Did you ever meet a woman in love with an avenue? On Sunday, November 6, a busload of RRC faculty and students, guided by Professor Katie Day of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, travelled down Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia, viewing the religious institutions along the way. The purpose: to learn more about the city in which we are training rabbis to serve in a multifaith world.
Reverend Day is, by her own accounts, obsessed with “her” avenue, an eight and a half mile stretch of urban Philadelphia that traverses a variety of neighborhoods and includes over 80 religious institutions. For almost ten years, she has been studying the changing religious landscape along this road; in 2012 her book, Faith on the Avenue, will be published by Oxford Press.
From Chestnut Hill at the north end, through Mt. Airy, Germantown, North Philadelphia and Kensington South, the avenue reflects the story of class, race and religion in the city of Philadelphia. We saw churches that were founded before the Revolutionary War (three denominations began this avenue) and others that began just a few years ago. We learned about “hermit crab churches,” small congregations that move into large church buildings, left empty when the former community moved to the suburbs.
We first stopped at Triumph Baptist Church , an African American “mega church” in North Philadelphia. At Triumph Baptist, the group toured the sanctuary, guided by a deacon at the church, William Gipson, who served for many years as Chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania. We learned how the senior pastor, Reverend James Hall, has built this church community during the last 42 years, growing the community to over 5,000 members. (This month, Reverend Hall is celebrating his 60th year in the ministry.)
We also had the opportunity to leave the bus and learn more about Al-Aqsa Islamic Society at the very southern end of the avenue. Al-Aqsa was founded by a group consisting mostly of Palestinian Americans. In 1989 they purchased an old brick factory building and established a place for worship and a day school, now serving over 400 students, K-12. In 2004, a remarkable interfaith community project, organized by the Arts and Spirituality Center, created stunning facades---mosaics and paint---for two sides of the building. Joe Brenman, the Jewish artist who volunteered his talents to lead the work met us at Al-Aqsa and filled us in on the story.
Thanks to Reverend Katie Day and her deep passion for the avenue, its history and its future, we left feeling more connected to Philadelphia and to the richness of its multifaith fabric. We are planning additional opportunities for RRC to engage, as a community, with our city. This year, for the first time, staff at RRC along with faculty and students will be volunteering as part of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service.
A slide show featuring some of Reverend Day’s tour can be viewed here.