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The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

Fit to be king
Lilli Dellheim, Special to the Hawk • July 13, 2024

Local church holds vigil to bear witness to injustices in community

Members+of+the+Overbrook+Presbyterian+Church+demonstrate+outside+of+the+church+on+Nov.+5.+PHOTO%3A+MITCHELL+SHIELDS+22%2FTHE+HAWK
Members of the Overbrook Presbyterian Church demonstrate outside of the church on Nov. 5. PHOTO: MITCHELL SHIELDS ’22/THE HAWK

Every Thursday, between 2 p.m. and dusk, anyone stuck in traffic at the intersection of Lancaster Avenue and City Avenue will see a group of church members and individuals from the surrounding communities outside the Overbrook Presbyterian Church, hosting a silent vigil.

The church is just down the street from Merion Gardens and Pennbrook Apartments. Participants can be seen praying and holding signs in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. 

The church has been hosting weekly vigils on the corner since May, after the killing of George Floyd, according to Reverend Adam Hearlson, church minister.

“The church was in a place, like a lot of churches and institutions around this country, trying to figure out what the appropriate way to respond to this, given their own identities, their own mission, their own unique circumstances,” Hearlson said.

A man, who wished not to be identified, demonstrates along with other members of the church on Nov. 5. PHOTO: MITCHELL SHIELDS ’22/THE HAWK

Hearlson said initially just a few individuals from the congregation gathered, but over time, more members from the church and throughout the surrounding community joined. 

“Though we’re not going to gather a massive protest, like downtown Philadelphia, what we do have in our tradition, and in our community, is a steadfast witness,” Hearlson said. “And so, we stand out there every Thursday, and we do so in the hopes that people who drive by are aware that this is a place that is concerned about racial justice, that desires a world where equality and care for all people is equally provided.”

Hearlson said Overbrook Presbyterian is uniquely situated on the edge of the city and the suburbs. According to Hearlson, the church pulls from both Lower Merion and West Philadelphia, with a population of about 35-40% Black congregants and 10-15% International congregants. 

“For us as a community, to see persons of color continually broken by systems of racism requires us to stand and it requires us to be present in the world that we might witness to this brokenness, not just in the injustice of it all, but also to our conviction that Christ is present,” Hearlson said. “And so, where Christ shows up we try and show up, and where we believe Christ is working we try and follow.”

Herbert Brabahm, a member of the vigil committee, said he feels grateful to be able to stand every week because he is discouraged by the systemic racism in America and the world.

“We’ve been fighting this battle for 450 years,” Brabahm said. “And this means a lot to me. I’m blessed from all the gifts that the Lord has given me, but especially as a Black man.”

Elizabeth Mendoza, of Havertown, demonstrates with other members of the church along City Ave. on Nov. 5. PHOTO: MITCHELL SHIELDS ’22/THE HAWK

Hearlson said the group’s mission is to make a difference in the community. 

“I want to raise awareness in order that we might see some systemic change both from the grassroots level and from a legislative level,” Hearlson said. “That said, we make sure that our messaging and our care is based around the conviction that Black lives matter.”

Hearlson said that on occasion, the local police have had to be called to de-escalate a situation. However, a handout with prayers and de-escalation strategies is also offered to all vigil participants. 

“Largely, we ask [participants] not to respond,” Hearlson said. “We encourage people to pray and pray for the people who are shouting these things to try and find a measure of understanding and empathy.”

Hearlson said the overwhelming majority of reactions to the vigil are positive, however.

“Every so often people will blow you kisses,” Hearlson said. “They will honk their horns. They will wave. They will give you thumbs up. The amount of goodwill that this has engendered and care has been overwhelming to us.”

Brabahm said since the church that since they have started the vigil, he has begun to see changes in the community. 

“People that are not of color, I think they’re starting to sense and see that there is true racism in the world,” Brabahm said.

Members of the Overbrook Presbyterian Church demonstrate outside of the church on Nov. 5. PHOTO: MITCHELL SHIELDS ’22/THE HAWK

Elizabeth Mendoza, a parishioner, said in addition to holding signs and offering prayers, Overbrook Presbyterian has also started an anti-racist library.

“We have a little book cart outside, and it’s growing,” Mendoza said. “It includes books for adults and books for children, but we felt that [became] part of the mission as we grew.”

Hearlson said it is important for people to stay vigilant during turbulent times, because often after violence and injustice, there is a large outpouring of affection and emotion, but within months, it is largely gone. 

“The truth of the matter is that sometime in the near future, another Black person is going to be unjustly killed,” Hearlson said. “It pains us to say it, but the predictive measures all point to it. And when it happens, we don’t want to be the type of people who are caught unaware again. We want to have the infrastructure and the ability to organize and be present in the event that happens.”

Above all, Hearlson said he wants the community to recognize Overbrook Presbyterian as a safe place for the community.  

“We hope that every time someone drives by us on Thursday, they see a deep and abiding love letter to our neighborhood,” Hearlson said.

 

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