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Posts tagged ‘Urban Tree connection’

Walking with the Spirit of Peace

John 14:23-29

peacewalk2On Sunday, May 1st, more than 400 hundred people from the Greater Philadelphia area participated in the annual Interfaith Peace Walk. I walked, as I have the past 5 years.

peacewalk6peacewalk3peacewalk4PeaceWalk1Some have asked me: what is the point of such a walk? I appreciate the question, as it usually comes from a place of curiosity and not judgment. People are quite interested in any gathering of people who identify as Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, Baha’i, Hare Krishna, Christian, Jewish, Secular Humanist, Hindu, Jain, agnostic, atheist, etc….Why?

Most people you meet on the walk answer the question in their own way, but for the most part, we do share a common answer: Inner peace and outer peace.

Now, what do I mean by that?

Inner peace [however you choose to define it] is obviously an internal feeling/state of being in which you feel balanced, accept yourself, forgive yourself and others, and become self-aware. This is a constant, never-ending process.

By outer peace, I mean connecting to others in a cooperative, compassionate, and humanity-building spirit. The inner peace leads to the outer peace.

Along the peace walk I have met all kinds of people who have gone through a lot of difficult circumstances. Some have been discriminated against because of their religious tradition or cultural background.

peacewalk5They walk to forgive and to stand with others who stand with them. Some peace walkers participate because they are tired of seeing all the violence in the world—be it wars or gun violence or religious violence. They walk to stand for justice and to work towards peacemaking in our communities and in the world. Still other peace walkers show up out of curiosity. They wonder: what is this all about? They have never talked to someone who wears a turban. They have never experienced the Muslim call to prayer. They absolutely don’t know anyone of the Baha’i faith and had never heard of that tradition before. They walk out of curiosity. Even on a bike.


And then there are those in the Philly neighborhoods, along the walk. They may not be “official” peace walkers; they didn’t know about the walk; they just noticed a large group of people walking through their neighborhood. And so they come out of their row houses and apartments. Kids wave. Some students ask: what is this walk about? When they learn that it is an interfaith peace walk, they shake hands and give a thumbs up. Other neighbors cheer as we walk by, or smile. They walk with us, too.


Personally, I walk each year because of what I mentioned earlier. I seek inner peace for myself and know how essential it is to practice this. But I also recognize that things like meditation, prayer, or any personal spiritual practice must then lead to public practice, i.e. how I treat others and connect to others. So this walk is a continued commitment to make peace with others.

Working with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia provides opportunities for me and the Christian congregation I serve to pursue inner and outer peace. For example, we work regularly with Urban Tree Connection, and organization that cleans up vacant lots in Philly and transforms them into beautiful community gardens where roses and other flowers, vegetables and fruits grow. Residents in the neighborhoods where Urban Tree develops the gardens help out and connect with the volunteers. Certain areas of Philly that were once prime spots for drug deals and even violence are now peaceful and useful green spaces that the local residents take pride in.


It is for this reason that UTC was recognized recently as a Zone of Peace.

Zones of Peace is a region-wide interfaith movement of churches, synagogues, mosques, other houses of worship, schools, and community-based organizations working to address the root causes of violence and make us safer in the communities where we live, work, and play. Zones of Peace recognizes organizations that are pioneering creative responses to violence and elevates their leadership. I am glad that we have been able to partner with peacemakers like Urban Tree. I have seen firsthand how this kind of work helps individuals to be at peace with themselves but also to be at peace with others.

Speaking of peace, like most religions, Christianity [or the following of Christ] was founded on the principles of peace. Jesus of Nazareth was most certainly a person of inner and outer peace; this is indeed what he taught to his disciples. Whether or not people who call themselves “Christians” in this day and age are actively seeking inner and outer peace is up to them. But this peace-seeking and peacemaking is most certainly at the center of the NT Gospels. In this particular segment of John’s Gospel, Jesus is preparing his friends the disciples for his departure, i.e. his death. His words to them are both comforting and challenging. Allow me a moment to lift up some of the context.

Those who love me will keep my word…

This does not mean that those who love Jesus keep up to date with certain religious rules or even the Bible for that matter. The word Jesus spoke of was and is a reality of being. The word is how you orient yourself, how you love, how you treat others, how you live. Jesus’ disciples were taught to follow Jesus’ example of living in love.

Don’t let your hearts be troubled; don’t be afraid.

This was Jesus sending a clear message to his friends that in spite of challenges and uncertainty, inner peace and wholeness was still possible. If they were to live in love and love was the opposite of fear, well then, this makes sense. But to bring this home, Jesus spoke of a spirit that would help his friends remain connected and inspired. The Greek word here in John has been much debated. Some go with par-ak-letos, which means alongside and called. Sometimes English Bibles translate it as advocate. And further, the Greek word Paraclete borrows from the Hebrew language word nacham, which means comfort. So Paraclete, the promised spirit, is both helper and comforter.

Inner peace personified and offered to all. And finally…

Peace I give to you. Not as the world gives to you, do I give to you.

In this case, peace is a loose translation of the Greek word Eirene. It may be helpful for you to consider Eirene and the Hebrew word shalom or the Arabic salaam. The word means the well-being of all people and the world—wholeness, reconciliation, harmony, and health. Outer peace.

To close, I return to this concept of inner peace leading to outer peace. As individuals, we first need to commit to alleviating personal suffering if we ever hope to work towards alleviating suffering in the world.

Swami Brahmananda from Bengali once said: When you find your peace there is one less person suffering.

Likewise, Kelsang Gyatso, a Buddhist monk, wrote: Without inner peace, outer peace is impossible. We all wish for world peace, but world peace will never be achieved unless we first establish peace within our own minds.

So friends, first you must ask how often do you sense a spirit of inner peace within yourself. What practices fill you with a sense of wholeness and balance? Which practices or behaviors or relationships do not? Once you set yourself on a path of inner peace [and it’s a lifetime process, remember] you will find yourself on a path of peacemaking with others. Inner peace leads to outer peace and meaningful and positive connections with others.

So let us commit as individuals: to promote peace in our homes and communities. Let us commit to work with others to eliminate the causes of hatred, to honor dignity of all people, to lay down our weapons, and to find non-violent solutions when tempted to hurt another.  Let us commit to be an instrument of God’s peace: to make our homes and neighborhoods zones of peace, free of fear, filled with respect, and marked by deeds of kindness. Hope to meet you on this path as we walk it.

From Urban Tree Connection volunteer coordinator [and friend] Sue Witte:
As a 11 or 12 year old I was totally blown away by Jesus saying “Love your neighbor as yourself”, felt how very profound that is, and looked around to see where I could possibly find a mentor for that.  I even asked God why I wasn’t created at the time of Jesus, so that I could actually experience loving one’s neighbors as one’s self, truly, in the deepest sense. 
Later, I had the great good fortune of meeting Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, founder of the Sufi community and mosque in St. Joe’s area, who said “love all lives like your own life”.  I experienced him doing it and it became my life’s goal. I always think that if I am ever able to fully do that, it will be enough because it’s so inclusive of all of God’s beautiful qualities. We just have to get out of the way, clear our minds and hearts of all that stands in the way!  If we can do that, there will be nothing but love, equality, equity and peace. 

May peace prevail, may the hearts melt in love and may all lives truly be our own.

May we walk every day in such a way as to spread the vibration of peace far and wide.

Also, I encourage you to check out A Young Person’s Perspective on the Peace Walk, written by Rachel Steinig.


Interfaith Encounters Day 4


Our day began with Sue Witte and the folks from Urban Tree Connection! And…what amazing weather!

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.

UTC believes that community-based urban greening is a great way for residents of all ages to bring about positive change in their neighborhood. In addition to beautifying the neighborhood, urban greening projects also provide a variety of economic, environmental, health-related and social benefits.

We met Sue and others at the Merion Ave. site where amazing projects will soon begin. Currently, the huge lot is an open space with still quite a bit of brush to clear. But in a few months…







Volunteering with Urban Tree Connection is something you cannot do just once. You want to return and check on the soil that you cared for earlier; or the seeds you planted in the spring; or the flower beds you prepared for winter. Eventually, this vacant lot we helped clear will be transformed. Fruits, vegetables…green, green, green! It was a pleasure to be part of the positive movement to engage Philly’s neighborhoods in creating more green space and more accessibility to fresh produce.


DAY 4 Part II: Ravel/Unravel Workshop: What’s Your Story?

Next up was a workshop led by yours truly, making good use of Project Interfaith’s Ravel/Unravel project.


Ravel/Unravel is  a multimedia exploration of the tapestry of spiritual and religious identities that make up the world. The project seeks to ignite a movement for people to openly and respectfully learn, talk and share about topics which are typically taboo but often define our interactions and experiences as humans: identity, religion, spirituality and culture.

Ravel/Unravel is a community-based project. All the people are real people and not actors and were interviewed in the Omaha, Nebraska general region.

This project is about identity.
Its purpose is not to examine, judge, or monitor the orthodoxy of one person’s statements.

RavelUnravel is designed to foster understanding, conversation, and community, not agreement.

I asked the students to explore 3 traditions with which they were less familiar. Each of the two groups watched videos of people who share their perspective about their tradition. Afterwards, I asked the students to share what they learned and appreciated, and surprised them.

I also asked them to share their thoughts about what types of questions are most helpful and effective when people are asked to share about a particular tradition. I learned a lot from the students and have much to think about.

In the end, the most important conclusion I came to after this was that everyone has a legitimate story to tell and we ought to tell it! The more we share our authentic stories, the less we categorize, judge, and misinterpret. I’m hoping that I also will continue to find ways to tell my own story so as to promote pluralism and cooperation for the common good of all.

DAY 4 Part III: Won Buddhist Temple Faith Encounter

Tuesday night ended with an incredibly wonderful experience at Won Buddhist Temple.

IMG_6255Won Buddhism is considered a reformed Buddhism in that it embraces the original Buddha’s teachings and makes it relevant and suitable to contemporary society. It revitalizes and modernizes Buddhism, so that an ever increasing number of people can use Buddha’s teaching for practical and useful purposes.

The name Won Buddhism (Won-bul-kyo in Korean) is a compound word meaning the universal truth, enlightenment, and teaching. Won means unitary circle, which symbolizes the ultimate truth; Bul means enlighten to the Truth; and Kyo means to teach the Truth. Won Buddhism is a religion that teaches the ultimate Truth so that people can awaken to this Truth and carry it out in their daily life.

The members of the Won Buddhist community embrace and accept those of other faiths and have made a lot of effort in inter-religious dialogue.

Once inside the temple, we were greeted by members of their community and Rev. Sungsim Lee. Strikingly, Won Buddhist temples do not have a statue of the Buddha inside the prayer space. Instead, they have, at the center of the temple, the Il-Won-Sang, a circular symbol representing the origin of all beings in the universe, the truth that all buddhas and sages enlighten to, and the original nature of all living beings.


Inside the temple, we sat down in a circle to prepare for meditation.

WonFullMeditationCircle  wonmeditation2

One of Won’s community leaders and Rev. Lee led us in some chanting and then we practiced silent meditation for about 25 minutes.

wonMeditationAfter stretching a bit, we practiced walking meditation.

One foot.

Then the other.

Slowly around in a circle.

IMG_6264 IMG_6265One of the students at Won Institute then shared a message with us.

wonSpeaker (2)

Afterwards, we spent some time in small groups for Q&A.

   wonsmallgroup WonSmallgroup2 WonSmalGroup3 Upon leaving the Temple, Rev. Lee sent us off with many good memories, fruit, and cookies!

IMG_6279 IMG_6278

Message that sticks with me:
You can read scripture and practice meditation, but above all, you must practice the scriptures and apply the meditation to your real life–doing good and treating others compassionately.

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