‘Deep Trust’: Clergy Describe Planning of March

Rev. Dr. Kimberlee A. Johnson, Rabbi Annie Lewis, Rabbi Abe Friedman and Rev. Linda Noonan at the Oct. 27 march | Photo by Rev. Chris Kimmenez

Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy from the Philadelphia area marched from 61st and Locust streets to the Philadelphia Police Department precinct at 55th and Pine streets on Oct. 27.

The day before, officers had shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr., a resident of Cobbs Creek, and, in protest, the clergy members, led by the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, chanted Wallace’s name and offered prayers, calling for justice in their similarly Abrahamic phrases.

To those unfamiliar with the inner workings of interfaith clergy action, the promptness with which the march came together might have appeared to be a spur-of-the-moment collaboration, borne out of passionate emotion.

But that’s not quite the case. Though emotion certainly plays a role, different clergy groups in Philadelphia have spent years building trust between them, with a steady accumulation of shared experience ranging from the mundanity of weeknight conference calls to protest actions ending in arrest.

“A part of the reason that we have become so close in Philadelphia as interfaith clergy is that we have developed deep trust from working together,” said Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, senior pastor at Mother Bethel AME Church and a board member of POWER Philadelphia. “When you have that kind of trust, then it’s easy to throw up a protest, or march together across religious lines, sometimes with people that you don’t even know.”

Citing the role of rabbis like Eli Freedman, Julie Greenberg, Shawn Zevit and Jill Maderer, Tyler said that relationships are built with community leaders during times of calm, not just crisis. Then, when the crises do come — like the Pittsburgh shooting in 2018, the AME shooting in South Carolina in 2015 or the Christchurch massacre of 2019 — the call for rapid action can reach rabbis and imams in circles that Tyler himself can’t reach so easily.

“[Those rabbis] can say to Jewish colleagues, ‘Hey, Rev. Mark Tyler, that’s my guy, he’s going to be reaching out to you, I can’t make it. He has the details, but you can trust him,’” Tyler said. “And all of a sudden, it opens me up to a world that I would not have access to.”

Rabbi Annie Lewis, co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, got the call for the Oct. 27 march. She has been a part of marches and protest actions led by Black Clergy of Philadelphia, POWER and other clergy organizations for years, and she’s seen the way the different clergy shows up for each other. As an example, she mentioned the op-ed Tyler and Imam Abdul-Halim Hassan wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer this summer after former Philadelphia NAACP leader Rodney Muhammad shared anti-Semitic content on social media. That act, Lewis said, was an expression of a bedrock principle for clergy committed to interfaith work in Philadelphia.

“Our destinies are bound up with each other,” she said. “Our liberation depends on each other’s liberation.”

Koach Baruch Frazier, who spoke at the Oct. 27 march, said such interdependence takes time. A student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he’s seen first-hand what an accumulation of solid, stable relationships can do in times of crisis — he was in Ferguson, Missouri, during the Michael Brown protests in 2014 and knows that to face down tear gas or the threat of arrest, you have to trust the person to standing next to you.

“And that takes a long time,” Frazier said. “And we have to be intentional about it. It’s not something that happens overnight.”

That’s the only way that Bishop Dwayne Royster, the interim executive director of POWER who attended the Oct. 27 march, can explain the mindset that allows him to, say, get himself arrested on behalf of striking airport workers, as he did a few years back.

“Every time we’re out there together, it’s because of relationships,” Royster said.

jbernstein@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740


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