Historic congregation takes Philly Marathon runners to church

This year, as the runners approached the fifth mile of the race, members of the Mother Bethel A.M.E. choir sang uptempo hymns from the steps of the church.

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After years of struggling to hold Sunday services around thousands of marathon runners and crowds of cheering spectators, a historic Philadelphia congregation decided to do what it does best: take them to church.

This year, as the runners approached the fifth mile of the race, members of the Mother Bethel A.M.E. choir sang uptempo hymns from the steps of the church on the corner of Sixth and Lombard streets.

Members of the congregation also cheered on the runners and handed out bracelets which read “God is my pace partner” on the outside and, in a nod to the book of Isaiah, “run and not grow weary” on the inside.

For at least the last decade, the Philadelphia Marathon has been an inconvenience to the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler and his congregation of hundreds.

Each year, about 30,000 runners follow the 26.2-mile course right in front of the doors of the more than 200-year-old church, interfering with congregants trying to make it to Sunday morning worship at 9:30.

Because the course runs up Sixth Street from South Street, worshipers who drive in from outside the area have difficulty getting to the church due to blockades and closed roadways.

Tyler said he tried rescheduling services to little or no avail. But this year, neighbor Larry Spector, a marathon enthusiast who lives across the street from the church, suggested Tyler and the choir take a new approach and become a cheering section.

Spector said he got the idea from Emmanuel Baptist Church in Brooklyn, whose choir sings in front of the church during the New York City marathon every year.

Jonas Crenshaw, Jr. conducts the Mother Bethel A.M.E. Mass Choir outside the church, as participants of the 2018 Philadelphia Marathon run up Sixth street, along their route. (Natalie Piserchio for WHYY)

Tyler was hesitant at first. Why “support the race that shuts us down every year?”

But then, he had an epiphany.

“Maybe it’s a reason that 30,000 people are running in front of your church building,” Tyler said. “And so instead of fighting it, just embrace it, and be open to it.”

In other words, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

After getting the thumbs up from the choir director, Tyler organized Sunday’s “sidewalk service,” which appeared to be a hit.

While keeping pace, runners accepted the motivational bracelets, others waved and clapped to show their appreciation for the cheers and the music.

“I know what it feels like to be out on the pavement,” said Leslie Tyler, the church’s first lady, who is a runner herself.

“Sometimes you feel all alone,” she said. “What can make the difference in a run is having cheering sections like this singing gospel music, encouraging songs uplifting the Lord, having people just cheering you on.”

Participants of the 2018 Philadelphia Marathon run past Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, while choir members line up before the church steps to sing words of encouragement. (Natalie Piserchio for WHYY)

“Now I feel like I’ve run a marathon and I’ve gone to church this morning — even though I belong to the synagogue around the corner,” said Diane Luckman, who has lived near the church for over 25 years and was among the neighbors who joined the congregation inside after the service.

She says she was more interested in the choir than the marathoners, and hopes the service continues every year. “It just made me feel really good, especially with what’s going on in the world.”

After seeing the response to the service, Tyler said he is considering a repeat event next year.

“We tried everything in 10 years and this has been probably the best result.”

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