Philadelphia Civil Rights Tour Inspires Debate on Risk

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David Krueger and Calenthia Dowdy (both center) lead the “Civil Rights Tour."
David Krueger and Calenthia Dowdy (both center) lead the “Civil Rights Tour.” (Photo by Hilary Levine)

What came up over and over again during a Sunday morning conversation between Jews and black Christians was the concept of risk.

What are you willing to risk, for those who need your help? What have people been willing to risk for you, when your people needed help?

Heavy topics, for sure, but it was exactly the sort of discussions that the organizers wanted to inspire.

The American Jewish Committee of Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey, in partnership with the Dialogue Institute, brought together Jewish people who had registered for the event with congregants at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Old City. The Feb. 16 event was a follow-up to AJC’s participation in the Philadelphia civil rights mission to the South.

Prior to the dialogue and ensuing “Civil Rights Tour” of the surrounding area, the attendees sat in on a Sunday morning service, and toured Mother Bethel, which is ringed on the outside with blue historical marker signs.

The congregation was founded in 1794 by the Right Rev. Richard Allen, a black religious leader who bought his freedom from slavery just eight years earlier. Over his decades of service, the church became a social and intellectual center for its community. Allen was the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopalian Church, an association of churches of the same denomination.

Today, no building in the United States has been owned by black people for longer than the church on Sixth and Lombard streets.

Allen’s portrait was one of the first encountered when walking into the basement room where the dialogue was held. A few dozen attendees, along with about 10 congregants, treated themselves to some nosh and a little conversation, surrounded by portraits of every bishop to serve the AME church over the last quarter-millennium. Among the attendees were Arlene Fickler, chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council, and Rabbi Batya Glazer, director of the same organization.

AJC regional director Marcia Bronstein explained AJC’s commitment to strengthening black-Jewish relations, then ceded the floor to David Krueger, program director of the Dialogue Institute. Dialogue, he said, is “this notion of thinking together, thinking across.”

“We need each other to be in this conversation,” Krueger said. The Dialogue Institute, the outreach arm of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, has organized similarly-intentioned events for decades.

With that, Krueger introduced Rev. Mark Tyler, senior pastor of Mother Bethel. Tyler described a recent trip he’d taken to Las Cruces, New Mexico, through POWER Philadelphia, an interfaith community organizing group.

In that town, he said, he saw the border wall for the first time, and learned about a tradition abandoned. Prior to the erection of the wall, Catholics from both sides would each make a pilgrimage to a single white cross atop a hill, somewhere in the middle; now, new immigration and border legislation made that trip impossible for those on the Mexican side.

Tyler spoke about what he’d learned about Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and told attendees that he could not help but compare the tactics of the organization to those used by the government after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. Free people provided safe harbor to enslaved people who had fled their masters, he said; during the Holocaust, gentiles hid Jews in their barns, basements and attics. What were you all, he asked the attendees, willing to risk for someone without an American passport?

“History is easy,” Tyler said, “because it is fixed.” Those who hid runaway slaves and frightened Jews, now venerated the world over, have benefited from years passing and cultural context slipping away, he explained. To do something like that in the moment is not so black-and-white.

Tyler finished his address, and the room was silent. He said that anyone could stand up to address what had been said.

Over the next half hour, attendees weren’t always polished, and they weren’t always on topic, but the effect of Tyler’s words was obvious. They spoke about what they had suffered at the hands of a law that seemed unjust, or for their identity as a Jew or a black person.

When things got more overtly political, Bronstein gently reminded everyone that AJC would like to retain its 501(c)(3) status, and that it did not endorse political points of view, to laughs.

Some Mother Bethel congregants mentioned advocacy campaigns they supported; attendees asked how they could help. A once-silent room was soon filled with conversation about how a group of well-connected people can advocate on behalf of those who are not. Following the discussion, the group reconvened on the church’s front steps. Krueger, along with Calenthia Dowdy, led attendees on a brief tour of the area’s Revolutionary War-era landmarks, discussing the ways in which notions of racial justice have shaped their historical consideration so many years later.

Washington Square was once derisively referred to as “Congo Square,” the group learned; in the building where the Declaration of Independence was signed, slaves were returned to their masters by a judge on the next floor.

Standing in the sunlight on Independence Mall, teeming with tourists, Krueger, Dowdy and AJC representatives thanked all for attending, and the group dispersed.

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