There’s a story that has stuck with Rev. Mark Tyler, senior pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia, since 2014. He heard it from pastors in his network after white police officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, a Black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri.
Two pastors had been out with protesters, functioning as legal observers amid clashes with police who fired tear gas and rubber bullets at crowds.
On one occasion, some young people walked up to Tyler’s clergy friends and asked what “the white things around their neck were.” After the pastors explained, the young people said something like, “Well, we don’t know about that. We don’t go to church. But what we know is that when you walked up, the police started treating us differently.”
Tyler said it’s one of the reasons he and a coalition including pastors, rabbis and imams have been present every night Philadelphians have gone out to protest police brutality for more than a week.
“That has always been on my mind, that when we show up that the chances are things that would go sideways could be ramped down, because the police see us and they know that we’ll hold them accountable,” he said. “That’s why we show up.”
POWER, an interfaith coalition, has a group text chat of nearly 50 religious leaders, which has acted as both a way to organize their members and offer minute-by-minute updates on protests around the city and determine where more clergy are needed.
When chat members go out, they wear their religious attire — collars, prayer shawls, prayer caps — anything that makes them easy to identify.
In addition to acting as a sort of de-escalation tool with police, members of the group say they are there to bear witness.
“We have discovered that law enforcement can take advantage of young people and you know, deny them their due process,” Tyler said. “So we were there just to be a shield, you know, between them and the police to make sure that everyone left that place safely.”
Still, the first few days of Philadelphia’s protests were the hardest in terms of finding ways the group could actually help.
Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari, senior rabbi at West Philly synagogue Kol Tzedek, said he felt powerless when he showed up last Sunday to protests happening on 52nd Street.
“We couldn’t even actually get close to 52nd Street without immediately being kind of stopped in or tracks by the intense presence of tear gas in the air,” said Fornari, who noted he had not come with goggles.
Fornari said he acted quickly, using some of his experience dealing with militarized police at the West Bank in Palestine during the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon.
This was before rabbinical school, but Fornari remembered the scent of a freshly cut onion can help fight off the effects of tear gas (though there is some debate about that). Fornari walked up to a stranger’s house, asked for an onion, and kept moving.
Even when he finally got to the scene, Fornari and the reverend accompanying him couldn’t get close enough to the police.
At one point, he saw two young Black protesters walking down 52nd street “very powerfully and very peacefully” with their arms raised in the air and holding a cardboard sign that read, “Who are you protecting?”
The barricade of police began to shoot tear gas, hitting the crowd behind the two protesters.
“Everyone was running for their lives and pouring milk on their eyes,” said Fornari.
Even with their religious attire, he said the clergy’s presence felt “mostly useless.”
Since then, the group has been able to use their collective experiences to figure out how best to deploy their forces.
Over time, police have also responded with less violence and aggression, though Fornari suspects it has less to do with the constant clergy presence and more with viral videos, such as the one of a high-ranking Philadelphia police commander beating an unarmed Temple student.
The clergy group is now expanding its role, acting as mobile chaplains for anyone who wants to talk.
While the act of protest is empowering, group members say it can also take a psychological toll, especially if they have a previous trauma.
“Being in the streets at this time requires a kind of spiritual bolstering in order to resource ourselves and not allow it to, you know, trigger cycles of mental illness, depression, anxiety, PTSD,” said Fornari.
Sana Saeed, assistant chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania’s Spiritual or Religious Life Center, echoed Fornari.
She went to her first demonstration on Friday, the Jummah Prayer in Support of Black Lives in which hundreds of Muslims brought their prayer rugs to City Hall.
Saeed, who identifies as Pakistani and is multireligious (Muslim and also Unitarian Universalist) said it’s important for her to support people of color marching.
Saeed said she understands many people may be apprehensive of seeing clergy, but she wants to assure protesters they’re there to lend an ear.
“We’re really there to support them without proselytizing,” she said. “[They] may be humanist or atheist, agnostic — I want them to know that there’s room for them to be able to come and just talk about what they’re seeing and processing.”
And the effort is not limited to members of POWER’s group chat. Other religious leaders and congregations have been getting involved, too, said Saeed, offering food and medical care to protesters, and helping to ease tensions.
Last week, a day after a group of mostly white men in Fishtown gathered with bats to “protect” their neighborhood past the mandatory curfew, counterprotesters arrived in the neighborhood to demand answers from police about why nothing was done to stop them.
Among them were two clergy members not affiliated with POWER, who stayed with protesters — and even offered prayer at the request of an officer.
“Help us to see past the anger that fuels hatred,” one of the pastors said. “Help us to see past anger that fuels destruction. Help us to see past those who are wounded by poverty and drugs and to see our fellow humans in whom you have also imparted the great gift, your image, that we may see you in our neighbor and to stand together, to kneel together so that no more of your children are harmed.”