Interfaith Encounters Day 5

March 21st, 2o13

utc1We woke up to some snow on the ground and a chill in the air. But that did not stop the University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire students from heading to West Philadelphia to work with Urban Tree Connection. Urban Tree Connection is a nonprofit organization that engages children and adults from some of Philadelphia’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods in community-based, urban-greening projects.

The mission of the Urban Tree Connection is to assist urban, low-income communities to revitalize their neighborhoods by transforming abandoned open spaces into safe and functional places that inspire and promote positive human interaction.

Urban vacant land is typically concentrated in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods and is often linked to drug-related crime and violence. The City of Philadelphia is currently estimated to have over 30,000 vacant lots, many of which are overgrown, filled with trash and contribute to an appearance of decay and blight.

The group met up with UTC’s Sue Witte at a vacant lot filled with overgrown trees and trash. Glove and tools in hand, the students picked up trash, pulled and removed overgrown, intrusive brush, and began clearing the lot for the eventual urban garden that others will plant. Though it was very cold, spirits were high and the group accomplished a lot.

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Afterwards, the group headed back to St. Barbara’s Church for a workshop led by New Sanctuary Movement.

New Sanctuary Movement builds alliances across faith, ethnicity, and class in order to give voice to immigration injustices and enact policies that reflect values of hospitality, justice and dignity. They engage in in an authentic and passionate faith-rooted response to current immigration injustices.  NSM responds prophetically to unjust systems,  including unfair trade policies,  and seek to build  a hospitable and welcoming community.  NSM believes that immigrant communities should lead the movement for immigrant justice while  allies support and stand in solidarity with them. They seek to  transform and deepen the commitment of congregations and promote the vision of a society characterized by a culture of hospitality.


The director of NSM, Peter Pedemonti, shared about the organization’s work and also discussed the current issues facing many immigrants in the United States. He shared stories from NSM’s work and challenged status quo perspectives about newcomers to the U.S. he also helped the group rethink the word “illegal” as a way to describe someone without documentation. We talked about how such terms like “illegal” can dehumanize people and cause only fear and no progress.

The group participated in an exercise during which some students were given a “status” that allowed them to enter the U.S. and others were told that their status would prevent them from having any realistic opportunity at all.

There was much conversation. Some students, whose families are immigrants themselves, shared their personal stories and feelings.

As we have all week, we lifted up the telling of stories. If we hear someone’s story, we are less likely to judge him/her and will recognize our common humanity.

In the evening, we took a walk near St. Joseph’s University to share a meal and evening prayers at the Mosque of Shaikh M. R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen.


The Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship is open for the five daily prayers (salat), Jum’ah prayers every Friday, as well as for early morning dhikr recitation (remembrance of God). They offer classes in Arabic, Qur’an recitation, Salat and introductory classes in Islam.

bawa-frontMuhammad Raheem Bawa Muhaiyaddeen was a revered Sufi saint from the island of Sri Lanka who for more than fifty years selflessly shared his knowledge and experience with people of every race and religion and from all parts of the world. He first came to the United States in 1971 and established the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship of North America in Philadelphia. Since then branches have spread throughout the United States and Canada, as well as in Sri Lanka, Australia and the U.K.

First, the members of the the fellowship shared food hospitality with us.

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Then, we entered the mosque to experience their prayers. The beauty of that sacred moment was especially significant, because five students in the group practice Islam. One of the male students even led the others in the ablution ritual before the prayers.

Afterwards, we headed back downstairs for a time of Q & A with Imam Muhammad Abdur Razzaq and members of the fellowship.

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It was obvious as we listened and asked questions that this fellowship has provided a sacred space for community and growth for many.

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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