Sharing tales of finding sanctuary at North Philly’s Church of the Advocate

Last night, WHYY presented multimedia storytelling event from the Church of the Advocate that invited Philadelphians to share their personal journeys finding sanctuary.

Surrounded by Walter Edmond’s murals depicting the hope and struggle of African-American history, and a floor above where an unauthorized Mexican family has sought refuge, artist Khalil Munir tap-danced his experience of getting caught in crossfire when he was 11 years old.

Khalil A.M.R Munir, a singer, dancer and instructor performs at Finding Sanctuary at Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

“My heart was pounding — tap dancing — there was a lot right next to my house. So I tried to make a run for it, but AHHHH, the bullet grazed my shoulder,” said Munir.

After that, home could never really be safe again, he said. Instead, Munir found solace in theater.

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Poet Corem Coreano, defined sanctuary more as an expression, rather than a place.

Corem Coreano, a multidisciplinary artist, shares a story at Finding Sannctuary at Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

Coreano, who identifies as queer, came of age homeless, and described a journey toward self-acceptance. “My knowledge is captured on the block my parents raised me,” said Coreano. And yet, “Sanctuary is in our hearts, the beats of the rhythm, the sound of your own drum,” they continued.

Catzie Vilayphonh, a videographer, says sanctuary is all about community. She was born in Thailand, her Laotian family displaced by the Vietnam War, but didn’t know her hometown was a refugee camp until she was 18.

“If I know my mom, still hadn’t shared any of that with me, I don’t want to re-traumatize her all over again. So what’s the way that I could learn my history?” she asked. The answer was to organize Blessed, a celebration of Lao New Year in South Philly. “When I see other Southeast Asian refugees come in support, I feel at home,” said Vilayphonh.

The night included vignettes of good neighbors, including the Church of the Advocate’s chef Miss Mamie, who cooks for the community daily. “For some people this is the only good meal they’ll get,” she said.

Jos Duncan, who grew up just blocks away from where the event was held,  left amidst the neighborhood’s struggle with the crack epidemic in the 1990s. Duncan says when she returned to the neighborhood, she felt compelled to tell young children, who grew up among the violence, stories of the old neighborhood.

Jos Duncan, a multimedia producer, shares her story at Finding Sanctuary at Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

But bringing those stories alive wasn’t easy. “How could I tell stories of Ms. Bain who lived on Woodstock Street without being reminded of the violent murders of my two best friends?” she asked. For Duncan, her mentor Linda Goss, helped her define sanctuary. “She carried these bells around that she would shake and sing ,‘Well oh well well!’ She let us know that it was story time. She told me and affirmed for me that as long as my heart was in the place to serve my people I would be ok. These stories were my sanctuary,” said Duncan.

For Wallace Peeples, aka @Wallo267, the event itself was a homecoming and birthday party. Surrounded by friends and family, sitting in sanctuary where he was once baptized, a video celebrated his work as a social media entrepreneur known for his uplifting messages. After serving more than 20 years in jail for armed robbery, then couch surfing at relatives houses, Peeples says there is nothing like having your own place. Describing his modest apartment, Peeples exhaled as he said, “This is my sanctuary.”

Finding Sanctuary was put on in partnership with the Association of Independents in Radio, the Lenfest Institute and the Wyncote Foundation.

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