Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild (POWER), a coalition of religious congregations formed to deal with the social problems of Philadelphia, gathered for a legislative assembly at the Arch Street United Methodist Church on Monday, January 18, 2016, Martin Luther King Day.
The Reverend Robin Hyneka, pastor of Arch Street UM Church, greeted the people representing many of POWER’s member congregations – Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and others. “Today, we’re gathered,” He said, “because we care about public education, we care about economic dignity, we care about racial justice. We care about these things from the bottom of our hearts and in the depth of our souls. We’re going to reorient ourselves in our work tonight, we’re going to hear some reports about what work is going on, and what work we need to do, in those three areas and some other areas.” Then, Hyneka asked for a roll call of the member congregations represented in the assembly.
The Reverend Leslie Callahan, Senior Pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church, led a faith reflection for the group, saying, “It’s wonderful to be here, to share with all of you in this day of remembering with you the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr., and moreover to be with POWER” [where the assembly participants] “not only celebrate in theory, we actually live out and practice the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.”
Speaking on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Callahan said, “Not too long ago, we were paying attention to Detroit, and whether water is a right, as the residents of Detroit were threatened with having their water cut off. Meanwhile in Flint, the residents were experiencing, as a large community, and in a continuous way, the poisoning of their water.” The water supply of Flint, Callahan continued, has been poisoned “not by a natural disaster, but by the piping in of polluted and corroded water that has been untreated, ignoring the cries of citizens who said ‘Our water doesn’t smell right, it doesn’t taste right’; and ignoring the work of pediatricians who said ‘My patients are coming in, more and more of them poisoned by lead’. Finally, when it could no longer be ignored, there was an acknowledgement on the part of Governor Rick Snyder, whose own emergency manager in Flint had been ignoring the problem since 2014, when the Flint River water had been piped in, and now, as a nation, we have been paying attention.”
The water crisis in Flint, said Callahan, “reminds us of the reality of environmental racism, reminds us of the reality of the connection between placing profits over people, reminds us of the connection of lead poisoning,” reminding everyone that Dr. King spoke of the problems of lead poisoning of children in the Sixties, adding “in 2016 it’s still an issue.” The state of emergency for Flint, she said, “did not develop in 2016, it is the result of the very kinds of practices of putting profits above people that are part of so many of the administrations of our nation, is cities and in rural areas across the nation.”
The job of members of POWER, said Callahan, “is to remember that we are all interconnected with Flint, but not just with Flint. We are interconnected with Flint, whose crisis we are aware of now, but we are interconnected with the crisis of all Philadelphians whose crisis are ongoing now, who won’t hear the declaration of a state of emergency until far later.” Callahan spoke of Dr. King’s statement in the Letter from the Birmingham Jail that “we are all in an inescapable network of mutuality, a single garment of destiny.”
The Reverend Dwayne Royster, Executive Director of POWER, spoke of the group’s “renewal and reflection process,” saying, “Over the course of the last several months…we have slowed things down for a minute,” adding, “we weren’t engaging in actions at the same level and capacity as we have been, and we needed to go back and think about where we are.”
“Over the course of the years,” said Royster, “we (POWER) have grown, and we have had an opportunity to engage and have become more powerful,” but “we were more successful and grew larger than we ever imagined at the beginning, and as we became more powerful, we are doing more work.”
Royster recalled POWER’s campaign to change the City Charter for a higher minimum wage for employees of companies contracted with the City. “We needed to change the way Philadelphia was operating, so we no longer were legislating poverty in our communities.” He said, “We worked at that. We continue to fight day in and day out, and we eventually came to a place where we realized we needed to stop for a minute and figure out where we are, because we were growing exponentially, faster and faster, and we didn’t have the structures in place to [deal with] that, and to figure out where we needed to go forward.”
The board of POWER, said Royster, hired a consultant, “and we began the process of listening throughout the organization, figuring out where they were, and figuring out where we needed to go to be able to grow more powerfully in the future.”
Royster spoke of his reading King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail as part of his spiritual discipline, recalling that the white clergy asked for “moderation” from King and waiting for time to pass. “We in POWER,” said Royster, “are in that same situation right now, having to face the reality of why we can’t wait, when young black men and black women are being killed indiscriminately by police departments, in jails and prisons across the country, we can’t wait. When our brothers and sisters who happen to be created in the image and likeness of God but might be from another country, and we call them illegal – but there’s nobody that’s illegal in the sight of Go – and are being deported, and people are making money off their back, we can no longer wait. When our children are being given less than an adequate education, not because they don’t have great teachers but because we don’t have enough money to give them the resources that they need in their classrooms, we can’t wait. We no longer have the luxury to be able to say we want to build prisons but we can’t fund education, if we fund education we won’t need prisons on the flip side.
“We can’t wait,” Royster continued, “when people are making $7.25 an hour working forty hours a week, and still can’t feed themselves and their families, when income inequality is at its highest level ever, we can’t wait any more, and we can no longer be silent or passive in these moments and hours.”
The assembly broke into strategy teams to discuss economic dignity, education, racial justice, fundraising, and communications. They reassembled, and joined in the singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the African-American anthem written by James Weldon Johnson.
The assembly concluded with a prayer action led by the Reverend Maria McCabe and Imam Abdul-Halim Hassan in honor of Mayor Jim Kenney, who had just visited the Station House homeless shelter in North Philadelphia, “seeing people doing God’s work by serving others,” as he put it. Kenny, he said, spoke to the residents of the shelter and said, “There but for the grace of God go I,” and he commended the staff of the shelter for their work.