Bishop, church both urge prayer after grand jury’s decision

Demonstrations–some violent, some peaceful–are occurring around the nation in the wake of the decision Monday night, Nov. 24, by a grand jury to not indict Ferguson, Mo., Police Officer Darren Wilson in the Aug. 9  shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia Area Bishop Peggy Johnson urged members of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference to “pray with yearning in your hearts that justice, compassion, restraint and a vigilant commitment to non-violence and peace-making will prevail in our cities during this troubled time.”

In her statement to the conference Monday night she reported that clergy, church members and community organizers were gathering at Arch Street United Methodist Church in downtown Philadelphia to pray, dialogue and strategize about a response to the grand jury’s announcement. “May God be in our midst working the Spirit’s intention of unity, wholeness and justice for all,” she concluded.

An anxious crowd assembled at Arch Street UMC in the build-up to the grand jury’s long-awaited decision. After it was read and explained they marched to nearby City Hall to join protesters there, many of whom were stunned if not surprised by the outcome. Hundreds then marched through the streets of Center City, chanting and waving placards. Police called the protest peaceful, although it is unknown if such peace will be sustained.

Arch Street UMC has been a convenient, welcoming refuge for downtown protesters several times before, including during Philadelphia’s months-long Occupy Movement in 2011, which was launched at the church after a people’s assembly on Oct. 4. The movement involved nonviolent demonstrations near City Hall to protest economic inequality, corporate greed and the influence of corporations and lobbyists on government.

Arch Street Church is affiliated with POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild), a local, faith-based, grassroots social change organization that sponsored Monday night’s gathering at the church.

“Arch Street is a center where clergy and others can offer a prophetic as well as pastoral witness to the day’s events,” said the Rev. Robin Hynicka, pastor. “We’re fulfilling our responsibility beyond anyone’s imagination to be a place where people can find hospitality. We’re not always leading the action, but we try to be here to help people make sense of difficult, confusing circumstances.”

Hynicka, now in his 10th year at Arch Street, said clergy and lay members of POWER gathered there to view a live television feed of the coverage of the grand jury decision together. After the decision was read, they prayed together for four-and-a-half minutes, he said, in remembrance of the four-and-a-half hours during which Michael Brown’s dead body lay in the street covered and guarded by police after Wilson had killed him with multiple gunshots.

“Then we made our way down to City Hall to join the protesters there and try to help them see a way forward to resolution amid so many questions,” said Hynicka. “We’re all praying for justice and a peace that can sustain it,” he added. “You can’t have real justice without peace to sustain it.”