The Interfaith Center of Philadelphia was born 10 years ago when a handful of spiritual leaders from some of the major religions in Philadelphia came together with the intention to establish bonds across the diverse spectrum of religion that thrives in the city. Today, ICP runs dozens of programs, like the Ride for Understanding, with each aimed at providing the space for more open communication, understanding and community participation.
“Walking the Walk is the Interfaith Center’s main youth initiatives,” said Jennie Wilber, a current intern at the Interfaith Center. “It gathers youth from different congregations from different faith traditions to get together and talk about their own faiths, to learn about other faiths and to do service work together to create a community and an understanding of different faiths.”
“We create a space so that thinking and thoughts can develop,” explained Quaiser Abdullah, an adjunct professor at both the College of Education and the College of Science and Technology at Temple University, who is involved with a whopping 12 Interfaith programs including Walking the Walk.
This past year, Abdullah facilitated discussion groups for hundreds of high schoolers based in the Northwest network as part of Walking The Walk. Over the course of eight months, young people of different faiths had the unique opportunity to come together monthly to engage in frank dialogues about religion. Such open conversations tend to extend understanding beyond strictly spiritual dividing lines.
“You notice clear economic differences and social experiences in the Northwest area,” Abdullah explained.
When students from different socioeconomic backgrounds come together, the wide variation of their life experiences based on resources and previous exposures can cause just as much friction as debates about creation. One of the strengths of the Walking the Walk program is that it provides space for deep exploration of self and others that forces students to extend themselves beyond their potentially isolated or homogenous communities of origin.
Though there is a registration fee, scholarships are made readily available to encourage students from all circumstances to benefit from the program if they have an interest.
“We do not want financial resources to be a barrier to a student participating in Walking the Walk,” said Abdullah.
The Northwest cohort is currently comprised of about half a dozen individual groups, each hosted by a participating organization, community, or congregation. Though it may seem surprising that organizations aimed specifically at educating students in their own particular religion would be interested in exposing their youth to divergent views – especially during those delicate teenaged years, Abdullah says that in many cases, exposure to differences solidifies students’ sense of religious identity.
“They come feeling more secure in who they are as a Jew, as a Muslim, as a Christian, or whatever are the faith tradition is at that time,” Abdullah said. “It’s about acknowledging similarities or celebrating our similarities but also celebrating our differences.”
Abdullah cites a major strength of Walking the Walk as its commitment to validating divergent experiences.
“You see students that start off very quiet, very shy, and then by the end of the program, you see them willingly speaking about their faith and sharing what they have learned about the other faiths and traditions,” Abdullah explained. “That’s a reward for me.”
“It was very eye-opening, particularly that cross-neighborhood relationship building,” said Nicole Kligerman, a current community organizer for the New Sanctuary Movement who participated in the first Walking the Walk program in 2005-6.
“We have learned to ask curious questions and draw connections within the group that we might never have established if it were not for our shared commitment to the interfaith movement,” reflected Sophia Waldstein, a student group leader from the Northwest network.
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Breaking students out of insular thinking ultimately enables them to lead more thoughtful, sensitive lives in which they conceptualize themselves as integral members of a larger community. Walking the Walk regularly invites families to participate in service projects including park cleanups, food drives, retirement home visits and gardening initiatives alongside their kids.
“With high school students you have the parents who are also participating,” said Abdullah. “So with Walking the Walk, I met a lot of the parents.”
These projects extend the impact of the program across generational lines as well as spiritual, socioeconomic and geographic ones.
“We come together and we clean up,” said Abdullah. “We work together to help define our communities.”
Witnessing the wide-reaching results of Walking the Walk alone has caused Abdullah to believe that simply providing the space for engagement may be the most important gift to offer.
“I do not think that every single issue we see should have a program to address it,” he said. “Just a mere fact that in an eight month period we are committing to meet with individuals 12 or 15 times … I think that alone is significant to help address some of these ideas that we see.”
– Text, photos and video by Alison Vayne and Tori Marchiony