Building a "Culture of Encounter": An Interview with Bethany Welch

Bethany Welch is the director of Aquinas Center in Philadelphia, where she combines her background in the arts with her training in urban affairs. Having left the evangelical charismatic church of her childhood after feeling the call to Catholicism, she writes for Millennial, a magazine focusing on the issues that impact today’s young Catholics.

And, dear Art House regulars, you will not believe how appropriate her doctoral dissertation is suited to Art House America and its history: she studied “the adaptive reuse of church property to further community development goals.”

Bethany and I recently discussed all of this and more.     

Daniel Bowman Jr.: You’re the founding director of Aquinas Center in South Philadelphia. Tell us about the Center.

Bethany Welch: Aquinas Center is housed in a former convent on the grounds of a Catholic parish in inner city Philadelphia. Nuns had lived in the building for fifty years and taught in the church school. Now, that space is energized by a similar spirit of community and service. Our mission is still evolving, but we know we want to be a safe place where people from inside and outside the neighborhood come together to learn from one another and grow as a result.

Differences of culture, ethnicity, race, religion, education, and class can place us in parallel worlds without the possibility of venturing into each other's lives. Aquinas Center seeks to be a space where we actively and intentionally pursue what Pope Francis recently called a "culture of encounter." There is a profound beauty in watching a high school kid from an affluent suburb get introduced to water ice (a quintessential South Philadelphia summer treat) by another teen originally from the Philippines and from far less means. All the differences wash away as the sticky colored confection melts down your arm. This one moment won't solve poverty or fix urban education, but a thousand such moments could. They could transform how we live in relationship with those on the margins, how we love, and even how we make laws and vote.

DB: You began your education as an art student. What led you from the arts to a Ph.D. in urban affairs and public policy? How is art (or creativity) still a part of your life?

BW: Ah! I get asked this all the time, to connect the dots, and I can trace a line through my general education classes in college to an internship at a hunger relief organization. I was encouraged by a professor who taught the freshman writing class to consider taking on a second major in communication. Until that point, I don't think I knew who Socrates was, much less Kenneth Burke.

But I had been creating since I was a kid. My grandmother was trained in illustration at Syracuse University and let me use anything in her studio while I was growing up. What I found through my college coursework was that I could unite text and image through graphic design.

As a result, I got a summer internship doing visual communications and PR for an organization that hired me after graduation. I soon realized that while I could create a decent visual message about what the organization did, I was most compelled by the why, or the "so what" questions surrounding the message. Why did hunger persist in the face of incredible bounty? Why did people working two minimum wage jobs show up at a food pantry in order to make ends meet?

My boss gave me phenomenal opportunities to explore those questions through policy and advocacy work. That took me into higher education for a time and then propelled me on to a year of service in inner city Philadelphia. That one-year experience became the site of my dismantling and eventual regeneration.

I emerged feeling called to work for restoration and wholeness in urban neighborhoods. As I often explain to people, this call compels me to keep creating as a way to make sense of the world as it is and the kingdom yet to come. I always have a sketchbook in my bag and a project in process at home. Most recently I have been doing printmaking because it is so analogue and immediate. Block printing especially has a great history as art of the people.

DB: During our time as undergraduates at Roberts Wesleyan, I recall a small but intentional movement among some students away from expressions of mainline evangelical faith and toward more liturgical or “high church” traditions. Several even converted from Protestantism to Catholicism.

What has your own faith journey been like? Why do you think many of today’s young people have been drawn to the Catholic Church?

BW: Another “ah.” Yes, I was at the edge of that group. I didn't really know what it was at first, but I did know that something was fermenting. It felt dangerous at the time. And very, very confusing. It took me almost six years to make sense of what happened in that season, especially as I did eventually convert to Catholicism. But that is for another discussion!

In many ways my faith journey is like the evolution of my work or vocation. While my grandmother and my family supported my artistic bent, we worshipped in a way that didn't really engage with the visual. I can say now that I believe humans are hardwired to use their senses in worship. I think God created us to be a material, mark-making, symbol-using people. The Catholic Church offered me that in every possible way. While it is true that the experiential nature of the charismatic, evangelical churches I grew up in did incorporate some elements of this, they weren't rooted in a 2,000-year tradition.

And really, that [evangelical Protestant] way of being did not ask me to struggle, to grapple with mystery, or even to expect to suffer. I am part of a generation that wants more, not less. I want the church and my community to ask more of me, to challenge me, to expect a lot. There are lyrics from a My Morning Jacket song that I think encapsulates this: 

It matters to me
Took a long time to get here 
But if it would have been easy
I would not have cared

There is a difference with liturgy, with confession, with praying the hours of the day, with going to Mass where the Eucharist is presented to be consumed each and every time. It asks a lot. It also forgives much.

And it touches on that Scripture in Hebrews 12 which talks about the great cloud of witnesses. In Mass (or when using a prayer like the “Examen,” which comes from Ignatian spirituality practiced by the Jesuits), I feel connected to a long line of people trying to do this thing called faith. Catholicism also gives me a cogent, albeit complex and paradoxical, worldview. It is an iterative, yet persistent faith expression that has been tried, tested, broken, renewed, and lived by billions around the world.

DB: Tell us about your work with Millennial, the new magazine to which you are a regular contributor.

BW: Millennial began last summer as an offshoot of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good to amplify voices that didn't seem to be heard in most news outlets or weren't being accounted for by the media. Our tagline is "Young Catholics, an Ancient Faith, a New Century." I'm at the far end of the age group for Millennial authors, but I share their passion for being mindful that we are a new generation in a long line of the faithful.

As an adult convert, I often feel that part of receiving this gift of faith now is to remind lifelong Catholics of the treasure they have, something that can be taken for granted when you grow up with it. Writing for Millennial helps me say that out loud. It also challenges me to confront topics or opinions I disagree with. It can be hard to be part of a global church with all of its tensions. But the push and pull certainly keep me looking inward, outward, and then back to the cross.

DB: The Art House in Nashville, TN, began in a 100-year-old renovated country church. It became, as the web site says, “a unique artistic hub for hospitality, conversations of consequence, and imaginative creativity.” One of the reasons I wanted to interview you for the Art House America Blog is that your doctoral dissertation is on “the adaptive reuse of church property to further community development goals.”

What kinds of discoveries did you make throughout the course of your research on this unique topic?

BW: First of all, awesome! I have read the Art House America Blog but didn't know the provenance. Second, how people dwell in cities has changed and continues to change, yet the physical footprint often remains static, which can be a good thing. There are gorgeous, architectural gems that deserve preserving for the sake of beauty. And then, like Aquinas Center, there are mediocre, mid-century constructions that deserve to be reinvigorated because of their potential to serve a new purpose. Sometimes it is about being a good steward of what you have. The Catholic Church in America has a large inventory of properties in densely populated, struggling urban neighborhoods.

What I found during the course of that research (and now in the process of repurposing a building) is that adaptive reuse is practical and very needed if our cities (and other spaces) are going to be viable places.

I also learned that it’s hard. It is just plain difficult to do, and also thoroughly complicated because of the relationships people have with physical space. One architect told me that new construction is nearly always cheaper now than retrofitting an old space. My interviews with community leaders revealed that not everyone can abide a new use. Some people prefer that a building sits vacant and remain as it was in their memory of the good old days than to see it changed even a little bit to serve a new population or use.

I had a bit of a row with an upstate NY diocese over suggesting (in a policy discussion where I had been invited to present my research) that they lease their former parochial school buildings to charter schools, and to funnel that income into the much diminished, but still important Catholic school system that was reaching the un-churched urban poor. We need new wineskins to do God's work, but that can scare people.

DB: A phrase used to describe Art House America is “Cultivating Creative Community for the Common Good.” Based on your experiences in the field, is there any advice would you give to readers who are working to undertake — in small, achievable ways — the cultivation of creative community for the common good where they live?

BW: Eat with people and hear their stories. Make things or plant things. Show up and show love.

My most beloved mentor taught me to never, ever meet with another person or a group without food or a beverage. He is a priest who spent a decade in Latin America and returned with a deep sense of the power of hospitality and narrative. It is important to understand both the people and the place when seeking to build and strengthen community.

Artists and gardeners aren't the only ones who should be creating or coaxing life. I've started six urban gardens in three different cities and I can't stress how essential it is to co-create with those whom you want to build bonds. It is incarnational and it is transformational. It works across languages and ages. Three sunflower seeds can be enough. A tomato plant is even better. A public art project is outstanding.

Finally, community is not possible without participation and accountability. I went through a dark season when I couldn't tell what God wanted for me or where I was going. In prayer, begging for direction and purpose, I began to feel that I wasn't supposed to do anything more than show up. But I did need to do that much.

Belonging to a small group community for three years has also shown me that our collective worth is relying on my presence, which counters my instinctual avarice for private time. I expect these people to call me out if I don't engage. And when I am there, love is the central thing. If I truly believe, as I say I do, that God's love is at work in the world, then I had better be able to show it.

Bethany Welch is the founding director of a multicultural outreach center in Philadelphia, PA, as well as a nonprofit management and evaluation consultant. In 2006, Dr. Welch was recognized by the Corporation for National and Community Service with a Spirit of Service Award for advancing transformational change in urban communities through research, planning, and capacity building. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Delaware, an M.S. from the University of Rochester, and a B.S. from Roberts Wesleyan College.

Daniel Bowman Jr. is the author of A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country (VAC Poetry, 2012) and Beggars in Heaven: A Novel (Relief Books, forthcoming 2014). A native of the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York, he lives with his wife, Beth, and their two children in Hartford City, Indiana. He is an assistant professor of English at Taylor University.


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