Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Philadelphia in September for the World Meeting of Families, and it’s my hope that while he is here, he will tear walls down rather than build them up.
But when I learned that the U.S. Secret Service was considering erecting a fence around parts of Center City as security for Pope Francis’ visit, my hopes for the Pope tearing down walls were diminished. It’s hard to tear down walls when you’re standing behind them.
I am fully aware of the need to secure the Pope during his visit. We live in a world where bombers eagerly take their own lives in order to kill others; where hate drives men to walk into churches and kill worshippers as they pray; where dangers both real and imagined drive us further and further behind walls.
There are ways to confront and tear down those walls, but not with a fence in the way.
If a fence separates Center City from the neighborhoods where poverty is ever-present, will the Pope see the wall between rich and poor? If that fence stands tall enough to block out the middle class neighborhoods that house many people of color, will the Pope see the wall between stereotypes and reality? If the only time he ventures beyond that fence is to visit a Philadelphia prison, can he really set the captives free?
I’m glad that one of the stops on the Pope’s itinerary is the Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF), a prison that currently holds over 2,700 of the 8,000 inmates in our county prison system. Three-quarters of those inmates are awaiting trial, many are there because they can’t afford to pay bail, and the vast majority of them do not perform at a high school level.
In other words, those who occupy Philadelphia’s prisons were behind walls long before they were incarcerated.
They were behind walls erected by their lack of education. They were behind walls that were built by poverty. They were behind walls that were constructed by de facto segregation that separates us along racial lines.
It is my hope that City officials will escort Pope Francis to the places that feed our prisons, so the Pope can what lies beyond the walls.
He should visit the 22nd and 25th police districts, where a combined total of nearly 3000 violent crimes were reported in 2014. And after he visits those places, he should look at the poverty rates for those areas, and ask if the lack of education and the prevalence of poverty helped to fill the prison he will see.
And when he’s finished visiting the violent neighborhoods that help to make us the poorest city in America, he should visit the 24 schools we closed in 2013. And when he walks the abandoned halls of Vaux, Germantown, or Bok, he should do so with the realization that on average, the students who attended those schools were over 90 percent impoverished, over 90 percent black or Latino, and 100 percent abandoned by our city.
I hope the Pope will help us to tear down the walls that stand between us, but in order to do so, he’ll need to look well beyond that fence.
Listen to Solomon Jones Monday through Friday from 7 to 10 a.m. on 900 am WURD.