Cherry Hill mosque acts as steward for inner and outer lives

Property in process of conversion to wildlife habitat.

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Cherry Hill, the Gracious Center of Learning and Enrichment Activities (GCLEA) was recently certified by the National Wildlife Foundation to become a wildlife refuge. One of the main criteria for inclusion is to have a food source present, and Imam John Starling poses with a newly-erected bird feeder just outside the mosque headquarters. Plans are in the works, in spring, to set aside a spot close by for hummingbirds, bees and butterflies to flourish.

Travelers to a tucked away area around the east side of the New Jersey Turnpike, north of Route 70, might encounter what appears to be nothing more than a bland business park. The faithful who flock to the Gracious Center of Learning and Enrichment Activities (GCLEA) on Esterbrook Drive find a sanctuary within an ordinary block building. 

But Imam John Starling sees nothing but potential on the grounds of the mosque, with worshippers taking time to enjoy the outdoors and various animals stopping by to enjoy some food and drink.

GCLEA has been around since 2010, and Starling has been involved for almost a decade. In that time, the mosque has grown from rented space within The Mansion on Main Street in Voorhees for Friday prayer service to a center for worship and service that accommodates 350 Muslims. 

With an eye toward greater environmental responsibility in recent years, the growing religious community has embraced practical “green” ways to conduct business inside. Now, as the calendar rolls toward spring, there’s an emphasis on what’s happening outside. 

In late February, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) certified GCLEA as a certified wildlife habitat, and preparations are underway to outfit the grounds with means to aid and promote the health of wildlife.

“There’s a philosophical angle which, in our faith, teaches us that we’re stewards of the world around us. That we’re born a part of the natural world, but not apart from the natural world,” Starling said on March 1. 

Starling mentioned that, when engaging in worship or participating generally in life, his faithful are encouraged to be frugal, mindful, careful and thoughtful about what is consumed and the amount of consumption and wastefulness. That goes for indoor and outdoor presence.

And so, the practical angle behind the conservation effort — a project established by the NWF to encourage eco-diversity by having people register their homes, places of business or schools to become a wildlife habitat — is to make the public aware that it doesn’t take much effort to improve conditions in small ways. 

“You have to meet a number of criteria: having food sources, having shelter, having a water source, having places for wildlife to raise young, and find shelter,” Starling explained. 

After a successful trial run in his own home, Starling brought the idea to the mosque, which, despite unspectacular surroundings, is not without its charm. He said there was not a lot to do on the property, at first, to accommodate the above criteria. 

 

“It already had a lot of natural elements. There’s a wooded area, some evergreen trees and bushes, and we use mulch when we manage the grounds,’ he noted. “We put a bird feeder (out front) which we purchased from the local WIld Birds Unlimited. And when you pay a nominal contribution to the NWF and you’re in.”

Added to the grounds near the feeder is a wide mouthed bird bath that, on the day of the Sun’s visit to the property, was ready to receive avian friends who need refreshment. There’s also a small trail that loops around the grounds and leads to a small wooded area behind GLCEA’s headquarters. 

For many during this pandemic year, home confinement has led to a greater desire to experience and be present in the outdoors. Starling encouraged his followers to take the Cherry Hill trail challenge, tackling as many of the township’s 12 trails as they could, all to gain a true appreciation for and presence in nature. That simple idea has apparently found a new home.

“Anyone, anywhere can restore wildlife habitat right in their own yards and communities,” said NWF naturalist David Mizejewski in a release. 

“Whether you garden in a suburban yard, an urban area or a rural plot of land, you can make a difference for local wildlife” he added. “Creating a Certified Wildlife Habitat garden is fun, easy and makes a real difference for neighborhood wildlife.”

And that’s exactly what Starling has in mind for better weather in the spring. A youth group, most likely led by his 10-year-old daughter, will continue adding to the area around the bird feeder to include spaces where hummingbirds, bees and butterflies can congregate. 

Starling hopes to make contact with the Horticulture Society of South Jersey, located within the township, for guidance on continuing the project.

To learn more about GCLEA’s green initiatives, visit: https://www.gclea.org/greenmuslims.