Nearly 200 people gathered along the rolling lawn in front of Oxford Presbyterian Church in Mt. Airy Sunday evening for a vigil honoring the life of George Floyd and protesting systemic racism.
The gathering brought congregants from churches, synagogues and mosques in Northwest Philadelphia together in prayer, song and activism. They waved Black Lives Matter signs and kept a safe social distance as the sun slowly set.
“We decided that we needed to start doing something so our presence could be seen and felt,” said Rev. Ethelyn Taylor, pastor at Oxford Presbyterian, which hosted the vigil. “The politicians, they can get together and be rabble-rousers. The church needs to do the same thing — I’ve always said that the church has been a sleeping giant.”
The crowd skewed older than recent protests. Many participants, including Lisa Monte of Mt. Airy, said they were grateful for the opportunity to voice their support for the Movement for Black Lives, since fast-moving, higher-risk protests in the blazing heat may not be an option for them.
“I don’t get around as well — even this was long for me to stand,” said Monte, who lives across the street from Oxford. “But in spirit, in prayer and in heart, we’ve been there,” she said of her husband and herself.
Elayne Aion of Abington said she was relieved the young people were taking to the streets.
“We’re tired, we’ve been doing this for 50 years,” said Aion, who was there with her wife Joan Liehe. “I marched on Washington during the Vietnam War.”
Northwest Philadelphia has a rich history of fighting for civil rights.
In the 1950s, as would-be Black home-owners around the country faced blockbusting real estate agents and racist redlining policies, residents in Mt. Airy waged an intentional campaign to racially integrate their neighborhoods.
Interfaith clergy were a critical piece of the organizing effort then.
“Trust can’t be microwaved,” said Rev. Kevin Porter, who was raised in East Mt. Airy and now leads the congregation at First Presbyterian Church in Germantown. “A community like this shows that trust takes time to build, but the deeper the roots are, the more resilient it is.”
He said he thinks as a community, Northwest Philadelphia offers living proof that a movement can result in change.
“I think the folks in Northwest Philadelphia in particular, since they are so multiracial and different faiths living with each other, have the understanding that this is a marathon and not a sprint,” he said.
The sprawling group, much more socially distanced than most marches in Center City, took 8 minutes and 45 seconds of silence to honor the amount of time former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck.
A number of clergy from a variety of denominations addressed the crowd, including Rabbi Linda Holtzman, a rabbinical professor and social justice activist.
“Those of us who are white who have had the luxury of not fully seeing have the luxury no longer,” said Holtzman. She urged the group not to assume change will happen on its own, and instead to take action. “It is in our hands,” she said.
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