Today, on the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas Center celebrates its fourth anniversary!
It is hard to believe how quickly the years have flown by since the very cold January day when we cut the ribbon at the Fernon Street doors. The same sense of possibility that prevailed in 2013 persists in 2017, albeit with a greater sense of urgency. In those early days, facing an empty building with no infrastructure, I would often find myself overwhelmed by the lack, but excited by what could be. Now, our offices and meeting rooms are frequently at capacity and the concern is one of having enough desk space, chairs, internet access, and coffee for everyone.
On Wednesday night, I sat in a packed room that included a Catholic bishop, Muslim imam, Protestant pastor, farmer, theologian, union organizer, and several activists. We represented a delegation that is headed to California in February for the World Meeting of Popular Movements, a gathering initiated by Pope Francis to engage grassroots organizations in shared dialogue around issues of land use, labor practices, and more.
The Aquinas Center kitchen was similarly abuzz that night with a dozen teenagers who were baking cupcakes and making brownies. These members of the Youth Entrepreneurship Project and Youth Voices had converged for two reasons: to find solace after a particularly threatening anti-immigrant, anti-refugee statement from Washington, DC and to prepare for a pop-up cafe they were hosting the next day. The youth hail from six different countries of origin. With their music turned up loud and bright pink frosting in hand, these teens baked their way through tears.
A wave of fear is causing many in our community to retreat into the shadows. Adults that might otherwise come to English class or send their children to school are weighing the cost of leaving their homes. Women are being told to remove their head scarves at work. Children as young as kindergarten are being told to “go back to your country” when in fact the only country they have ever known is this one.
When I consider what we stand to lose from this hatred of the “other,” the best tool we have to resist is something we already do: create, cultivate, and sustain space for encounter.
Aquinas Center has spent four years re-working an empty convent to become a vibrant, welcoming place for people of ALL backgrounds and experiences. We have cultivated a particular aesthetic of encounter that prioritizes beauty and makes green space accessible to those on the margins.
Now, we are inviting you to help us celebrate our fourth “birthday” with four ways to foster a Culture of Encounter all year long:
1) PRAY – Set an intention of hope for someone facing deportation. Say a rosary in honor of parents who raised children in the perils of a refugee camp. Commit to a Holy Hour where the Eucharist might strengthen your resolve for justice. Ask your parish or faith community to include prayers for unaccompanied minors and those seeking asylum.
2) SPEAK UP – Say something when you see or hear discriminating speech or oppressive actions against the vulnerable. Call your legislator. Use social media to speak truth. You can also send Aquinas Center a message of hope for us to post in our hallway. Mail a visual reminder that you support immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers to my attention at 1700 Fernon Street, Philadelphia, PA 19145.
3) SHOW UP – Encounter only works when we are physically present to one another! Share a meal with Youth Voices. Paint a mural, garden with us, or wash dishes side-by-side. Sing! Multilingual Karaoke is happening during Love Your Neighbor week on February 17th at 7PM in the parish Lower Hall. Show up in the streets. New Sanctuary Movement is training allies to respond to raids. Click here to learn more.
4) COMMIT – The “new normal” is going to demand more of each one of us. What is the Spirit inviting you to do? Can you commit financially to supporting Aquinas Center as a place for encounter? Donate here. Can you donate coffee, tea, and other hospitality supplies? Could you mentor a teen who is trying to navigate the college application process? Could you serve as an ESOL volunteer?
With your help, Aquinas Center will continue to present opportunities in the service of our mission to build unity in diversity, support learning, and inspire thoughtful action.
In faith and hope,
Bethany J. Welch, Ph.D.