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 the Midwest before completing a B.A. in Theatre at Northwestern College [IA] and a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ [UCC], Josh has lived and worked in the Midwest, East Coast, Hawai’i, and Mexico. He is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Welcome Project PA, host of the Bucks-Mont PRIDE Festival, and he is Pastor of Love In Action UCC, an open and affirming congregation featured in a Vox Media episode of Divided States of Women with Liz Plank and in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Josh has 20+ years of nonprofit experience, including leading workshops and training in corporate, medical, and academic settings, focused on diversity & inclusion, grant writing, fund raising, and program management. Josh is a fellow of Interfaith Philadelphia, and designs and coordinates HS and University student groups for interfaith immersion service-learning weeks. Josh also co-facilitates Ally trainings for LGBTQIA+ inclusion and interfaith cooperation. He is a founding member of The Society for Faith & Justice, and a Collaborator for Nurturing Justice, and a member of the Driving PA Forward team via New Sanctuary Movement. He also performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, and has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in religious and secular settings. Josh also enjoys running, singing, traveling, learning languages, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philly.

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