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How two Philadelphia groups want to spark tough conversations about race and faith

Updated at 5:05 p.m.

When Stefanie Kitchner, a white woman, asked Rasheeda Ahmad of East Falls what it was like to be a black Muslim woman in Philadelphia, it felt like a natural transition in the conversation they were having with three other women.

The women were at WHYY Thursday for the first of several conversations to increase cooperation and understanding among faith communities. The Race and Faith event was a partnership among WHYY, Interfaith Philadelphia and NewCORE, the first in a series called A Year of Civil Conversations.

Five minutes into their conversation, they had already discussed interracial dating and changing religions. Philadelphia is a great place to feel welcomed, but sometimes she feels more out of place when grocery shopping, Ahmad told the group.

She often finds herself trying to put people at ease, adding she condemns Islamic extremists.

“I find myself smiling at people,” she told the group. “I mean, I know that they’re uncomfortable.”

After the women asked Ahmed some follow-up questions, the conversation moved on.

“Race is associated with power and privilege,” Ahmed said to four nodding heads.Then another woman in the group shared her thoughts on the matter.

If you find this snippet of a conversation odd in the current climate, you’re not alone.

“Our conversations are not civil, and there’s a sort of level of toxicity in terms of how we understand differences in our society,” Ahmed said, calling tough conversations like these necessary.

Religious leaders who guided the evening discussed how race and racism inform their work and affect their lives.

Rabbi David Strauss talked about how, as the child of Jewish refugees, his primary identity was never white, but Jewish. So at first, he didn’t think he held a position of privilege in society.

“Most Jews would say, ‘What do you mean, white privilege? We’re Jewish and we’ve been discriminated against as well,’” he said.

Imam Anwar Muhaimin, who was born in Philadelphia but lived in Saudi Arabia, told the audience that, while he considers himself a child of God first, he realizes how others may not see him that way.

“I can choose to identify in a lot of different ways, but I don’t get to choose how I show up,” he said. “I show up black, wherever I am.“

He said he tells his sons being black can be a matter of life and death.

Patricia Davenport is the first black, female bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She  told the crowd her culture informs how she leads a majority-white denomination.

“So when I put on my vestments, do I like vestments with Afrocentric print? Yes, because it reflects my culture and my history and who I am,” she said.

The Rev. Bonnie Camarda said she and other Hispanics tend to be lumped together because they share the same language – and she finds that frustrating.

“I grew up in Cuba, and we do rice and beans. And you go to Puerto Rico, and you have arroz con gandules. Well, I never heard what a gandules was in my life,” she joked, adding that in Argentina, it would be customary to serve pasta due to European influences in that country.

After the panel discussion, the audience of more than 100 broke up into smaller groups.

Attendees were asked to share personal stories, while those waiting their turn were encouraged to ask speakers to go deeper in detail.

Maidah Sabir of Wynnefield said the problem today is people aren’t connecting with each other, but she said that she did feel a connection to her group during the exercise.

“This is going to be a tool in the instrument to the survival of the human race,” she said.

Three more live events are scheduled through April. Krista Tippett, host of the program and podcast On Being, will cap the events with a live taping at the end of April. On Being airs Sunday morning at 7 on WHYY.

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