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City of Faith: New Directions

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Orange Buddha.jpgFaith in Philadelphia steadily hums under the hustle of city life, 330 years after the city was founded. We tend to forget Philadelphia's religious origins, but William Penn did intend this place to be a "Holy Experiment," the locus of a new faith called Quakerism, founded on what were then -- in some places still are -- such alien ideas as tolerance and freedom of religion. Even in its earliest days, the city was a refuge for religious groups scorned or persecuted elsewhere in the New World; Jews and Catholics, to name two.

Even in these secular, materialistic times, faith still infuses city life, and not just in the mainstream churches and congregations.  I went looking off the main paths for examples and it didn't take long to find them. The four documented here serve as examples of the myriad variety of religion in the city. Each signify four pillars of faith: contemplation, art, piety, community, each concentrating on one of these aspects. In each their own way, they seek to fill a hunger bread cannot satisfy.

--Ada Kulesza

 

 

THE MUSLIMS

The corridor along Walnut Street west, Shadiqah Hauber says, used to be a war zone.

"There were a lot of Asian gangs up and down the blocks here," she says. "I used to come to work here many a morning to crime scene tape on the corner."

Hauber, the office manager at the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, was present at the creation of a mosque that has helped transform the neighborhood over 20 years. She was a young woman when the AICP decided to establish their North America headquarters in Philadelphia. A member bought a burnt, bombed-out church, St. Andrew's Methodist, on the corner of 45th and Walnut Streets and donated it to the project. Converting it into a mosque was only the first step on the journey.

Today, the domed white building, with green trim in Arabic style around the large windows, serves as focal point for Little Lebanon, as it sometimes called. Hauber says neighbors were initially uneasy about the influx of Sunni Muslims. Now, the mosque and its congregants are an integral part of the the neighborhood.

 "We estimate the congregation to be about 400 members steady," Hauber, 40, says, wearing a hijab and long dress. The majority of the congregation is African American, with another 15 to 20 percent Arab and the remaining "from varying walks of life from all different countries." Led by Imam Dr. Ali Ghazzawi, the Sunni MuslimMuslims Use This.jpg congregation include Eritreans, Sudanese, Lebanese, Palestinians, Malaysians, Hispanics, and Europeans.

"When we first purchased the building we spent a lot of nights staying outside to secure the area so it would be safe for us and all the people," starting with a playground, Hauber says. "We invested a lot of time and money and interest and volunteer hours and many things to make it a safe and enjoyable area."

It's hard to believe this was once a war zone. Cherry trees bloom along Dutch-style duplex houses with tidy porches and gardens. Students from nearby Walnut Hill College, Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania mingle with men with long beards and knee-length tunics, and women wearing headscarves, at a nearby Halal restaurant. The mosque owns the cafe across the street. The area has a feel of a little Istanbul - cosmopolitan, but distinctly Islamic - due mostly to presence of the mosque.

The AICP runs a primary school with 125 students. "We try to mend social ills by keeping children in a private school environment and away from some of the things that can be gotten from some of the public schools. Because we all know how wonderful Philadelphia public schools are," Hauber deadpans, pinning a headscarf to my head. "This gives a venue for the children to be in a more protected environment, learning better morals."

It is Friday afternoon, and the congregation streams in for the weekly prayer. Hauber has loaned me a headscarf from an office drawer containing a sequined and multi-colored collection. We wash our hands and go through a women's entrance from the side.

Besides some white plastic chairs lining the back of the room, the former church is carpeted and empty. Since the congregation must face Mecca during prayer, what was once the church's altar  is now a raised platform where women in headscarves sit with their children. Eventually the mosque is filled with people sitting on the floor.

Shaykh Ra'id Abdul Malik gives a lecture on piety, reciting in Arabic and translating and expounding in English. He preaches the virtues of Muhammad, whom he described as close to perfect as a man could be, given the duty of being a prophet. For that, the Imam says, he is loved by God over even the angels.

The Muslim faith stresses right conduct in search for God. Women must keep themselves covered but for faces - the iconic symbol of Islam. They avoid iconography in artwork or fancy embellishments in their architecture and dress. "Muhammad ate the simplest food," the Imam says, enumerating the examples of strength and humility that the prophet exhibited, and that men should strive for to overcome their animal natures.

The school's curriculum tries to instill Muslim values and beliefs on the young ones, incorporating a once-daily prayer into lunch hour, and a weekly assembly for its required music component, with singing and percussion instruments.

The mosque reaches out to the community at large with a yearly block party - so neighbors won't "think we're so scary," Hauber says. Otherwise, through the Islamic classes they offer at the mosque and the nightly dinners during Ramadan, they forge a community of the faithful across disparate nationalities, but keep it within the Islamic teachings.

Also symbolic of the moral conduct Muslims practice, they have a prison correspondence program, communicating with over 100 prisoners. They don't try to convert them, but as life and religious are inextricable, the correspondence has religious overtones.

"They're pen pals, asking for publications and study materials, or visitors to instruct them. We do that as far as the institutions allow and as far as our people can get to them," Hauber says.

The mosque is run completely on donations from our members. "We don't get any government funding or grants," she says.

The mosque's two-decade run has been supplied by people who felt the need for a center to study Sunni Islam and practice within a community, establishing the roots of a culture somewhere between east and west.

 

THE BUDDHISTS

In Buddhist cities people find refuge in temples. At the Shambhala Meditation Center in Philadelphia, a plain room on the third story of 2030 Sansom St, Americans - most of them white - meditate on cushions, facing shrines adorned with pictures of their Asian leaders.

Shambhala has centers all over the United States and a publishing company, transmitting Tibetan Buddhist teachings to Westerners, with the goal of spreading the faith beyond its normal borders. with the goal of creating enlightened society and teaching basic goodness in all people.

That's what attracted painter Jean Plough to Shambhala (pronounced: Sham-BAH-la) 40 years ago.

 "I guess I had trouble believing the religion of my family," she explained. "I didn't believe everything about it and I wanted some type of philosophy to live by. I like Shambhala. You didn't have to believe anything to sit on a cushion and pay attention to your breath. You just sit there and do it. So that's what attracted me to it. It was not a religion where you have to believe something. Because at that time I had trouble believing anything."

Tibetan Buddha  Use this.jpgThe Philadelphia center started in a living room, moving to Center City 20 years ago. On the morning of Shambhala day, or Tibetan New Year, February 22, the meditation room fills with grey heads sitting on cushions. For half an hour they sit quietly, take a break, and begin chanting. Shambhala blends Tibetan and Western culture. The ceremony, in English peppered with Tibetan terms, is led by a thin white man in a suit. Together, the 40 or so people present begin chanting in unison, as they read from a booklet: "This is the darkest hour of the dark ages. Disease, famine and warfare are raging like the fierce north wind. The Buddha's teaching has waned in strength."

Down the line, they continue, "In the boundless space of suchness, in the play of the great light, all the miracles of sight, sound and mind are the five wisdoms and the five buddhas. This is the mandala which is never arranged but is always complete. It is the great bliss, primeval and all-pervading. It is boundless equanimity, which has never changed. It is unified into a single circle beyond confusion. In its basic ignorance there is no longer any trace of ignorance nor of understanding..."

During an informal session on a Monday evening, the vibe is different and younger. A diverse group of people, mostly in their 20s, sit quietly for half an hour, and arrange their cushions in a circle. There's no teacher. The informal sessions center around 59 slogans, or proverbs, written in 13th century Tibet, distillations of Buddha's teaching meant to train the mind, known as Lojong. Tonight's slogan is, "Don't transfer the ox's load to the cow."

"We often transfer our responsibilities onto someone less experienced than ourselves, simply because we are less inclined to do something ourselves," reads a woman from a book. She passes it down. "When the work is done well, we want to take the credit. When something goes wrong, we pass the blame to someone else," another woman reads.

The 23 people break into groups and discuss the slogan. "I have someone who I work with and when stuff goes wrong I tend to find the errors that he made, and not the errors that I made," a man says.

Minutes pass in silence. Plough says this spontaneous peace is what drew her to Buddhism.

"When we are cutting through our thoughts we can notice basic goodness," she said, "we can build a relationship with basic goodness..."

Does meditation get her closer to believing?

Says Plough, "You're using the word 'believe.' I'm using the word 'experience.' Some of the time I can experience it - not all the time - so I know what it feels like. It's more first-hand experience than somebody telling me it's there and I have to think, maybe it's there and maybe it's not. I sit there and I can feel it sometimes, so I don't have to worry about whether I have to believe in something."

The world "Shambhala" is derived from the mythical city Shangri-La. The fictional place is probably based on Tibet, a formerly isolated country that was invaded by the Chinese starting in 1949. In 1959, the leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, fled, with thousands of Tibetans following.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche followed the Dalai Lama and eventually went to Oxford, England and the United States. When he started teaching Buddhism in the West, he renounced his monastic vows and adopted Western culture - he smoked, drank, and had relationships with students, stirring controversy.

His followers adore him to this day. Plough went to his funeral in Vermont in 1987, where she also met the poet Allen Ginsberg. She said on the day Chogyam Trungpa was cremated, a rainbow appeared around the sun.

At Shambhala Day, raising Champagne and cider glasses to salute Chogyam Trungpa and his son and daughter-in-law, there's curiously no mention of Tibet. Reports say the Chinese have cracked down in response to monks, nuns and lay people setting themselves on fire in protest.

On one hand, Shambhala is a white American Buddhist organization - the Thais, Tibetans, and Vietnamese have their own temples; let them deal with their own society. But shouldn't we say something about the people whose culture we're mimicking, while espousing compassion? No one brings up that question. Everyone celebrates.

 

Cover Picture: Muslims services at the Walnut Street mosque.

Text picture: An orange Buddha

 

 

 

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