As thousands of runners began pounding through the city for the Philadelphia Marathon in Sunday’s dreary, early morning rain, energetic harmonies carried down Sixth Street and swept over the passing crowds.
Bundled up in a scarf, hat, and coat, Tyrone Neal crooned at a microphone, the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church choir singing behind him. The runners streamed past in a brightly colored, never-ending crowd. As members of his church and neighborhood residents cheered them on from the curb, Neal’s voice soared over the street in gospel praise: “I’ll lift you up until my dying days."
“Thank you!” shouted a runner in a hot pink jacket, waving both arms in the air as the number ended and she jogged past the choir’s tent on the corner outside their church at Sixth and Lombard.
The Mother Bethel choir aims to uplift, and marathon runners are a group that can use uplifting. After years of rescheduling Sunday service because of the marathon, the church last year decided to become a part of the fun, instead.
“I’ve dubbed it, if you can’t beat 'em, join 'em,” said the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler as he watched runners go by about 8 a.m., livestreaming the race with his phone.
The upbeat gospel music brought warmth to the foggy morning as athletes from around the world descended on city streets for the annual marathon, heading, eventually, to the finish line on the Ben Franklin Parkway near Eakins Oval about 21 miles later. Philadelphians clustered on street corners across the city to cheer on friends and family.
Runners coming up on the five-mile mark grinned with delight and perhaps surprise as they passed the buoyant Mother Bethel choir, this year designated an official cheer zone for the race. Feet moving, they raised tired arms in waves, they cheered or called out thanks, they fist-pumped or pointed up toward heaven.
The Mother Bethel members and some Society Hill residents seemed just as delighted as they clapped and handed wristbands — emblazoned with “God Is My Pace Partner” and “Run and Not Grow Weary" — to passing athletes.
One woman who had a piece of paper that said Philippians 4:13 pinned to the back of her shirt ran across the sidewalk to the choir’s tent to show them before sprinting back onto the street.
“You’re running, and all you hear is this fantastic music,” said Susan Slade, 65, a church member who said she was inspired by watching the runners as she cheered from the sidelines. “It builds community relationships all the way around.”
For a decade, Tyler “resisted” the marathon, he said, because it disrupted services and road closures made it hard for people to get to church. But last year, the president of the Society Hill Civic Association, Larry Spector, came to Tyler with an idea: He had seen a church choir in Brooklyn singing for the New York marathon.
Tyler’s choir had so much fun and success trying it out — “We heard from people last year that said, ‘I was going to give up until I heard the music,’” Tyler said — that they’ve declared it a tradition. This year, twice as many choir members showed up, and more church members joined them.
Now, Tyler said. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world."
And the reverend’s entire Sunday service, to be delivered at 9:30 a.m. after the marathon had passed by, would be marathon-related: He planned to invoke Isaiah Chapter 40, he said, in which “people are admonished to ‘run and not grow weary.’”
Choir director Jonas Crenshaw said he received dozens of emails from runners last year, including from people who lived in far-off states, “just talking about how much they enjoyed the cheer zone and how motivational it was for them.” About 20 singers, just over half the choir, showed up Sunday.
“Everyone was excited again,” Crenshaw said. “It takes a lot to get a choir to show up at 6 a.m. on the weekend ... [but they] saw it as an awesome opportunity to share our music ministry with the community.”
Longtime church member Ernest Wright, 51, of Wallingford, was on the sidewalk with his wife, applauding the runners with a grin on his face.
“I thought this would be a great opportunity to say we are a church who love this community,” said Wright, who, like others, was participating for the first time after hearing how much fellow church members enjoyed last year’s performance.
Near the start of the 26.2-mile race, the front door of Mother Bethel’s imposing stone building — located on the country’s oldest spot of land continuously owned by African Americans — looks out on the race route.
“At mile five or six, this is just what you need, is a word from God and a word from a friendly face,” said Leslie Patterson-Tyler, the pastor’s wife and a church spokesperson. Handing out wristbands, she made eye contact with runners who passed her as she told as many people she could that they were awesome. "The fact that they can accomplish and train for a marathon like this is nothing short of a miracle.”