The sun was shining on July 9 as a group of 15 women walked 11 miles through various Philadelphia neighborhoods as part of the Walk for Understanding with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia.
It was the culmination of a six-month journey that some of them had participated in with the center’s Visionary Women program.
For six Sundays throughout the year beginning in January, 75 women of different religious backgrounds met at various “faith homes” to explore the intersection of gender, social justice and faith. The project was funded in part by Women of Vision, an affinity group of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
It began in January with the first session at the Interfaith Center in which a panel of four women of different faiths spoke about encounters they’ve had as women of faith in the world of social justice. The women in Visionary Women — an intergenerational, interracial group who ranged in age from 16 to 90 — were then invited to introduce themselves to one another by talking about a time they took a stand for something they believed in.
Each of the following sessions centered on a holiday that a faith community was either anticipating or in the midst of celebrating, explained co-facilitator Rev. Alison Cornish. For instance, the second session took place at Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral during Lent.
“Then we invited women from all different faiths to talk about what kind of contemplative practices, fasting practices, preparatory practices looked like in their own traditions,” Cornish said. “That really was the pattern at each of the host communities that we went to — an explanation of the religion itself and the exploration of the holiday the community was about to celebrate and then drawing connections between those practices in the guest community and one’s own faith tradition.”
They went to the Philadelphia Sikh Society for Baisakhi; Philadelphia Bahá’í Center for Naw Ruz; Mosque of Shaikh M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen during Ramadan; and Main Line Reform Temple for Shabbat. They revisited these places throughout their 11-mile journey.
The program became an empowering opportunity for women — perhaps because of the timing in which it started, Interfaith Center Executive Director Abby Stamelman Hocky noted.
As it was the first year for the program, she said they imagined maybe 30 or 40 women would apply.
“Following the presidential election, actually the registration doubled,” she said, “and we actually geared up and didn’t want to reject anybody because everybody’s application was so strong.”
Cornish and co-facilitator Anneke Kat redesigned the program to fit double the amount of women they expected and found more locations to participate.
“It ended up being such an empowering experience,” Hocky said. “In these times when people are just looking for something to do to live out their core values and be a strong voice for the way they want the world to be, so that’s really the origin and we’re really grateful.”
The first session took place the day after the Women’s March, Cornish added, which made it “a very emotionally filled and high-energy day.”
As the women introduced themselves by talking about times they took a stand for something they believed in, the timing made it more impactful.
“That made for a really deep connection between the women right from the start,” she said, “but then again the context as Abby said, the post-election and the Women’s March, really primed the pump, I would say, for a lot of us.”
Throughout the program, guest speakers and artists were invited to help explore themes of social justice and spirituality through different expressions. The women worked in small groups at each session — some even got together outside of the sessions, which stood out to Kat.
“The greatest thing that the women have gained from this program are those relationships, and they really blossomed without us doing any hand-holding,” she said. “And outside of the program, we have numerous stories of women supporting each other, visiting each other’s homes for different holidays. It’s been a wonderful sort of hub of connection and female camaraderie and solidarity in a big way.”
For Kat, the walk, which also raised nearly $3,000 for future programming, symbolized the journey the women took during the program.
“I almost view this walk as sort of a meditative, reflective experience. … It’s a really lived out way of representing this symbolic journey that myself and Alison and these 75 women have committed to taking with each other for the last six months — and hopefully for the next year to come,” she said, adding the program will take place again next year.
“It’s an amazing way to really live out in a very physical way this interfaith connection we’ve helped build this past year.”
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