Reminiscent of our 2017 Annual Conference theme, “Rise Up and Pray!” nearly 100 people of various faiths, races and ethnicities came together outside Lansdale UMC Sunday evening, August 20, to do just that, in response to the recent deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va. Their hour-long, candlelit vigil of prayers, songs, scriptures and statements, was organized in just a few days to help the community seek healing and harmony in the wake of ongoing racial turmoil.
Four days earlier, up to three thousand people gathered at Arch Street UMC in downtown Philadelphia, after marching from the nearby Rodeph Shalom synagogue, for a protest rally against racism, hate and violence. Two rally themes, “Unmasking White Supremacy” and “Philly is Charlottesville” cited a prevalence of white supremacy in government policies and practices regarding state funding of education, local police treatment of black residents and low wages for municipal employees.
Sunday’s prayer vigil at Lansdale UMC was led by the Rev. Christopher Kurien on his first Sunday there as pastor, following his recent return from a long visit to his home country, India.
“I was very sad and upset about what is happening in our country that we love, and I strongly felt that we should gather as God’s people,” he said. “I shared my thoughts with our leadership on Tuesday night, and they were all in support of the idea. Lansdale is a wonderful community where all denominations are present, and I was touched by the fact that we have a strong communal partnership.”
Holding posters declaring “We Stand in Unity” and “Love Your Neighbor,” attendees gathered on the church’s front steps and heard local clergy—Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Baptist, Presbyterian and others—call for unity and a compassionate witness against fear, hatred and terrorism.
“We gather on this night as a community of different faiths, but we are all centered in hope and fueled by love,” said local interfaith leader the Rev. Deborah Darlington. Bishop Peggy Johnson, the Rev. Gary Nicholson of Christ UMC Lansdale and the Rev. Robert Wilt of Lima UMC also attended.
“Much of the reason for the acts of terror in our world, especially this past weekend’s racial violence in Charlottesville, is fear-induced rage, fear of the other, fear of someone taking from us something we value, fear of false perceived threats or fear of losing something that has already been lost,” said Bishop Johnson. “Such fearful terrorism within gives birth to terrorism without.”
At Kurien’s request, she read from the August 13 statement she had e-mailed to Eastern PA Conference churches and members on the fateful weekend in Charlottesville. Other clergy read prayers of the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr. and other advocates for peace, racial progress and justice.
“It is my hope that all of our churches will engage in some kind of community prayer walk or prayer event,” said Bishop Johnson. “It is much needed to call attention to our collective commitment to proclaim the gospel of love in the midst of the clamor of hatred that we have seen lately in our country.”
Read more about this event in “Lansdale church holds prayer vigil for Charlottesville,” a news article by Christine Wolkin (Digital First Media) in The Reporter.
Landsdale prayer vigil photos courtesy of Bishop Peggy Johnson.
The earlier, peaceful Philadelphia march down Broad Street that ended with a rally at Arch Street UMC was organized by the interfaith justice action group POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild) to “show solidarity with justice-seekers in Charlottesville” and to address local justice concerns.
“We felt the need not just to show sympathy with Charlottesville, but also to really put on display the manifestations of white supremacy in Philadelphia,” said the Rev. Gregory Holston, POWER’s executive director and pastor of Janes Memorial UMC.
“Marchers heard speeches by community and religious leaders on topics related to public school funding, police brutality, immigration justice and raising the minimum wage,” reported the Rev. Robin Hynicka. Over 1,000 people filled the church for the rally while others filled the streets outside and listened to music, prayers and speeches through a public address system.
Speakers cited the impact of white supremacy on public policies and urged the crowd to take action through social media, networking and organized activities to address “educational apartheid, economic exploitation and mass incarceration.”
One of the most powerful moments in the event, Hynicka said, was when the church’s immigration sanctuary guest, Javier Flores Garcia (left), told the applauding crowd he is “standing strong not only for his own family but for future generations of immigrants.”
Marchers also repeated calls for removal of the statue of Frank Rizzo, the city’s controversial former mayor and police commissioner, from Thomas Paine Plaza outside the Municipal Services Building. Those calls were last heard as the city welcomed the 2016 Democratic Party Convention.
But as cities and states around the nation remove controversial statues honoring leaders of the Confederate States that defended slavery and launched America’s Civil War, many advocates painfully recall harsh, biased mistreatment of black residents by Rizzo’s administration. They claim his statue should also be removed from public grounds.
“As a youth growing up in South Philadelphia, I was part of the first generation of students of color who were bused to majority white schools, said Holston. “I would urge those who saw only the good side of Frank Rizzo because of the color of their skin to strive for empathy with those of us who only saw the bad side of Frank Rizzo because of the color of our skin,” he said.
Meanwhile, 15,000 people reportedly have signed an online petition to keep the statue in its place.
NOTE: More photos of the Philadelphia march and rally can be found on the Billy Penn website at 20 photos from the Philly is Charlottesville march, and on POWER’s Facebook photo page at Philly is Charlottesville March and Rally.
Also, check out the Southern Poverty Law Center’s new resource Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide. Those 10 ways are: