Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Heavy

"At night I could hear the blood in my veins
Black and whispering as the rain
On the streets of Philadelphia."
--Bruce Springsteen

It's been a long time since I spent Good Friday in a church. But I can't think of a better place to have spent Good Friday this year than Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia. Day II of the Voices of Hope Agents of Change Tour (henceforth, VHAC) took us to BSM.

This unique church is just a few years old, and BSM has made a commitment to social justice. The Reverend Bill Golderer explained at the start of our event that the community is committed to a number of issues, including HIV/AIDS awareness and criminal justice and prison reform. To borrow a phrase from Buddhism, this is a community of Engaged Christians.

It was obvious when we pulled up to the church at 320 South Broad Street that this was a different place. It's an old church building, and there were numerous folks hanging around the front steps, probably people who spend most of their time on the streets- based on the full trash bags some of them were carrying. Within a few minutes, it was obvious that this was also a place that welcomes these folks who are so often ignored and marginalized, as several of them entered the building when the doors opened for us and at least one of them helped us carry in our gear without asking for anything in return. A staff person from the church also knew this man by name.

Lorry Post and Harold Wilson were again our featured speakers. At this event, Lorry had more time to speak than at Drexel, and he went into more detail about the death of his daughter and the experience that he and his wife June had after Lisa's death.

What took my breath away from Lorry's talk was the manner in which Lisa was killed. She was brushing her teeth when her husband stabbed her from behind, twice in the back. The most mundane daily activity turned into her final act, an act of great tragedy.

And Lorry's fist-raising moment came after his discussion of their involvement in trying to stop the execution of Pedro Medina in Florida. After Medina was executed, June Post defiantly told the media, "You haven't heard the last of us." The group in New Jersey led by Lorry and June became Pedro's People, then New Jerseyans for a Death Penalty Moratorium, and then New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. NJADP was the catalyst for repealing capital punishment in New Jersey.

Harold Wilson's talk at BSM was the most emotional of the three he gave in two days in Philadelphia. The setting at BSM added to the mood. The room we were in was lit only by temporary spotlights. The floor was old wood. One of the stained glass windows had a hole in it. The room was ringed by a balcony where old pews were stored, in no particularly organized fashion.

Harold's tale of being railroaded to death row by the Philadelphia District Attorney's office was clear and poignant. The ADA who prosecuted the case used racial profiling in jury selection, several years after SCOTUS outlawed the practice. The DA's office was so brazen about this practice that they produced a training video for new prosecutors.

Harold recounted a bloody footprint from the scene allegedly from the perpetrator. It was several sizes smaller than his own foot size.

At his retrial in 2005, a witness admitted that a jacket from the scene was his and not Harold's, as prosecutors had claimed.

And DNA evidence from that jacket indicated the presence of an unknown person.

The audience at BSM was quite diverse. Old and young. Black and white. And based on appearances, up and down the economic scale. This audience engaged us during the discussion period, and the black audience members, in particular, reminded us of the ways in which racism continues to haunt our society. One woman railed against the recent criticism of Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, saying that church is the one place where African-Americans can speak without a filter.

It was a heavy night. To close, the mood was lightened, but only slightly, by some righteous rock from singer-songwriter John Francis.

If we're going to topple the death penalty in Pennsylvania, it's going to happen because of people like those at Broad Street Ministry.

Andy in Harrisburg

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