Invited to Share in God’s Time

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~ “I was a stranger and you welcomed me!” ~

Jesus teaches us so much in His many Gospel lessons, but, oftentimes, it takes the actions of those we encounter in our lives to transform us.  A few weeks ago, a group of seven members of the Aquinas Community shared in a journey to Mexico, where the families of a humble parish community welcomed us with worship, abundant food, and, with a very real language barrier, well-intentioned conversation, but even more importantly, with open doors and generous time.

As we closed the Acts of the Apostles and concluded the Easter season on Pentecost Sunday earlier this month, we are aware that we stumble on our way along the path to building up God’s Kingdom, both as individuals and as the Body of Christ.  We are called to accept God’s invitation to the friction of encounter and to trust that our openness to the other and willingness to show up allows enough space for God’s mystery to take place.

With faith in God’s providence and goodness, we are called to put into practice the call of discipleship; to venture out of the comfortable upper rooms of our lives, and allow ourselves to be welcomed into the transformative space of Christ’s love made available by the open doors and generous time of others.

– Chris Geraghty

Part of a series of reflections about a trip to Mexico in May 2017 that was coordinated by the Aquinas Center. To learn more about our mission, visit: www.staquinas.com/aquinascenter.

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Getting a tour of the parish community with Sr. Maria Zepeda, MSBT.

 

 

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Concluding the Hallway of Hope on “Day Without Immigrants”

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In January of 2017, the Hallway of Hope project was launched to be a physical manifestation of the support that the Aquinas Center’s local, national, and global community has for Philadelphia’s immigrants and refugees. Hateful, xenophobic rhetoric was spreading at a fast pace and escalated with the rise of an aggressively anti-immigration platform. No matter how strong we stand in solidarity and how much direct action we take, we can’t control the negative voices of those who would threaten our community.

 

However, we can counter this negativity by surrounding ourselves with expressions of hope, love and solidarity so that each person can see for themselves as they walk through our hallways that other educators, other children, other families and other faith communities value and support them and their life here in the United States. A call to action on Facebook yielded 404 messages of hope. These notes and posters were drawn, typed, or printed out original drawings and inspirational quotes to decorate our halls; from the bottom of our hearts, thank you so much to all who contributed a poster or sign. We treasure the color and brightness that they bring into this space, and especially invaluable is the noise-cancelling respite that they offer to the hundreds of folks who step into the Aquinas Center every week.

 

Lily Applebaum, a volunteer curator of the Hallway of Hope, shared her reflection on this project:

 

Every Friday morning for the past few months, I’ve started my day by sorting through colorful drawings on construction paper made by children and adults that I don’t know. Hanging these messages of solidarity, hope and love with Philadelphia’s immigrant and refugee community in the halls at Aquinas was an uplifting experience for me personally. What particularly stood out for me was how much children seemed to know just what adults needed to see. For example, one sign that moved me to tears was that one child made a little paper house, with a pop up book style door that opened to reveal a smiling girl behind it, presumably a self portrait, accompanied by a message of welcome.
Another that moved me to tears simply said ‘Love your buddy.’ Children always represent and embody hope to us, because they represent a next generation of people who might not hold the hateful opinions that some adults currently do; but they also are a reflection back to us of the educators and faith community leaders who are out there teaching and reinforcing love and solidarity, patiently explaining a complicated adult world in terms children can understand, and giving them outlets such as creating posters and signs for Hallway of Hope to express what they’ve learned and processed. That, to me, is hope!

 

Today, on May 1st, a day for workers’ rights and justice as well as a Day Without Immigrants, the Aquinas Center team removed the Hallway of Hope. Just as it served as a symbolic action to recognize the community of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers that call South Philly home, so too does the removal acknowledge what our community would be like without this presence.

 

Empty. Quiet. Absent color and life.

May today be a moment to pause and consider what kind of nation we want to be: one of inclusion and welcome or rooted in fear and exclusion? May we also look to Pope Francis who encourages us to practice mercy instead of building walls (reported here):

 

“No tyranny can be sustained without exploiting our fears,” Francis said. “Citizens are walled-up, terrified, on one side; on the other side, even more terrified, are the excluded and banished.”

Fear “is fed and manipulated,” he added. “Because fear — as well as being a good deal for the merchants of arms and death — weakens and destabilizes us, destroys our psychological and spiritual defenses, numbs us to the suffering of others, and in the end it makes us cruel.”

Francis said he believes that mercy is the “best antidote” to fear — and is “much more effective than walls, iron bars, alarms and weapons. And it is free,” according to the Catholic News Service.

Aquinas Youth Event Links Up with City’s Immigrant Business Week

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YEP hosts a Kasama Cafe pop up at the VietLEAD Tet Celebration at Furness High School in February 2017.

During the City of Philadelphia’s Immigrant Business Week, Aquinas Center is hosting a networking event, dinner, and panel for teens who are part of the Youth Entrepreneurship Project (YEP). The event takes place on Thursday, March 30th from 5-7PM at Aquinas Center and includes business owners from Raza Properties, Kayuh Bicycles and CafeKoliyan, and Sky Cafe as well as students from Drexel University. The session will be facilitated by Sinta Hite from Modero Dance Company and Carid Maranan, the YEP Coordinator, who is a business student at Community College of Philadelphia.

Teen program participants will have the opportunity to receive feedback on their resumes and hear business leaders discuss their thoughts on the following questions:

  • What businesses have you started and what was or is your brand like?
  • How did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
  • How does being a first or second generation immigrant shape your approach?
  • What have learned about yourself through launching a business?
  • What advice would you give young people who are first starting out in business?

YEP was initiated by a group of teens who gather weekly to collaborate with their peers on projects that improve, strengthen, and empower the community. This group, called Youth Voices, is comprised of immigrant, refugee, and native born youth who lead tours for the center, speak about pressing issues, support events, introduce visitors to the neighborhood, and give back through community service hours.

In July of 2016, Aquinas Center was awarded a local three year grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development to pursue youth based business ventures that emphasize economic justice. Teens, with the help of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, developed a brand name called Kasama, which is a tagalog word that captures the idea of companionship and journeying together.

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Logo in hand, the teens have rolled out a series of pop-up cafes hosted at the center, the local parish, and around South Philly. They continue to grow their skills through research and by leading tours to immigrant run food based businesses in the neighborhood.

Kasama Farmstand will debut later this year as the growing season unfolds. Teens plan to sell produce and flowers from the Aquinas Center’s Multicultural Community Garden. Next year, they will begin to explore opportunities for a shelf-stable food product that both represents the cultural influences of their family heritage.

To learn more about the business activities that are part of the City’s week long celebration, visit: https://beta.phila.gov/posts/office-of-immigrant-affairs/2017-03-09-immigrant-business-week-2017-march-27-april-1/

Parish Community Recognized as a Group that Relies on Bikes

In a recent article in SPOKE Magazine, the reporter explored how the use of bikes is an essential part of life in our immigrant community. Here is an excerpt from the feature: 

Pictured: Father Hugh Shields leads St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic church, which serves many immigrant bicyclists in South Philadelphia.

Father Hugh Shields leads St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic church at 17th and Morris streets. The church proudly boasts that it serves “the immigrant and the stranger in South Philadelphia” and offers weekly services in Vietnamese, Spanish and Indonesian. The majority of its congregants rely on bicycles to get around.“Our people don’t have cars,” Shields says. “When we have meetings here, it’s not cars parked. It’s bikes chained.”

Shields says his parishioners find that biking is not only cheaper, but also safer. With parking always a challenge in the neighborhood, some worry about having to park far from their front doors. “They’re worried about having problems while walking home,” he says.

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Read more in Our People Don’t Have Cars: For immigrants in Philadelphia, the bicycle is a way of life, as featured in Issue 06 of SPOKE:http://www.spokemag.co/our-people-dont-have-cars/

 

Four Ways to Help Aquinas Center Celebrate Four Years

Today, on the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas Center celebrates its fourth anniversary! 

dedication of aquinas centerIt 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.
Director

Aquinas Center Awarded National Research-Practice Grant

Philadelphia, PA 
January 19, 2017

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Preparing to present findings on immigrant education access at AERA conference in Washington, DC last April.

These last few months have been challenging for many in our community. The tone of exclusionary discourse and the threat of further vulnerability at the hand of proposed federal policies has stoked fear. Back in November, we shared that Aquinas Center would respond to this shift by focusing our energies on our one city block. We might not be able to make a dent in the national dialogue, but we can live our mission boldly right here, right now. 

Aquinas Center will have improved capacity to do this work thanks to a large multi-year research-practice grant from the Spencer Foundation, which will fund a new phase of our partnership with the University of Pennsylvania. 

As a result, marginalized voices will be amplified. The pursuit of just social policies will be informed by the lived experience of our community. Traditional academic paradigms will be re-imagined. 

Aquinas Center and the Reading, Writing and Literacy department at the Graduate School of Education will share $400,000 over three years to do the following:

  • Promote research as a fundamental human right, specifically for those who are economically, socially, and educationally vulnerable.  
     
  • Fund program coordination and training for community members to empower themselves through the types of research tools normally the exclusive purview of universities.
     
  • Maintain participatory research with community members, who would be involved in all aspects of the research process, from deciding its focus, how to approach the identified problems, collecting and analyzing data, and disseminating findings.
     
  • Create a networked research hub located in the community, at the Aquinas Center. This includes computers, audio/video recorders to data collection, quantitative and qualitative analysis software, and security protections. 
     
  • Develop a website that will serve as a central point of access and repository for the research being conducted through the partnership.
     
  • Make research findings and research-based practices accessible. For example, by condensing academic articles into jargon free research briefs, translated into multiple languages, that could be downloaded from the website. These could be used by city council members, funders, and other decision makers.

Stay tuned for exciting ways to become involved in this new season of activist scholarship by and for the Aquinas community.

Teens Debut Brand for New Ventures

Over the course of the fall semester, Aquinas Center’s Youth Entrepreneurship Program (YEP) has been working with undergraduate students in the Wharton School of Business to develop a brand, logo, and marketing plan for their business ventures. The program launched in mid-summer with a grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and focuses on youth-led activities to promote economic justice. The Wharton support was provided pro-bono.

 

Aquinas youth, local high school students, met eachThursday afternoon from September to November to determine the essence of their brand. As Carid Maranan, the program coordinator explains, “It came down to a sense of being together. Some teens come from all over the world and some were born right here in Philly. What they have in common is this place, Aquinas Center. It is a place where we can invite others to join us to do good things for the neighborhood.”
Several brainstorming discussions produced one word that captures this idea of companionship and journeying together: kasama. Kasama comes from tagalog, a language of the Philippines, which some of our teens speak. Jessica Kim, the student leader of the Wharton team stated, “MUSE Community Service Consulting collaborated with the Youth Entrepreneurship Program to help build their brand that reflects their multicultural diversity and create a sustainable, long-term marketing strategy.”
The Kasama brand and logo will be applied across the YEP ventures, which include a cafe during the winter months, garden related sales in the growing season, and eventually a shelf stable food product such as a global hot sauce line. Youth will continue to meet with–and be mentored by–immigrant small business owners in Philadelphia as they develop their own business skills.
All are invited to the teens pop-up cafe on Tuesday, December 20th from 3-5PM in the dining room at Aquinas Center. Future dates include Saturday, January 7th and Thursday, January 26th.

Sept 9th is a Day of Prayer for Peace

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In light of recent incidents of violence and racial tension in communities across the United States, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has invited all dioceses across the country to unite in a Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities. He has also appointed a special task force to support bishops in marking that Day of Prayer, and more broadly, in promoting peace and healing during this time of great strain on civil society. The Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities will be celebrated on the feast of St. Peter Claver, September 9th. The following is a prayer that can be used on that day. Visit this site for additional resources.

Prayer of the Faithful for the Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities

For an end to the violence perpetrated by harsh words, deadly weapons, or cold indifference. May our homes, our nation, and countries around the world become havens of peace, let us pray to the Lord.

For the grace to see every human being as a child of God, regardless of race, language or culture, let us pray to the Lord.

For the wisdom to receive the stories and experiences of those different from ourselves and to respond with respect, let us pray to the Lord.

For the strength to teach our children how to resolve differences non-violently and respectfully, and the courage to model it in our own behavior, let us pray to the Lord.

For our faith community, that we may celebrate and welcome the diverse faces of Christ in our worship, our ministries, and our leaders, let us pray to the Lord.

For our faith community, that we may respond boldly to the Holy Spirit’s call to act together to end violence and racism, let us pray to the Lord.

For healing and justice for all those who have experienced violence and racism, let us pray to the Lord.

For the protection of all police and first responders who risk their lives daily to ensure our safety; for fair and just policing that will promote peace and wellbeing in all our neighborhoods, let us pray to the Lord.

For our public officials, that they will strive to work for fair education, adequate housing, and equal opportunities for employment for all, let us pray to the Lord.

For our parish, that we may cultivate welcome, extend hospitality, and encourage the participation of people of all cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds, let us pray to the Lord.

For the courage to have difficult conversations about racism, and for a better appreciation of how our words and actions – or even our silence – can impact our communities, let us pray to the Lord.

For solidarity in our global human family, that we may work together to protect those who are most vulnerable and most in need, let us pray to the Lord.

Parish Partnership Creates a Place to Belong

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Center director Bethany Welch and Youth Voices member Carid Maranan install mural panels in the Multicultural Community Garden.

PHILADELPHIA (CNS) — Just a few miles from where Democratic convention delegates met July 25-28 at the Wells Fargo Center, a South Philadelphia neighborhood echoed with the sounds of multiple languages, presenting an array of cuisines and businesses that cater to a dizzying diversity of ethnicities and cultures.

Once a landing place for Italian and Irish immigrants, the area which houses the Aquinas Center, an innovative church- and community-supported venture in welcoming and supporting immigrants, is now home to Asian, African, Latin American and others families seeking a new life in America.

Founded in 2013 as a collaboration between the people of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish and various social service organizations and educational institutions, the center sits on the northeast corner of the church campus.

It is adorned with six community-created murals, the result of collaborative work that reflect the values and common vision of the groups who find a home at the center.

To read more about mural making and our desire to be a place that welcomes all, check out: http://catholicphilly.com/2016/08/news/local-news/parish-partnership-creates-culture-of-inclusion-in-phila-neighborhood/

St. Thomas Aquinas Needs a New Roof

STAFor over 100 years, the parish church of St. Thomas Aquinas in South Philadelphia has been the home of wave after wave of immigrant families seeking a better life for themselves and their loved ones. The church has been the site of sacraments spanning the very beginning of life to the tearful burying of the beloved deceased….. and the powerful, significant steps in between through First Communion, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Marriage, and sometimes simply a holy place to pray quietly. And that mission continues today in the same beautiful, majestic setting of St. Thomas Aquinas Church.

Today this Church is in need of a new roof, and we hope to begin the repairs in September. Already, within just a few months out, present parishioners have raised over $40,000 with $10,000 more in a pledge that will be fulfilled, but we still require outside help. A major portion of the remaining $70,000 must still to be collected before the repairs can begin. If you can support us with a donation, we would be most appreciative. If you could pass on this need of ours to others, especially those who still hold precious memories of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in their hearts, we would be most grateful, as well.

Give online at GoFundMe or, send a check made out to St. Thomas Aquinas to 1719 Morris Street, Philadelphia, PA 19145.

Any monies over and above our goal will be used to maintain the Church’s hope-filled presence in the neighborhood. Specifically, pointing on the front of the church, repairs to the stained glass windows, and upkeep of the floor are high on the list of priorities. This Church was built and maintained over these many years with LOVE. We wish to continue this mandate.

Please remember us in your prayers! Help spread the word!
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