to Prince Myskin by another character in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. See Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Bantam, 1981), 370].

I am not saying beauty all by itself will save the world. Beauty will save the world only if it is yoked to the glorious host of world-saving ventures that give us hope and propel us toward curiosity, compassion, and understanding, and motivate us to work for justice, fairness, and peace.

The Art of Interfaith Understanding is Interfaith Philadelphia’s series of programs offered in partnership with the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The series brings people to art that expresses the faith found in the world’s great religions and the spirituality of diverse individuals. The people we bring to the museum contemplate beauty, slowly, absorbing details and the art’s impact. We take our time, share insights with each other, and in the process, come to understand not only the art, but ourselves and the others in our group. 
The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner, American (active France), 1859 – 1937, Date: 1898, Medium: Oil on canvas, Dimensions: Framed: 6 feet 1 3/4 inches × 7 feet 3 1/4 inches, Accession Number: W1899-1-1, Credit Line: Purchased with the W. P. Wilstach Fund, 1899

Rabbi David Ackerman was in a small group including an Imam and two Christian pastors. They were discussing Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation. Rabbi Ackerman shared his thoughts and later wrote of his experience in his congregation’s newsletter. I paraphrase: The light in this painting reminds me of the pillar of light that led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. Here, the light is leading Mary, and all Christians, toward their promised citizenship in the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom Christians believe will be ushered in by Jesus. In both Judaism and Christianity, God’s light leads God’s people into new and more authentic ways of being a community. Tanner’s painting provided an occasion for seeing similarities in two faith traditions. It prompted interfaith understanding, and at the same time sparked a discussion that moved interfaith colleagues into a deeper relationship with one another. 

I trust that the titles of this summer and fall’s programs offered by The Art of Interfaith Understanding will illustrate the breadth of opportunities this series offers. It is meant to bring together people with different answers and hunches to our common questions about life and spirit. It is meant to bring diverse persons together, so they can be in conversation with one another, be stimulated by the spiritual power of great art, and become able to affirm that, “Yes! Beauty will save the world.” 

Past tours:
·      June 1: Praying the Liturgy Aided by Works of Art (for the Church of St. Martin in the Fields, Chestnut Hill)
·      June 26: Religious Pluralism in America: Insights from Art (for Temple’s Dialogue Institute summer program for International Scholars)
·      July 10: Nature’s Revelations in World Religions
·      August 11: Prayerful Looking: Art and Spirituality 
Upcoming tours:
·      September 11: What Makes Jewish Art Jewish?
·      October 5: The Visions and Values of St. Francis 
·  November 20: Graven Images: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Responses to Commandments Forbidding Imagery

To experience beauty saving the world, register for future events by going to: 
Rev. John Hougen is the coordinator of Interfaith Philadelphia’s series, The Art of Interfaith Understanding.

Friday, July 26, 2019

IP Staff Reflections: "Our Week at Mosaic Summer Camp!" | by Anneke Kat, Chelsea Jackson & Liz Royer

A mosaic celebrates both the uniqueness of an individual tile and the collective pattern of many tiles together. This is the driving vision behind Interfaith Youth Neighborhood Mosaic; it is a celebration of an individual’s identity and the richness that identity brings to a diverse community. This past June, 20 middle school students from South Philadelphia spent a week exploring their own identities and the diversity of their neighborhood. Here are some reflections from our staff who crafted this wonderful program. 

Elizabeth Royer – Community Programs Associate & Mosaic  Co-Facilitator 
One of my favorite moments of the week was our visit to St. Thomas Aquinas Parish. Mosaic gives campers a way to learn about other faith communities that they might pass everyday, but may not know much about. Some campers had never been inside a Catholic church before this visit, while others were members of St. Thomas Aquinas and attended services there. Though St. Thomas Aquinas is one faith community, there are signs all around the sanctuary of the diversity of cultural and linguistic communities that share this sacred space. Between the different representations of saints from around the world, to the flags that hang in the back of the church to indicate all the countries represented in the congregation, it was a beautiful reminder that different communities can coexist while still maintaining the qualities that make them unique. Additionally, it was a chance for us to learn how much more there is to know about our neighbors and ourselves. One student said that she learned “about all the different types of people in our community that I didn’t know were here. I made a lot of good friends, and these strangers became my friends."

Chelsea Jackson – Community Partnerships Manager & Mosaic Co-Facilitator 
One of my favorite things about Mosaic is its use of art to celebrate each students’ identity and deepen their understanding of one another. The “Portrait Project” activity was especially powerful. Each student had their profile traced. Outside their profile, they drew/wrote the stories, assumptions, or stereotypes people project onto them, while inside their profile they wrote all of the things that make them who they are; what they like, the relationships they hold, their hobbies and talents, etc. 

One particular observation the students made was just how different each profile was. Whether it captured the shape of a hat, the style of hair, the outline of a hijab or glasses, each profile was unique to each student. The students noticed this right away, and some became embarrassed at how different their profile looked from some of their peers. A few even tried to draw a new profile of themselves and erase the parts of their profile that made them different. In that moment, I reminded the students that their differences were beautiful and important, and they should never be ashamed or embarrassed for being who they are. After our talk, most students opted to keep their original and wonderfully unique profile outline. 

This art experience allowed the students to acknowledge and challenge the judgements people make about them, judgments they may even internalize within themselves. It also empowered each student to tell their own story, and explore their own unique and complex identity. For me, it was a great reminder that interfaith work is as much about understanding and celebrating ourselves as it is about understanding and celebrating others.  

Anneke Kat – Youth & Community Programs Manager & Mosaic Co-Facilitator
Each day of camp was centered around a theme from Interfaith Philadelphia’s Passport to Understanding. The second day’s theme was “venture out” so we dove deeper into exploring the neighborhood around us. A real focus of this day was raising awareness about the wonderful community assets that exist in the South Philadelphia neighborhoods. I asked each student to draft a list of local places which are important to them and their families. Then, we crafted a list of places that are important to the wider community. Each student created their own creative map that highlights these spaces and landmarks from their own perspectives. Everyone was able to share and discuss their map. The activity not only elevated the places that are important to each student and their family, but it also gave them a chance to see the diverse narratives, identities, and variety of places that are important to their peers. Some students learned about places in their own community they weren’t aware of and the significance they hold to others. 

Check out highlights from last year's Interfaith Youth Neighborhood Mosaic! 

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

IP Staff Reflections: "A New Chapter: Farewell to Rev. Nicole Diroff" | by Rev. Alison Cornish

On June 6th, Interfaith Philadelphia’s wide circle of friends gathered at Tabernacle United Church in University City to celebrate the Rev. Nicole Diroff. Nicole, who served our organization over nearly the whole of its history in roles from student intern to Associate Director, stepped away from her work to move with her family to Scarborough, Maine, where her husband, Dr. Jeremy Diroff, is a new member of the staff of the Maine Veterinary Medical Center. It was an occasion that can only be described as bittersweet as those who came together from so many different parts of Nicole’s life came together in Nicole’s home congregation space to honor the amazing leader Nicole has been – celebrated her successes – and blessed her going forth to new endeavors not yet quite fully imagined.

Several speakers offered their praise and thanksgiving – these words from Milan Kunz, a member of Interfaith Philadelphia's Religious Leaders Council, certainly resonated for many of us – 
"Nicole, as a disciple of God, one of the purposes of life is to obtain His attributes…  

Faith is an attribute of God. Nicole is a person of great faith. Faith leads to action which includes a dedicated service to others. I have seen Nicole’s dedication as she has worked diligently with the RLC…What I initially thought was impossible, through Nicole and her faith, became possible. 

Hope, or a vision of the future, is a God-like attribute. I have seen Nicole in meetings with others and could see how she was a driving force in creating the vision for the organization. 

Knowledge is another attribute of God that Nicole is developing. Nicole is like a sponge, constantly soaking up information from other faiths. Her main method of knowledge acquisition was by asking inspired questions."

And founding Board member Dick Fernandez offered these sage words, both a reflection and a charge to Nicole – 
"George Bernard Shaw left us with this advice: 'There are some who look at things the way they are, and ask why?  I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?' Nicole, please don’t be swayed by Mr. Shaw. For the past many years, both here in this church and at the Interfaith Center, you have been asking why AND why not… keep it up. Your curiosity hinges on you asking both questions…"

Nicole blessed us generously with her gifts, presence, talents and passions. It was our turn to offer our thanksgiving and good wishes – with our tears and laughter both.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

IP Staff Reflections: "A Year of Practice for a Life of Practice: My Year as a Quaker Volunteer" | by Liz Royer

For the last eleven months, I have been privileged to serve at Interfaith Philadelphia as a Quaker Voluntary Service fellow. QVS is “a one-year experiment in intentional living” where young adults across the country choose to volunteer full-time at a nonprofit organization and join six or seven other fellows in intentional community. For me, what set QVS apart from other service programs was their promise that the experience would not be a “year off” from regular life, but instead a year of preparation for a whole lifetime of service. 

I remember hearing once, back when I first started to become interested in Quakerism, that “there are no Quaker beliefs, only Quaker practices”.  The Religious Society of Friends is a non-creedal religion, meaning that it has no official statement of faith. This means that Quakers hold a wide diversity of beliefs about the Divine, the world around us, and how one should live in it--in fact, some Friends would almost certainly disagree with the belief that there are no Quaker beliefs. What many (though not all) Quakers hold in common are certain practices; such as meeting for worship, using clerks instead of clergy, and making decisions by consensus.

Looking back on my year with QVS,  I’m now seeing it less as a year of preparation for a life of service, as a year of practice--for a life of practice.  This has been a year of learning how to cultivate habits that may seem small on their own, but that over time, gather a powerful momentum. Practice meeting for worship and listening to the messages shared. Practice cooking meals for a dozen people. Practice leaning into healthy conflict. Practice having fun and laughing together. 

In the beginning, the ‘feeling’ of community in our house would sometimes wax and wane. But over the course of the year, by returning to these practices, my housemates and I learned how to live together. We learned that living in community doesn’t mean being perfect all the time--we could never achieve that goal even if we wanted to. We learned that community means continuing to show up even in our imperfection, and trusting that we’ll be welcomed back again. And then gently asked to please do the dishes. 

In my opinion, engaging in  interfaith work is not really all that different from living in intentional community. Interfaith engagement invites us not to be perfect, but rather to cultivate the skills that, when accumulated, can lead to deeper understanding. Over time, certain ones emerge as central: practices like asking curious questions, leaning into new experience, and honoring everyone’s uniqueness. Perhaps most powerful of all, the practice of coming back to the table, whenever we can, and trusting that even greater benefits will reveal themselves over time. 

There is a reason why most people choose not to live in communes--it’s really hard. And even the most carefully constructed communities do not always live up to their ideals. But most of us do seek out community in one way or another: through congregations, friends, family, workplaces, neighbors, or on the internet. This is where practice comes in. 

If I had to distill this year into one learning, it would be the understanding that my faith--in community, in other people, in myself, in the effectiveness of the work--will sometimes wax and wane.  But if I continue to show up and practice, even on days when I’m not certain what the outcome will be, I can help create the communities I want to live in and the person I want to become. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Acknowledging Privilege While Exploring Diversity | by Jessica Miller

I am a Mennonite Pastor. Every time I say this I expect to receive lots of questions like: "Mennonites let women be pastors?", "What’s the difference between Mennonites and the Amish?", or "I never would have known you were a Mennonite, where’s your bonnet?" Sometimes I do get these questions. Sometimes I receive inquisitive looks. But these things only happen when I choose to identify myself. The rest of the time, I present as any other white, Christian woman and I receive all of the privileges that accompany that identity.

Growing up, I learned that Mennonites were outsiders in society. In Mennonite school, we took church history classes where we learned how Mennonites and other Anabaptists were brutally tortured and executed for defying the state religion during the Reformation and that they were persecuted as a religious minority by both Protestants and Catholics. We were also taught about the struggles Mennonite men faced in the United States when they refused to register for the draft because of their pacifist convictions. Our teachers warned us that we should write and date letters about our pacifist convictions now so our motives wouldn’t be questions if there was a draft in the future. In all of this, we internalized the belief that we were a persecuted people, not people of privilege.

But the truth is that in U.S. society, white Mennonites (no, we’re not all white) are privileged. We identify as Christians in a majority Christian nation, and most of us do not wear plain clothes anymore, so we fit right in with the rest of society. We only stand out if people discover we are pacifists or that we do not believe in saluting the flag or reciting the pledge of allegiance; not things that are visible to the general observer. In nearly every other way, we are privileged peoplebut we are privileged people who know what it means to be targets of political and religious violence.

As people with this complicated history, and as some of the first people to speak out in support of the separation of church and state, it seems only fitting that we should be on the front lines of interfaith advocacy work. That is why I applied to work with Interfaith Philadelphia instead of doing a traditional congregational placement for the supervised ministry requirement of my Master of Divinity program. It was my hope that by spending time intentionally engaging in interfaith work, I would gain the skills necessary to promote interfaith relationships and solidarity within my own faith community and beyond.

During my time at Interfaith Philadelphia, I have facilitated civil conversations and led visits at Catholic, Muslim, Hare Krishna, Won Buddhist, Ethical Humanist, Episcopal, Jewish, and Baha’i communities. Each conversation and each visit has reinforced for me the importance of learning to understand the religious diversity that is all around us. We will not be able to create an inclusive society for all people until we learn to understand and appreciate the differences among us instead of fearing them. At its heart, that is what interfaith work is all about.

As I finish up my time with Interfaith Philadelphia, I know my work building interfaith relationships has only just begun. I do not yet know what kinds of future interfaith work I will be involved in, but I know the work will not be done until we achieve a world where all people are free from religious discrimination and persecution. It’s a long road, but it’s a road worth walking...especially when we walk it together.