I, along with other members of my synagogue, Congregation Leyv ha-Ir (Reconstructionist), was present at the founding convention of Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild (POWER), held at Tindley Temple United Methodist Church, Broad and Fitzwater streets, on Sunday, 25th, 2011.
This is a coalition of religious congregations coming together to take on the critical social and economic issues in Philadelphia.
Other Jewish congregations represented at the convention were Society Hill Synagogue (Center City), Mishkan Shalom (Roxborough), Rodeph Shalom (Center City), and Kol Tzedek (West Philadelphia). Congregations from various other faith traditions-Protestant, Catholic, Muslim-took part. POWER is part of the PICO National Network of congregations dedicated to faith-based community organizing.
"POWER is on!" proclaimed Father Tom Higgins, pastor of Holy Innocents Roman Catholic Church, at the start of the program. Higgins introduced the Reverend Lillian Smith, Senior Pastor of Tindley Temple, who said, "It is only fitting that the founding convention is being held here. Tindley Temple has had a long time love for the people of the community, providing meals for the hungry since the Depression, and still proving meals on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; proving a place for (homeless) people to sleep on the pews; providing space in members' homes when people had to come" to find a better job. These are the positive religious traditions, of care for one's fellow human being, that has motivated the organizing of POWER.
The Reverend Michael Cane, Pastor of Old First Reformed United Church of Christ, said "People from our church come from across the city and beyond, but every week in Olde City where we're located, neighbors line up for a bag of groceries, and for not so new but clean clothes. Every week, twenty-five to thirty men find shelter in our church, since 1984, when Mayor (Wilson) Goode asked religious institutions to open their doors. Twenty-seven years-that's too long.
"It's easy to worry there's too much to do," continued Cane. "When I read a paper, or when I ride my bike in our city's least advantaged neighborhoods, I wonder, 'Lord, how can we turn this around? How can we make our city Your city?'...But looking out on you all tonight, I'm not worried anymore...I'm no longer doubting. Look around POWER, and see the strength, and the dignity, the wisdom, and the beauty, the spirit and the hope making this place particularly sacred tonight."
Opening prayers were performed Father Joe Watson, pastor of St William's Roman Catholic Church; Abdul-Halim Hassan, of Masjidullah, Inc.; Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herman, of Congregation Kol-Tzedek; and the Reverend Ernie Flores, of 2nd Baptist Church of Germantown.
The Reverend Mark Tyler, of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, shared a faith reflection, based on the Book of Nehemiah; "The walls of Jerusalem have been broken down," he said, "and the city gates were burned up." For generations, said Tyler, the wall "had been broken for so long they thought that broken was normal, and they never knew that life could be better with walls that were not broken.
"Because the walls were broken down," said Tyler, "the school system was vacant. Because the walls were broken down, violent crime was at an all-time high. Because the walls were broken down, flash mobs roamed the streets. Because the walls were broken down, even if you could get out of the 'hood, violence and crime still found your doorstep no matter where you lived. Because the walls were broken down, employment was hard to find, because businesses don't invest in cities with broken down walls. Because the walls were broken down, drugs were sold in broad daylight...people just threw their trash in the street...nobody felt safe at night. Because the wall was broken down, seniors couldn't sit on their stoops and children couldn't walk to school without the fear of being shot. The wall was broken down, and people were living with the air of hopelessness all around them."
Tyler told the audience his vision of what the members of POWER could do for the city: "After coming together, their careful research and listening campaign revealed there was a brokenness in the city. They discovered that what kept most people up at night was the wall that was broken down...This developed a shared vision, regardless of zip code, that they needed a city with a better wall to protect themselves. Built on the principle that people of faith, working together, can change the world, POWER began to rebuild the broken-down wall because the people had a mind to work."
The Reverend Robin Hynicka, Pastor of Arch Street United Methodist Church,
spoke of Jesus of Nazareth's parable of the mustard seed: "His object lesson on the tiny mustard seed growing into a mighty tree applies to all of us here today. The one central truth the parable teaches is how the beloved community would develop from the smallest of beginnings into something that will be greater than anyone would imagine from the outset. From a quiet one-on-one conversation with a handful of clergy that began early in February 2009...the seed was planted. In less than one year, the sponsoring committee that now has over forty congregational leaders was formed."
Hynicka spoke of the POWER platform, with its five main areas of concern: public safety, health care, housing, education, and jobs. "These are the systems we will seek to change," he added, "over the next five years to better strengthen Philadelphia's neighborhoods and to better support families." Research teams, added Hynicka, looked into programs for people to access jobs, education, affordable housing, health care, and public safety.
Rabbi Eli Freedman, of Congregation Rodeph Shalom, stated that POWER's first issue campaign "will focus on strengthening jobs and educational opportunities in our city, Philadelphia." The three main goals, Freedman added, are "literacy, job training, pathways to access jobs, and making sure there's a living wage job for every resident of Philadelphia.
"Philadelphia," added Freedman, "has a rich and proud history as a working-class community... Decades ago, working-class families, rode low-skill, fair-pay manufacturing jobs into the middle class Many families were able to buy homes, educate their children, and build a foundation of economic security. And then the world changed, through globalization, white flight to the suburbs, and the decline of unions, glowing inequality of pay between workers and executives, those low skill, fair-pay manufacturing jobs seemed to vanish all of a sudden. And we're still reeling from the shock. Today there are few pathways to economic opportunity for low-skill workers in our city, and many have been shut out of the labor market." The unemployment rate in Philadelphia, said Freedman, is almost eleven percent; and is double in African-American and Hispanic communities.
Kathleen Elmasry, a resident of South Philadelphia and a member of Saint Rita's Roman Catholic Church, said, "Right now, you are looking at the face of the unemployed. I am educated, motivated, and I have thirty-four years experience as an orthopedic medical assistant. Despite a spotless employment history, with perfect attendance, I am unemployed. During an approved leave of absence to care for my mother while she was dying, my position was eliminated... The office manager annihilated the entire staff, and we were replaced by others at a lower pay grade. I have been unemployed for sixteen months, and I manage to apply for no less than twenty to twenty-five jobs per week. In over sixteen months, I have I have responded to at least twelve hundred jobs...I did not have one interview or returned phone call.
"What I've discovered," added Elmasry, "Is that potential employers are not willing to consider hiring anyone who is collecting unemployment. That has placed us, the unemployed, in a serious but ridiculous catch-22, the unemployed remain unemployed because no one will hire us, and the longer we remain unemployed, the more remote (for employment) our chances become simply because of the duration of our unemployment. When I was employed, I was earning forty-one thousand dollars a year, and paying in the city wage tax. This past sixteen months of unemployment, I have not paid anything to the city."