As city crews and residents swept broken glass and burnt debris from Center City streets, pastors preached from pulpits to their livestreaming congregations on Sunday, invoking Scripture and religious icons in support of the right to protest wrongs but warning of bigger dangers in going too far.
“Vandalism and looting and burning is putting a veil over our mission,” the Rev. Herb Lusk II, once an Eagles running back and now pastor of Greater Exodus Baptist Church on North Broad Street, said in a livestreamed service to his congregation. "... Let’s not kill off the masses of people that are marching with us by embarrassing ourselves. There is no excuse for burning down your own neighborhood.”
He lamented that looters had been reported even at Progress Plaza, the North Philly shopping center developed by the late Rev. Leon Sullivan after riots chased white business owners out of the nearby Columbia (now Cecil B. Moore ) Avenue business district in the mid-1960s — while suggesting there is a major reason to be hopeful.
“The same God who helped us in the 1960s can help us right now,” Lusk said.
In response to the police killing in Minneapolis of a black man, George Floyd, who, in life, was largely unknown to the world, protesters have taken to the streets in a number of cities over the last week to denounce police brutality and racism. It is the property destruction and other lawlessness those demonstrations have devolved into — reaching Philadelphia over the weekend — that God does not condone, religious leaders told followers Sunday in a city where coronavirus restrictions prohibit in-person worship services.
“In this moment of challenge, if the church gets in touch with its birthday — Pentecost we’re going to be all right,” so long as the community unites on goals and means, the Rev. Alyn Waller, senior pastor at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, told worshipers watching from home.
He quoted the Jewish prophet Joel on the value of old people joining their “dreams” to young people’s “visions,” and said veteran black labor leaders such as A. Philip Randolph had cooperated just that way with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and young civil rights activists in the 1960s.
“We need to remember what the enemy is,” Waller added, and fight, united, “for justice for George Floyd, for economic justice in Philadelphia, the poorest city,” and for "justice and equity in local government.”
At the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, Archbishop Nelson Pérez decried the “paralyzing fear” that keeps more people from putting Christian principles to work in their daily lives and prayed for one thing in particular.
“Wow, do we need peace this week,” he said. “We have all learned the lesson that violence begets violence.”
He read a message from Pope Francis urging young people “not to leave it to others to be protagonists of change. Work for a better world. Jesus was not a bystander.”
After witnessing in person some of the demonstrations in Center City on Saturday night, the Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor at the historic Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, said he set aside the usual “call to worship” psalms Sunday morning and instead read two quotes from King.
One was about riots being “the language of the unheard" and the other about looting being cathartic for people who had never had what they want, and how sometimes they don’t even take things they need.
Tyler said he saw confirmation of that as he and a group of clergy walked through Center City on Saturday night “to be there” for protesters and “make sure they received fair treatment regardless of what they were accused of.”
He might understand why some people would raid a Foot Locker, given “the overpriced shoes they sell, and the way children have killed each other for them over the last 30 years," Tyler said. "But we also passed places where it did not make sense. Windows broken, at a $5 snack store? And nothing much taken?
"What I viewed in that moment was, all that pain, where all the wealth is concentrated. In 20 years I’ve watched Center City rise, with gentrification and tax abatements.
"I haven’t seen the same investment in the neighborhoods. It’s as if we starved the neighborhoods at the expense of the center. The wealth flowed inwards. Not out to the people making $7.25 an hour.
"So it’s not strange to me to see people rise up. I understood that pain. Not to have parents who can give for you what you see everybody else has
"My problem is the people who are outraged now about the looting but have not been outraged about the way the rich have looted the poor, in this city, in this state, in the national government.
“The wealthiest and most powerful can afford lobbyists. Now kids are doing exactly what they have seen our leaders do.”
He and other clergy were headed to 52nd and Market Streets on Sunday afternoon, where a new round of confrontations between protesters and police had been reported.
In Northeast Philadelphia, home to many of the city’s police officers, Rev. John Babowitch, pastor of Our Lady of Calvary, used his homily to lament how “those wonderful protests turned to real horror as people were looting our wonderful city.”
He offered as a solution, not social change, but personal acceptance of “the spirit of God."
Tarik Sharif Khan, a nurse practitioner and doctoral student, isn’t a Sunday worshiper, but he still spent the morning performing what for him was an act of Muslim faith — din, or good works. He helped scrub graffiti off Center City buildings.
He was grateful to see people of many backgrounds joining in the morning clean-up.
“They would walk by and say, ‘How can we help?’”
On Saturday afternoon, as it started becoming clear the fires of Minneapolis were spreading to Philadelphia and far beyond, Center City, Rev. Christopher Walsh, pastor of St Raymond of Penafort Catholic church in the city’s Stenton section, had climbed to the roof of the church above the tight-packed rowhome neighborhood, and prayed.
“Why the riots?” he asked from the roof, in a video posting on the parish Facebook site. “Why the violence? Why the destruction? Why the continuing sin of racism in our midst?”
He prayed that “the Spirit of God fall upon this neighborhood,” the city, the nation.
“Lord, as protesters begin to gather here, bless each of those that go out into the streets,” Walsh prayed. “May they speak the truth to power. May they call for systemic change and change of attitudes and conversion of hearts, from the sin of bigotry.
“Hear their message. Give them the grace of self control, that they do not harm others."