Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Holy Experiment: Panel and Audience Discussion

On behalf of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, Charlene Mires welcomed guests to the second event in the Greater Philadelphia Roundtable series. She explained the Encyclopedia as a partnership of several organizations that will create a digital information resource.  The Roundtable series, group discussions, audience comments and questions, published essays, and panel talks all will help to shape the content of the project.  Mires described the Roundtable series as a year-long exploration of Philadelphia history and tonight’s event as a focused examination of the city’s religious history, especially the idea of Philadelphia as a Holy Experiment.  She then introduced the moderator of the evening’s panel discussion, Randall Miller of St. Joseph’s University.

In light of William Penn’s vision for Philadelphia as a “Holy Experiment” and the topic of tonight’s discussion, Miller observed that the Friends Center was the perfect host – an urban space where religion brings people together.  He noted that while the United States is regarded as the most religious nation in the world, religion has long been a source of both communion and contention for Americans.  He asked the audience to consider the true meaning of a holy experiment.  First, the word holy evokes a sense of something larger than self or asks one to think in terms of others.  Second, the thought of an experiment suggests that one must work through ideas to come to a greater understanding.  With these terms and definitions in mind, Miller invited the panel and the audience to consider religion and faith in Philadelphia, past and present.  He then introduced the panel for evening: Tuomi Forrest of Partners for Sacred Places; Rabbi George Stern of the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement; Emma Lapsansky-Werner of Haverford College; and Maris Gillette of Haverford College and the Muslim Voices project.  Each of these speakers, Miller said, is an actor in religion and faith communities across the city.  He asked the panelists to give brief statements about their work with religion in Philadelphia as well as reflections on the topic and Emma Lapansky-Werner’s essay, published on April 10 in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Emma Lapsansky-Werner began by explaining her research interests and work on William Penn.  She is most fascinated by Quaker history, African American history, the study of material culture, the psychology of community, as well as family history and the transmission of values from generation to generation.  Lapsansky-Werner explained that any discussion of William Penn must begin with his father and his family. Drawn to what was then a “fringe” religion and therefore pressured by his father to make critical life decisions at a young age, Penn learned from his Quaker mentor, George Fox, that religious leadings will come only when one is ready to receive them.  He translated this way of thinking into all of his decisions to create a balance in his life.  The city of Philadelphia became one of his children, along with his biological children, that he raised, taught, and guided with this message of tolerance throughout his life. Lapsansky-Werner posed the question, “How do we make and sustain good community?”  We must, she answered, create means by which we can pass on the desire and skills necessary to the next generation.  Penn struggled to model this – with mixed results.

Next, Maris Gillette introduced herself as an anthropologist most interested in Muslim communities.  She explained that the mission of the Muslim Voices project resonates with the same ideals that Penn brought to Philadelphia: justice, respect, tolerance, and diversity.  Gillette expanded on this idea by comparing the message of the Prophet Muhammad to that of Penn.  Both men sought justice for others, especially economic justice, and believed that a person should accept and commit to religion when ready, rather than by force.  As a testament to Penn’s vision of tolerance and diversity, the Muslim Voices project recognizes and celebrates longstanding, highly diverse Muslim communities in Philadelphia.  Additionally, the project works to provide Muslim organizations with digital media skills to proactively represent themselves, rather than non-Muslim organizations creating false representations.  The shared community stories of the Muslim Voices project strengthen bonds between Muslim groups, non-Muslim groups, and create a collective history in Philadelphia.

Rabbi George Stern began with a brief personal history.  Raised in a Catholic Philadelphia neighborhood, he learned religious diversity in the tension between Irish and Italian communities.  Rabbi Stern stated this is a turbulent time for religion in the United States, as the religious and public square are constantly in flux.  While religious diversity has led to respect and toleration, it also has contributed to a greater sense of loss.  He explained that, in an America where authority is easily questioned, religious groups based in authoritarian structures are especially challenged. Social upheaval can be seen as a result of shifting dynamics of power and loss of authority by religious groups, which often respond by trying to use the political system to impose what they can no longer enforce even among their own adherents.  At the same time, Rabbi Stern reasoned, religions that emphasize “prophetic voices” can benefit from the increased interest in social justice. The Neighborhood Interfaith Movement, he continued, was founded in 1969.  It grew out of community-based attempts in Mt. Airy to encourage racial integration.  Today NIM focuses on systemic social justice issues such as the quality of child care and the rights of residents of long-term care facilities.  It works to create connections between religious groups based on shared religious values.

Tuomi Forrest, Vice President of Partners for Sacred Places, said that his organization, now twenty-two years old, is a national, nonsectarian group that aids congregations and religious groups.  For example, Partners works to raise money, care for buildings, and organize community outreach efforts.  Partners for Sacred Places also helps religious organizations to understand their “public value,” or the ways in which they serve the community.  Forrest talked about Philadelphia as the birthplace of denominations and congregations, a message that should be trumpeted and advertised more energetically.  Not only did William Penn recognize religious tolerance as a smart business tactic, he also genuinely believed that it was the right and true way to live. Here, Forrest said, Penn’s idealism and practicality collided.  As the largest and wealthiest American colony in the eighteenth century, Pennsylvania was a primary actor in colonial politics and economics as well as history.  The vitality of the entire colony depended on the diversity of its people and religious communities.  Forrest asked, “Is this still true today? Or, have we forgotten?  Have we taken this foundation for granted?”  He answered that Philadelphians and Pennsylvanians need to challenge themselves not to rest on assumptions that may blind or block them from realizing true diversity.

Randall Miller then posed a question first explored in the previous month’s discussion of William Penn and the City of Brotherly Love:  In what ways have the ideals of toleration that Penn expressed worked in Philadelphia over time and in our time?

Especially interested in the notion of tolerance, Emma Lapsansky-Werner noted that while tolerance is part of the traditional Quaker idea, it becomes significantly more complicated when probed.  Lapsansky-Werner’s interpretation of Quaker tolerance reasons that traditionally, Quakers of Penn’s time felt they first needed to be correct in their own beliefs, and that others may believe what they wish but would eventually come to Quaker tenets as a result of seeing how Quaker practice promotes community cohesion and peace. This theory of tolerance comes with a sense of righteousness that simply allows others to be wrong, expecting that these others will eventually come to perceive “right ordering.”  This interpretation certainly created more complex, dynamic relationships between Quaker and non-Quaker groups in Philadelphia.

Rabbi George Stern had two main observations about tolerance in Philadelphia today.  First, he cited the situation of Jews as an example of a major increase in the level of acceptance of diversity in Philadelphia. Second, he pointed out the increased openness in many neighborhoods to religious, racial, and other kinds of diversity. As interest in different religions has increased, more communities have calmed formerly negative relations with other religious groups, especially Muslim groups.  This past January, Philadelphia’s interfaith community celebrated the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by honoring Daisy Khan, a champion of moderate Muslim-Americans, who, with her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, proposed a plan to create a Muslim center in Lower Manhattan, blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center.  While the city heightened security and police presence in anticipation of violence and protest, the event went smoothly and without hostilities.  Rabbi Stern cited this event as a testament to Philadelphia’s growing respect for religion and religious understanding.

Next, Maris Gillette spoke about William Penn’s ideals in relationship to the present Philadelphia Muslim population.  Throughout its history, the city has shown evidence of great tolerance and respect, but also periods of striking intolerance and prejudice. While there existed a national backlash against Muslims after 9/11, the response seemed to be muted in Philadelphia.  On the national level, the backlash included heightened government surveillance of Muslim schools as well as increased deportations of Muslims.  Also, there has been an increase of reports and legal proceedings relating to religious discrimination against Muslims in the workplace in direct violation of U.S. laws.  Gillette then offered a brief history of Muslims in the United States. The first resident Muslims in the area were enslaved Africans, but in the late eighteenth century that more Philadelphia residents became interested in the promotion of Islam.  Since then, Philadelphia has been home to diverse Muslim communities and many groups have flourished here.

Tuomi Forrest cited the moving boundaries of tolerance in Philadelphia as signs of progress and change. Today, he finds less discrimination against particular faith communities and more overt discrimination against all faith communities.  Forrest explained that this discrimination stems from those who are uncomfortable with the irrationality of faith in God and cannot accept communities based on that faith.  Religious groups need to prove the value of their faith communities in society to challenge prejudice and discrimination.

Emma Lapsansky-Werner noted that William Penn also was concerned with this idea of faith as a choice.  Religion, according to Penn, should not be forced on anyone, and so society should avoid adopting a state religion that everyone would be required to support.  Essentially, Penn preached that belief in God should not come with a coerced price.

Rabbi Stern added that these ideas of open belief and religious tolerance are at the root of the success of religious communities in the United States, in contrast to Western Europe.  The separation of church and state has allowed a culture of freedom of belief to flourish.  He argued that when religion is controlled by the state, religion loses its prophetic voice and its influence over its own adherents.

Randall Miller concluded the discussion by remarking that William Penn’s definition of tolerance is a loaded term that has certainly changed the definition of tolerance today.  He then opened the program to the audience and asked for comments or questions.

The first audience member asked how religion can be incorporated into the public school system.  Emma Lapsansky-Werner responded with another question: “How can the teaching of religion be brought into public education as part of a larger understanding of the foundations upon which communities and public discourse are – willy-nilly – based? She raised questions about the larger framework of history curricula in public schools and argued that they are divided into too many separate streams, so that students do not get the full picture of, for example, Richard Nixon or Herbert Hoover, both of whom felt they were living their Quaker principles in daily political lives. If these strict delineations between historical periods and subjects were relaxed, religious discussions would simply be one of many aspects of historical narrative. Rabbi George Stern noted that while there is nothing illegal about teaching religion in public schools; it is illegal to preach sectarian religion.  In order to avoid lawsuits, many curriculums have avoided religious lessons and discussions altogether. Tuomi Forrest added that the best teachers of pro-social, or tolerant, values have students who are less likely to commit crime or drop out of school.

Next, an audience member identified himself as a William Penn re-enactor who also writes historical pieces in the voice of Penn.  He argued that Penn would have interpreted his religious enterprise and the city of Philadelphia as a project driven by divine intervention.  Also, he reminded the panel and audience, much of the hard work to create Philadelphia was done by Swedish residents and traces of Swedish influence are found on the state flag of Pennsylvania, whose colors match those of Sweden.

The third question of the evening asked the panel to consider another need for tolerance in regard to marriages that cross racial, religious, and cultural boundaries. The audience member referred to President Barack Obama as an international figure who represents a multicultural and multi-ethnic background.  Maris Gillette gently disagreed with the statement posed. She finds Philadelphia to be a divided city of ethnic, racial, and religious neighborhoods, more specifically defined by housing, schools, and social groups. The lived experiences of Philadelphians today are not all fair, simple, and easy, but are complex and complicated by deeply rooted prejudices and judgments.  Relative to what could be achieved or what could exist, Philadelphia certainly has room for improvement.  Another audience member commented that cemeteries in Philadelphia are still segregated today by both religion and race.

In response to all three audience members, Emma Lapsansky-Werner described an article written by William Lloyd Garrison in The Liberator in 1831 in which he dreamed of a tall, distinguished African-American couple who – it becomes clear, as the dream plays out – turn out to be the American president and his wife.  It seems almost as if Garrison had a premonition of the election of Barack Obama. Garrison described his dream, however, as one of two simultaneous waves moving within American society: one wave of tolerance, inclusiveness, and an openly-blended society, the other of hatred and mistrust of the “others” in society.  Lapsansky-Werner connected this piece of history to where we live now.  In the diversity of urban settings, people are able to construct identities by blending pieces from many sources and cultures. These complexities, she argued, make us exciting people and in some way, William Penn anticipated such diversity. Quakers call this idea “way-opening,” or the notion and expectation of future events and experiments.

Next, an Irish Catholic retired history teacher shared her experiences as a teacher in a Jewish school.  Advised from the beginning that it would not be easy, she came under pressure from school administrators who were concerned about how she would teach the history of Catholic Europe.  At the end of a meeting to review her curriculum, the Rabbi shook her hand and agreed with her lesson plans.  She shared this story as the perfect example of religious respect.

An audience member asked the group to ponder exactly how much influence has William Penn had over time in Philadelphia.  Thinking about race riots and religious feuds, in what ways do we respect and forget Penn today?  How do we choose to commemorate and remember Penn?  He noted a constant tension between religion and the marketplace with moods of tolerance and intolerance throughout history.  This is most apparent in Penn’s egalitarian map for Philadelphia where commerce and religious idealism collide.

The last comment of the evening expressed how William Penn continues to inspire today.  In order to discover the good nature and friendship originally found in Penn’s land treaty with native Lenape tribes, a man has started a journey to walk the same path of the Lenape from Penn Treaty Park on the Delaware River to Ohio.  He hopes to recreate similar relationships with those who help and meet him along his journey as experienced by Penn in Philadelphia.  Emma Lapsansky-Werner noted how Penn adapts in history and in memory as we need him for inspiration and for guidance.

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