Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

Center City churches, synagogues wrestle with Pope security: ‘How are they going to come?’

Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler grew up attending Catholic schools and earned his Ph.D. at a Catholic university. This upbringing affords him not only an understanding of the importance of Pope Francis’ visit but great respect for the man’s emphasis on social justice. He says Pope Francis is bringing that message to Philadelphia at exactly the right time.

The pleasantries end when the conversation shifts from Francis to Philadelphia’s preparation for the visit. Tyler is much less excited about what the security measures mean for his historic church, Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal, and its sizable congregation. On Sept. 27, when Francis will be leading mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Mother Bethel will host its weekly service in Mt. Airy rather than at the church near Sixth and Lombard streets. It’s a decision Tyler made without any outreach from the city, which has been trying to assist many people and businesses confused by papal security measures.

Those same gestures have apparently not been made to places of worship.

“I see on the TV a couple that’s going to have a wedding that gets called,” Tyler says. “What about the 700 people that want to worship at our church, that have been worshiping since (the church’s opening in) 1794? Don’t we deserve a phone call or a letter?”

As the Archdiocese, World Meeting of Families, Secret Service and the City of Philadelphia plan to build fences, close roads and forbid the entry of cars into Center City to host the leader of the Catholic Church on earth, other religions are scrambling. By Tyler’s count, about 70 mosques, synagogues, churches or other places of worship operate within the traffic box or close enough to be affected by its security measures. Some plan to cancel or reschedule services. Others, like Mother Bethel, will move them to a new location and pay to rent the space. Some will host everything like normal and hope a few congregants are able to show.  

Of the several religious leaders interviewed by Billy Penn, all but one said they have not received any contact from the city or the Secret Service offering to help with the complications, as the city has for downtown businesses. Secret Service agents and local police officers have been visiting businesses, and the city started a hotline to address concerns about how they can operate.

“I know they’ve talked to businesses within the perimeter to stay open,” says Rev. Dr. Leslie Callahan of St. Paul’s Baptist, “but I don’t get the sense they gave consideration to what it would mean to houses of worship.”

On top of scheduling and logistical headaches, it means financial concerns. Tyler says Mother Bethel and other churches derive much of their income from donations made at services. Most host only 52 of these a year, one a week. A smaller crowd for a service or no service at all makes a substantial difference to the bottom line.

Tyler has seen this type of confusion on a smaller scale before. He says about six to 10 times a year Mother Bethel has to alter its plans in some fashion because of events like the Broad Street Run, the Philadelphia Marathon and even last month’s Philly 10K. Despite reaching out to the city two years ago and asking for better forewarnings and advice to religious organizations about road-closing events, Tyler says the city has not followed through. He found out about the Philly 10K by being forwarded an email from a Society Hill community group.  

“If we didn’t see that email,” he says, “we would’ve been blindsided.”

Mark Tyler

Mark Tyler

Mother Bethel

Tyler understands the importance of such events, particularly the pope’s visit, but wishes the city would have contacted places of worship. Doing so may have even benefited the city in the same way it’s hoping the “I’ll Be There” business campaign will. Tyler says most of his congregants come from outlying neighborhoods of Philly, the suburbs and South Jersey. They often go to church and then hang around Center City for a few hours, eating and shopping.

“It’s shortsighted from a business perspective and from the spiritual well-being of the service we provide,” he says.

At Mikveh Synagogue, on Fourth Street between Race and Market, the pope will speak on the Sabbath just a few blocks away at Independence Hall. Rabbi Albert Gabbai has extended an invitation to Pope Francis to visit. Mikveh Synagogue, after all, was founded by Spanish and Portuguese Jews. Francis is a native Spanish speaker.  

“I don’t think he’ll accept because he’s very busy,” Gabbai says. “But in case a miracle happens.”

Realistically, Gabbai’s synagogue faces considerable obstacles to hosting a normal Sabbath service from 9 a.m. to noon that Saturday, but it plans to do so. It’s located in the traffic box and just outside of the secure perimeter and ticketed area for the pope’s Saturday speech. The situation becomes more complicated because of Gabbai’s congregation’s beliefs: Observant Jews, Gabbai says, cannot carry anything on the Sabbath. Showing proof of identification at a security checkpoint, if necessary, would be a problem.

“How are they going to come here? It’s a very big challenge for us,” Gabbai says. “Having said that the positive is we will open our doors for anybody, Jew or Christian, who wants to come to our building from the heat or wants a drink or something like that. Our building will be open.”

Church of the Holy Trinity plans to hold its Sunday service in Rittenhouse as usual but with no choir. About 200 people attend on regular Sundays, but the church’s pastor says it’s anybody’s guess during the pope weekend.

“I would actually challenge any Center City church to predict what that day is going to be like for them,” says Rev. Mark Smith of Holy Trinity. “We plan to do what we ordinarily do. People who are able to make it, we will be grateful for their presence and those who cannot be here we absolutely understand.”

Smith lives in Center City and the staffers working with him for that weekend are also Center City residents. He’ll commute by walking, as he normally does. Rev. Michael Caine of Old First Reformed won’t even gamble with a commute. He plans to stay at Old First Reformed, Fourth and Race streets, the entire weekend.

On the positive side, the pope visit presents Caine and his church with a rare opportunity. Old First Reformed has been coordinating since January for a group of young Catholics from Arkansas to stay at the church for the weekend. That group has agreed to help Old First Reformed host its weekly Saturday morning breakfast for homeless and marginalized Philadelphians.

Old First Reformed usually gets 125 to 150 people at its services. In June, Caine remembers talking with a member of the church about the pope’s visit. That person thought the pope weekend might be lead to a crowd similar to a recent service after a winter storm when something like 22 people came. Even before all the traffic box information was released, Caine said he didn’t think even 22 people would be able to come during the pope weekend. And he feels about the same way now.  

“There’s an irony that an important religious figure comes to town and all of the other communities can’t worship,” Caine says. “But I guess it’s unavoidable when you have someone of international repute to keep safe.”

Whatever happens in Philadelphia the weekend of the pope, be it a 48-hour headache or an event that leaves everyone pleased, Tyler won’t be there to to experience it. He lives far enough away from Center City to not worry about the security measures. His thoughts, however, will be with those who are less geographically fortunate.

“I’ll be praying for people I know who live in the box,” he says.

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