Faith leaders unable to host services on papal Sunday plan City Hall protest [UPDATED]

 A group of faith leaders, and Milton Street, formalize plans for their Wednesday protest at City Hall. (Brian Hickey/WHYY)

A group of faith leaders, and Milton Street, formalize plans for their Wednesday protest at City Hall. (Brian Hickey/WHYY)

A group of faith leaders uniting as the Greater Philadelphia Fellowship of Christian Churches plans to loudly decry security measures that render an estimated 30 churches unable to host services on the Sunday of Pope Francis’ visit.

Several group members met at Mt. Ephraim Baptist Church (22nd and Tioga sts.) on Saturday afternoon to plan for a Wednesday morning event. They said they will descend on Mayor Michael Nutter’s office seeking security-zone exemptions that would enable worshippers to get to their places of worship.

They say they’ve been trying to get the city’s ear with a request to ease traffic restrictions since May to no avail.

Pastor Willie Graves of Saint Phillip’s Baptist Church, located just north of Girard Ave. on 6th St., is heading the effort. He said civil disobedience is a potential course of action should their concerns not be addressed.

“The city has decided to shut off access to our churches,” Graves told NewsWorks of the security-zone ramifications about which Nutter and other city officials have “ignored us on every hand. We tried to reach out just to have a conversation. We’ve been ignored.

“Now, we’re at the point where we’re saying we want unrestricted travel on Sunday. Let people come to church and leave because you have feeding programs, clothing programs. We’re not pleased.”

[UPDATE: Upon learning of these concerns via NewsWorks, Nutter’s chief of staff Everett Gillison reached out to the group in an effort “to work with them as best we can,” said spokesman Mark McDonald.]

Graves said the group will assemble in the City Hall courtyard at 9 a.m. Wednesday and head upstairs to Nutter’s office at 10 a.m. to deliver a statement and demands.

They’ll then host a press conference at which Graves, Pastor J.R. Sutton, Vernon Thompson of Morris Chapel Baptist Church and T. Milton Street Sr. will speak, and hope to hear from the mayor within 48 hours before taking their next steps.

The group’s official statement, which will be delivered to Nutter’s office, decries “the stronghold” the city has over these churches creating “spiritual gridlock on an entire community” because of an “overzealous mayor” seeking approval and accolades.

“While the visit of the Pope is welcomed and highly anticipated by many, the intrusion into the daily functions of most is unwelcome,” the statement reads. “Intrusion and inconvenience can be tolerated until such point that it interferes with the inalienable right of a free people to gather at a designated place for the purpose of worshipping a higher power.

“We have been summarily dismissed as a non-factor in the mayor’s circus of celebrity and notoriety. We caution the mayor to prepare to share the national spotlight with the disgruntled, the dismissed and the disenfranchised. We will not be ignored.”

Should a mayoral meeting not come to pass, group leaders indicated a willingness to seek an emergency hearing challenging the legality of the city’s actions and draw national media attention to their “Biblical show of force.”

Graves said he hopes Nutter finally hears their concerns and engages in a conversation with the Fellowship which feels the city is seemingly “exalting the rights of one religious group” at the expense of others.

“If the mayor can’t find it in his capacity to give us what we’re seeking — it’s our right, our constitutional right, to assemble and worship without interference from the government — we’re going to pursue other means,” he said. “We’ll march and make our voices heard. We’ll make it very uncomfortable for the powers that be.”

On Sunday night, McDonald said he’d made calls and had heard nothing of these concerns in recent months. Gillison has reached out in an attempt to work with the faith community, as the city has with the business community in relation to the papal visit. City officials, he said, “will do what we can” to address the group’s concerns given exisiting security and safety measures.

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