Singing of Christian Hymn Changes Tone of Interfaith Gathering

What was billed as a Thursday-morning interfaith event where clergy could receive information and advice on caring for the elderly wound up turning into a sing-along session with strong Christian overtones, led by a representative from Mayor John F. Street's office.

Rev. Marguerite Handy, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, was asked to give the closing remarks at the Clergy Aging Interfaith Coalition's annual fall Clergy Day on Oct. 25, and was informed in her invitation — as were all presenters — that she would specifically be addressing an interfaith gathering.

The forum, sponsored by the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, was attended by about 200 clergy members, lay leaders and others who work or volunteer with older-adult populations.

Handy was asked to speak in her capacity as head of the mayor's office. She is also active in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, or AME.

After Handy was introduced, she proceeded to sing "Blessed Assurance," a well-known hymn, which includes lyrics such as "Jesus is mine," "born of His Spirit, washed in his blood" and "praising my Savior."

The majority of those present, an estimated 85 percent, were from Christian denominations, in addition to a sizable Catholic presence, according to Sandra Lawrence, the interfaith outreach coordinator in the community-relations department at PCA. She also acknowledged that there was a small Jewish contingent, consisting of several staff members from the JCC Klein Branch, as well as a few folks from the local Muslim community.

Lawrence, who has been in her position since the spring, said that she's reaching out to diversify the makeup of the coalition, and that she's eager to embrace rabbis and other Jewish leaders, as well as those from other religious sectors, for future events.

Linda Riley, director of communications and legislative affairs at PCA, said that officials of the group met on Monday to discuss the organization's response to Handy's presentation.

"We were very dismayed," noted Riley.

On Tuesday morning, a letter on behalf of the organization, signed by Holly Lange, senior vice president at PCA, was sent to Handy that expressed PCA's concern over her choice of material. Riley said that PCA felt a letter was an appropriate level of response for what had occurred.

When contacted after the event, Barry Morrison, Anti-Defamation League regional director for Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware, said that Handy's actions were "objectionable and inappropriate," especially since she was representing the mayor's office. He added that the ADL plans to look into the incident.

Morrison said that city representatives at any function or event "should not be actively promoting any religion," and that, by doing so, in her official capacity, Handy overstepped her responsibilities.

Nadine Bonner, a spokesperson for the mayor, said that Handy stayed for "quite a long time after the event," and that "no one came up to her and expressed any discomfort or any displeasure."

As of Monday afternoon, Bonner added, Handy had not heard from PCA or anyone else expressing discomfort with her remarks.

PCA's Riley said that a "handful" of attendees, including two PCA employees, did walk out of the room when Handy began singing and expressed their concern to event organizers.

The interfaith seminar, with the theme of "Empowering the Clergy: Resources to Assist their Seasoned Citizens," was held at the Holiday Inn off City Avenue, and was organized to help provide religious leaders with contact information, brochures and ideas on caring for the elderly in their congregations.

The Clergy Aging Interfaith Coalition was formed in 1998 to serve as an intercultural group that advises PCA of the needs of older citizens in the community. The coalition also helps raise awareness and increase access to PCA services. In addition to the fall seminar, a spring event is also held each year.

'Diversity Is Our Goal'

Prior to Handy's remarks, an "interfaith spotlight" during the seminar featured the JCC Klein Branch. Raechel Hammer, director of senior services, discussed several ways that the center keeps its seniors engaged and feeling welcomed.

When contacted earlier this week, Hammer said that she had no comment about what occurred "at the end of the event," but did hope that the Klein Branch, as well as other JCCs, would get more involved in the coalition in the future.

Rick Spector, director of community relations at PCA, said that "the culmination of Clergy Day" weighed heavily on his mind for several days afterward, since "diversity is our goal."

Both Spector and Riley said that they wanted to make it clear that PCA did not solicit Handy's remarks. Nor does the organization endorse them. And they also pointed out that, by last Thursday afternoon, the group was already working on its official response.

In spite of Handy's comments, Spector said that increased involvement from additional Jewish community members and religious organizations will be sought as resources for the coalition.

Spector added that, "for the future, we are doing our best to make it more ecumenical."



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