Tucked away in the parking lot of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Community, a new mural revealing a rainbow of colors has enlivened the Point Breeze neighborhood.
But, the diversity suggested in the artwork exists well past the paint, as the depicted individuals represent various cultural, racial and religious backgrounds.
Created by artists Jared Bader and Rashidah Salam, the recently unveiled artwork, “Dare to Understand,” was conceived and funded by Interfaith Philadelphia in partnership with Mural Arts Philadelphia, Radian and National Endowment for the Arts.
Several years in the making, the mural is an installment of the citywide “Dare to Understand” campaign sparked by Interfaith Philadelphia, a nonprofit offering an assortment of programs striving to build trust, understanding and relationships among all religious communities throughout the city and its neighboring counties.
In 2004, the organization, which is based in Fishtown, was established in response to the political and social climate in the shadow of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“In a world that was seeming very suspicious, in a world that was very fearful, really finding ways to bring people together and build relationships with one another,” said Chelsea Jackson, community partnerships manager of Interfaith. “So, our mission is to promote inter-religious understanding and equip individuals in the community with the skills they need to engage interfaith relationships and help build relationships with and among communities that are religiously and culturally diverse.”
Interfaith, which partners with more than 300 entities to offer a slew of inclusion-based programs such as a workplace diversity training and student workshops, started a month-long “Dare to Understand” billboard campaign in 2015 after anti-Muslim advertising appeared on SEPTA property.
Being a recurring theme in Interfaith’s initiatives, “Dare to Understand” gradually transformed into more than just a tagline.
“Dare to Understand’ really became, in that moment, our call to action as an organization,” Jackson said. “So, instead of these bus ads that were really buying into fear and misunderstanding and misinformation, Dare to Understand became our call to Philadelphia to really dig into and learn about one another and approach with a posture of curiosity rather than judgment or misunderstanding.”
Over the following few years, Interfaith teamed up with other entities, including Mural Arts Philadelphia, to transform the Dare to Understand concept into a tangible and permanent piece of artwork.
Dedicated in honor of former Radian CEO S.A. Ibrahim, a local business leader who promoted religious and cultural inclusion, the mural was devised to embody the intersection of faiths across generations.
Bader and Salam were eventually selected for the undertaking through a call-to-artists process with Mural Arts Philadelphia in 2018.
“At this time that we’re living in, it’s good to heal everybody,” Salam said. “…Everybody needs to be kind to one another.”
While the mural was originally set for a location in Old City, the project eventually found a home at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Community, located between 17th and 18th streets and Morris and Tasker streets.
The community, which encompasses a Catholic church, a Pre-K to eighth-grade school and the immigrants’ resource Aquinas Center, is home to an extraordinarily culturally diverse population.
With flags representing 16 countries suspending from the balcony of the church, services are told in four different languages.
“We have some of every nationality here,” said St. Thomas Aquinas parishioner Toni Nichelson, a former teacher at the school and assistant director of the church’s former daycare. “They come from all over the world…The mural shows the diversity. It shows what we do here. We give food. We all sit around. We all need food to flourish – even if it’s the food of the spirit. So, we all need the same thing and that’s what this mural is all about.”
Nichelson, who is actually portrayed in the mural among other community members, is part of the church’s Concerned Black Catholics organization – one of the many St. Thomas Aquinas congregations that also include Southeast Asian and Hispanic groups.
“(The mural) definitely depicts the community,” said Nicole Unegbu, principal of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School. “…especially this community here in the Point Breeze area. The Aquinas center, the church and the school cater to the people within this community. So, it definitely depicts the diversity – not only race, but gender and religion. And even though we’re a Catholic community, we’re accepting of all faiths.”
In January, St. Thomas Aquinas’ melting pot of communities unified to raise funds for the church’s broken heater, which was projected to cost around $34,000.
During the first wave of campaigning, members of the Indonesian community sold thousands of satay — skewered and grilled meat — on the patio of the Aquinas Center after services. The Hispanic community also sold tamales following services. These sales were weaved together by contributions from the Concerned Black Catholics group, Vietnamese parishioners and other congregations.
This same sense of unity surfaced throughout St. Thomas Aquinas as the mural was in development. Along with a community paint day this past summer, which welcomed about 60 people, Interfaith and Mural Arts Philadelphia hosted regular meetings with the local neighborhood to weave their insight into the public art.
“Folks from all different walks of life can often understand or meet in creative, artistic spaces,” Jackson said. “It often can be an accessible space. It can be a space for expression – for individual or cultural expression, but also respecting the expression of others, which is very imperative for our work as a whole anyway.”
Jackson says, looking ahead, Interfaith Philadelphia plans to continue collaborating with the St. Thomas Aquinas community through different programming with adults and youth.
The mural serves simply as an entry point to continue promoting the notion that diversity is not a hindrance but rather a celebration.
“The ‘Dare to Understand,’ to me, is to understand that people are people first,” Nichelson said. “No matter what religion they are, no matter where they have come from – they’re people and they all should be able to be treated the same.”
“For us, it’s a friendly, beautiful reminder saying,” Salam added, “…There’s always hope.”