With all of Philadelphia bracing itself for the Pope's visit this weekend, Ego decided to spotlight three of our own faculty religious leaders on campus, who also happen to be teammates for a triathlon team named 'Divine Perspiration'. Introducing Muslim Chaplain Kameelah Mu'Min Rashad, Rabbi Joshua Bolton, and Christian Minister and Chaplin of Religious Life, Chaz Howard.
Street: Are you participating in any of the festivities during the Pope's visit?
Kameelah Rashad: This week is also the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha so I’ll be celebrating that. But I am keeping a close watch on the language that’s being used and the interfaith dialogue related to the Pope and what he represents. You have someone who is recognized globally as a religious leader who has been very consistent in advocating around social justice issues of poverty, inequality, homelessness, and the refugee crisis. That’s a conversation that I’m glad is coming to Philadelphia and hope continues even after he departs.
Chaz Howard: This is a spiritually significant moment for the city. It doesn’t feel like it with all the parking and all the other hoops to jump through, but of all the cities in North America for Philadelphia to be chosen, it’s kind of an honor.
Joshua Bolton: I’m not leaving the city, and I did try to participate in the commercial phenomenon of the Pope. I, along with my wife and another Jewish graphic designer in our neighborhood, designed the unofficial tank-top of the papal visit. It’s called the PopeTop. You can find it online; I think five people have bought it now. I think this is the first time in global history that three Jews have designed the unofficial tank-top of a papal visit.
Street: What’s the Christian/Muslim/Jewish community like at Penn?
CH: The Christian community is a really diverse population. Every major denomination and sect of Christianity is represented, some in big waves like our Catholic students, some in smaller groups like our Quaker students. There’s diversity in ethnicity, belief, and language use during service.
KR: It’s very difficult for Muslim students in this day and age. Even fourteen years after 9/11, there are still issues we hear about all the time directly impacting students. The Muslim Student Association in particular offers a family for people to come together and talk about these headlines we read. Being able to have the communal environment to feel supported and to feel nourished and feel understood is extremely important when so often students are wrestling internally with the question, ‘what does it mean to have my identity challenged so frequently”?
JB: Most Millennial Jews are post-institutional, maybe even suspicious of institutions. They grew up in a context where synagogue and organized Jewish life was neither compelling nor exciting, and it’s not like that’s going to change when they get to campus. But religious engagement, to me, doesn't mean going to synagogue more. I’m concerned that a lack of engagement with Jewish tradition corresponds to similar lack of engagement with moral, ethical, values-based questions in general. It takes a little bit of courage to be engaged Jewishly because we live in a fairly secular society. I want folks to be less fearful of being challenged by our ancient sources of tradition, as well as having the chutzpah to say “I want to own my tradition and drive it in a different direction.”
Street: What’s the general religiously observant community like at Penn?
CH: Dynamic. The numbers seem to point out that Penn is more religiously observant than our peer institutions. Over a third the campus population is involved at least once during the year with a religious group. That’s more than our greek system, that’s larger than athletics. And close to that number is involved on a weekly basis. We have great religious involvement on campus which is kind of counterintuitive because people think of Penn as a secular school, but we have incredibly strong religious organizations on campus and people are attracted to that.
JB: While my primary responsibility is toward Jewish students, I inevitably become a resource to everyone. I want to participate in the larger dialogue about the role of spirituality, faith, religion in the contemporary world and I want to be a channeler of a progressive religious experience for Jews and non-Jews on campus. People are so willing to bear their soul at the drop of a hat when they are given the opportunity to. I don’t think we have enough invitations like that, and it’s a real honor of mine to extend that. If they paid me to spend all of my time on Locust Walk, then I’d earn my keep.
Street: What’s unique about Penn religious students of your group?
CH: There’s a spirit of innovation here that descended from Ben Franklin himself that I think is constantly new. People employ innovation into the way they live their faith whether it’s what they’re doing off campus, whether it’s new or cool programming or whether it’s engaging different populations asking the hard questions. It’s an honor to be present when someone is trying to make sense of the world.
KR: Something I’ve seen develop over time is the growth and diversity of the Muslim community. There’s involvement of both men and women on the board of the Muslim Student Association itself. Penn MSA just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Being able to reflect on that history coming in as a black muslim women serving in the role of a Chaplain, and visually for people to see women are capable of serving leadership roles in a religious capacity, that’s something that I’m really proud of about the MSA at Penn.
JB: There’s a common conversation among Penn Jews about being “religious” or “cultural,” but I don’t know exactly what that means. A lot of Penn Jews are inspired by their religious tradition, by its rhythms, by its spirituality, by Israel. Many of them are not. So instead of banging my head against the wall thinking of how we can get them into Penn Hillel, I said “You know what? It’s not about the building, membership, or institutions. It’s about Jewish growth.” So I helped create the Jewish Renaissance Project. This particular brand focuses on empowering Jews on campus to grow Jewishly in the ways that they want, and to create communities for their own peers.
Street: If you could ask the pope one question, what would it be?
CH: If it were just me and him I would want to ask him about his personal journey. If it was a public question I’d ask what he thought a person of faith’s relationship should be to guns.
KR: "If you could go back in time 1400 years and ask Prophet Muhammad any question about Islam, regarding some aspect of the religion or Muslims that you don't quite grasp, what would that question be?"
JB: I feel like I should say something quippy like “I’d ask him to have a beer with me.” But what I’m really curious about is him kissing people’s feet. What is a proper regiment of foot-kissing for a religious leader in the 21st century? How many feet do you need to kiss a year? I’d want to know what types of feet, who they belong to, what the proper intentionality should be, mystical orientations of the mind in the time and moment of. I’d ask for a whole run-down on the proper foot-kissing technology.
Street: What inspired you three to run a triathlon together?
KR: Leading up to it we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. I think we all felt our faith is not something we want to engage with only through the texts or through conversation. There are different ways to engage in interfaith activities. Yes, the dialogue is important, but sometimes we just need to be together to understand each other better. We wanted to shed light on mental health but also wanted to do it in a fun way. Our team name was ‘Divine Perspiration’.
JB: After many seasons of hard times vis-à-vis relations in the world between religious groups, we just thought we needed to make an expression of shared space and values. In some ways, this was provoked by the state of mental wellness tragedies and challenges that our community faced and the sense that our traditions offer a shared territory around the value of self-care. It merged into something more of the importance of campus religious leaders setting an example of coexistence. I have such tremendous respect for Chaz and Kameelah. Kameelah ran the race while fasting for Ramadan! That was a real kiddush hashem for me, a real sanctification of God in this world. I’m still holding Chaz’s medal, because the swimming portion that he was supposed to do got rained out. I’m trying to figure out a way of making him compete publicly on campus to earn his medal.
Street: If you could assemble world religious leader triathlon team, who would be on the team with the pope?
CH: My A-Team would probably be Desmund Tutu, Dali Llama, and Pope Francis. I’m not sure they’d finish, but it’s certainly a holy team.
KR: I'd like to see a team composed of the Pope, Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie who is Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and the first woman elected to that position in the denominations history, and Dr. Ingrid Mattson, founder of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary and the 1st woman president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).
JB: I don’t think he would make it an inter-faith issue. I think he’d make it an economic issue, or an issue about equal access. He would probably choose a prostitute and someone without legs or a dweller of a favela in Brazil.