The protests and the pandemic: Philly’s 12th annual Beer Summit tackles a country in crisis

12th Annual Beer Summit takes place by Zoom. (Courtesy of Rev. David Brown)

12th Annual Beer Summit takes place by Zoom. (Courtesy of Rev. David Brown)

​We are indeed living in strange times. ​We meet using Zoom, dine six feet apart, and are required to wear face masks in almost any building, though many people continue to refuse, citing an infringement upon their liberty. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is ravaging our country: more than 150,000 deaths and over 4.5 million confirmed cases. This virus is impacting almost every aspect of our lives. And compounding the uncertainty in the country is a racial justice uprising, which has filled America’s streets with protesters from all backgrounds. 

The protests and the pandemic were the focus of the 12th Annual Beer Summit, which was organized by a local nonprofit, Global Citizen, which also organizes the largest annual MLK Day of Service in the country.

Global Citizen has been holding beer summits in Philly every year since 2009, which is the year when Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Black Harvard professor, was arrested on his front porch by a white police officer who wrongly thought the professor was breaking into the home. That incident prompted then-President Barack Obama to invite Dr. Gates and the arresting officer to the White House for a conversation about race over a cold beer. 

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​This year’s Beer Summit was, as you would expect, held in virtual mode.  I was honored to serve as a moderator. The guests were Dr. Ala Stanford, founder of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium and Michael Coard, a criminal defense attorney and activist. The pair talked about the impact of the pandemic and the protests. Dozens of participants joined the conversation. 

​“Education,” one participant offered, “needs to be the cornerstone of any platform we pursue. How do we educate people of privilege to let go of their power and put it to use for the greater good?”

​Another participant rejected the context of comparing the sickness of racism to any disease that could be cured by a vaccine: “If dismantling racism was as easy as popping a pill, we would still have to compel people to take the medicine in the first place.” 

It wasn’t lost on any of us that earlier in the day, Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon, was laid to rest. ​“John Lewis laid his body on the line many times seeking the type of justice we’re talking about tonight,” one of the Beer Summit participants said. “We have to ask ourselves: How uncomfortable are we willing to be to make others uncomfortable enough to see real change happen in our country?” 

​Another person spoke of the very real exhaustion many are feeling as they fight against racism during a global health pandemic. And, yet again, the life of Congressman Lewis provided inspiration: “We saw images of Lewis getting beaten by law enforcement when he was just a kid, as part of a civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the ‘60s. And then standing silently in Black Lives Matter Plaza in D.C. a little more than a month ago. It makes you wonder how long we will have to fight to make these wrongs right. To folks like John Lewis, the answer is simple: as long as it takes.” 

​And that’s the point for why we gather every year for events like the Beer Summit. We come to connect with like-minded individuals who are committed to the hard work that fighting for justice requires. We come to be inspired, informed and enlightened for the difficult journey that defines the path we’ve chosen. We come to encourage each other; gird each other up; and renew our strength when our voices have become too strained, or our limbs too weary to walk on. 

​In the last book Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. authored before his death, titled “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?,” he wrote about the work we all must do (then, as now) in learning to live together in peace. He had no way of knowing that the chaos facing the country would include his own assassination, riots throughout the country and an uncertain future that threatened the dream that he and others Congressman Lewis would sacrifice everything for. 

​But out of that chaos, a community was formed. A determination was strengthened. Perseverance was perfected. In the bigger scheme of things, how much difference can a cold beer on a warm summer night make in this time of crisis? The answer isn’t in the drink, it’s in the invitation to lift the glass together for the work we’ve done and the work yet ahead to do. Such an invitation could make all the difference in the world.

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