Center City church opens its doors to train protesters, peacekeepers [photos]

Arch Street United Methodist Church feels more like a hotel lobby this weekend as a steady stream of activists and volunteers come and go through the side entrance on Broad Street. 

Pastor Robin Hynicka said the Gothic-style space will be open to them  — and everyone — all week.

“Envision a church in the center of the city, not organizing to welcome scheduled delegates, but open to everybody who’s coming whose voice isn’t scheduled to speak at the Democratic National Convention,” he said. 

Throughout the week, the church’s echoey, 900-seat sanctuary and smaller side chapel will serve as a hub for legal rights training, organizing and even a place to display model drones during a series of anti-war demonstrations. 

On Saturday, the church hosted a day-long “freedom school” to teach protest groups the art of nonviolent protest as developed during the Civil Rights Movement.

To prepare for these events, Hynicka has been rereading Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” specifically, the passage in which King writes about how he and others in his movement “began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ ‘Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?'”

Hynicka, who is an activist himself and was even given a citation this week during a sit-in in support of low-wage workers at Philadelphia International Airport, said he wants the thousands of demonstrators expected to descend on the city this week to understand the discipline King describes. 

“I think we have the opportunity to share that message of how important that disciplined action is to changing social systems that still oppress,” he said. 

The “freedom school” concept goes back to the 1960s, particularly the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964.  Then local African-American students studied the tactics of nonviolent resistence and peaceful protest, sometimes alongside volunteers from up north.

Gilbert Caldwell, a retired Methodist minister, participated in a freedom school in Palmers Crossing, Miss. and was invited by Hynicka to speak to the group about his experience.

More than 50 years later, Caldwell said there is still a need for nonviolent resistance.

“It’s just clear that the struggle continues and even as I look, we were able to initiate some interesting cultural and legislative changes, but we’ve also discovered that legislative changes can be rescinded,” said Caldwell, noting the 2013 Supreme Court decision that struck down a portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring states with histories of racial discrimination to get federal approval before changing their voting rights laws. 

While Caldwell and others gathered for the freedom school in the sanctuary, about 30 people were in Arch Street United Methodist’s chapel practicing putting on their friendliest faces. 

The group, called “Bernie Peacekeepers,” was being trained to de-escalate conflicts during marches and demonstrations this week. Dion Lerman, who led the training, told participants to put their personal political views aside, to emphasize unity and to smile at aggitating activists and police officers. 

“A smile is your secret weapon,” he said. 

The group was started by Susan Britton Seyler from Chester County, a supporter of Bernie Sanders and a Quaker. Seyler, like Hynicka and Caldwell, is concerned the anger of disenchanted Democrats will escalate into violence and distract from their message.

“I believe that there’s a place for peacekeepers, people who just want to make sure that everyone stays safe,” she said. 

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.