An estimated 860,000 people were in Philadelphia during the last weekend of September trying to get a glimpse of Pope Francis as the leader of the Catholic Church made his first-ever visit to the United States. As millions more watched on television, the ones who were able to make it to the City of Brotherly Love were ecstatic if they could just get a glimpse of Pope Francis during his motorcade trip through the Philly streets or sit within 500 yards of him for his Sunday mass or one of his talks.
There were, however, a few who were fortunate enough to get a closer look at Pope Francis than the average out-of-state pilgrim. And not only did those lucky souls get a better view than most, they actually performed with some of the biggest names in music for the Pope or were personally invited to attend one of his talks.
Dr. J. Donald Dumpson, the Minister of Music and the Arts at Arch Street Presbyterian Church, was tasked with creating a 53-person Heritage Chorale that sang for Pope Francis. One of his singers was Carrie Lessene, the Director of Music at Berean Presbyterian Church, who performed on that Saturday evening along with some of the biggest names in music.
Earlier that same day, the Pope spoke on immigration at Independence Mall, a talk that was held in front of roughly 50,000 people, which mainly included the local Hispanic community and immigrants. Among those in attendance was the Rev. Adan Mairena, who preaches at Yeadon Presbyterian Church and West Kensington Ministry. Adan was invited because of his continued work with immigrants in Philadelphia.
And throughout the weekend congregations like Arch Street PC, Glading Memorial PC and First PC of Kensington opened their doors to weary travelers and those from their own areas who were searching for something to do because their regular events were either canceled or not accessible due to the Pope’s visit. It all added up to a special weekend in Philadelphia.
“Of the largest cities in the country, we’re the poorest,” Rev. Adan Mairena said. “So to have this as a Philadelphian take place and to have it go rather smoothly makes me proud of a Christian choosing to come here and speaking on issues that could be seen as controversial to some. He did speak against the status quo for the most part. As a Philadelphian who knows we’re poor, we’re segregated, we’re violent. – to have him come here and speak on issues that most times people stick to their own camp was good. Now what do we do with all of it?”
Dr. J. Donald Dumpson handpicked 53 singers to be part of his Heritage Chorale that sang, among others, “Amazing Grace” with American soul-singer Aretha Franklin, “The Lord’s Prayer” with Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and two other songs with Colombian rock musician Juanes in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This was all part of the Festival of Families program, a major event that was part of the World Meeting of Families gathering, which is the Catholic church’s every-three-years gathering that coincides with the Pope’s visit.
“In addition to music, the Pennsylvania Ballet was on the program,” said Donald, who has been at Arch Street PC for five years. “It was basically an arts-focused program with testimonies from select families around the world.”
Donald’s well-known stance on civil issues made him a perfect fit to lead the Heritage Chorale, which was originally formed to sing for Pope Francis’ visit but is now also staying together for future special occasions.
“They know my personal mission for diversity and inclusion,” Donald said. “I feel when opportunities are afforded me, in what ways can I be a part of opening doors for others. So this choir, despite what some people might expect, was very intergenerational. We had two high school students on up to professors from universities.”
The Heritage Chorale, which performed five songs, included Amelia Garblish, minister of music at Mt. Airy Presbyterian Church, several members from Arch Street and Waverly Alston from The Common Place as well as Carrie Lessene, the Director of Music at Berean PC. There were some informal auditions for the choir, but for the most part Donald knew who he wanted to participate in the program. For Carrie, she was just honored to be part of something of this magnitude.
“It was daunting to think that so many ears would hear it,” she said. “It was such a momentous time and it represented so much for so many people. Obviously I’m not Catholic, but there was a reverence involved with being able to do that for that occasion. It was a wonderful honor to be asked.”
Overall, Donald was very pleased with how things went on that Saturday evening, even though the group only practiced a couple of times.
“It was extraordinary,” he said. “The ensemble was fluid, the spirit was wonderful. Something about the Papal visit just created a real aura of joy and peace. Anything that’s massive has its tensions to it, but I would say the joy and the spirit of love and care definitely outweighed those particular challenges.”
Donald did not get to meet the Pope but he was admittedly awe-struck when the Catholic leader walked in as the program was beginning.
“I was in awe of how close I was,” Donald said. “I didn’t need to meet him. His presence, what he’s about, his call for people to love was just really profound. There’s something about him that even though I’m a Christian and I don’t follow the Catholic processes and thoughts about religion, he is a man of God. He definitely has something very special about him and I felt that.”
It was also a very spiritual occasion for Carrie.
“I recognize the gifts God has given me has granted me favor to do certain things,” she said. “I recognize the multitudes, millions of people I was able to minister to through song, not just those standing on the streets of Central Philadelphia, but nationally on television. I am prayerful that the peace and compassion which exemplified (during the Pope’s visit) becomes a foundation of our communities. May this week’s Roman Catholic theme of family become a continuous status for our brethren.”
To say directing the Heritage Chorale in front of the Pope was a personal milestone for Donald would be accurate.
“This is at the top of the list in terms of its magnitude,” he admitted. “We’ve done large events on the parkway for the Fourth of July, the Thanksgiving Day Parade. None of that can compare to this in terms of the energy. Most importantly the common spirit that was in the city those two days, God’s presence was just here.”
“It is an honor,” Donald added. “God is just awesome. I’m very grateful.”
POPE’S SPEECH ON IMMIGRATION
Rev. Adan Mairena was invited to attend Pope Francis’ speech on immigration at Independence Mall in part because of the role Adan has played with immigration in Philadelphia. Recently, the pastor helped a woman find sanctuary for two months at West Kensington Ministry, where he serves along with Yeadon PC. That woman, her family and Adan were all invited to attend the Pope’s talk on Saturday afternoon.
“The setting itself was really historic,” Adan said. “It was really powerful to be in that historically-sacred place (Independence Mall) among secular society. To be there and to have a Latin American speaking about immigration as well as religious freedom … was just really powerful.”
Adding to the special afternoon was the fact that Pope Francis spoke from the same podium that Abraham Lincoln delivered the famous Gettysburg Address, which was also used by Martin Luther King a century later.
“The message itself touched on globalism,” Adan recalled. “A powerful thing he said was that globalism is not bad in itself if we’re all moving toward the right direction if that’s a direction that works toward the common good. He spoke about religious freedom and really gave almost an interfaith appeal that we all – it doesn’t matter which religion we practice – work for peace.”
While in Philadelphia, the Pope visited a prison and spoke with victims of clergy sexual abuse. It all left Adan with some deep thoughts to ponder.
“Just as important is that we start considering where do we go from here? How do we keep moving forward in this sense of good will?” Adan asked. “You can have this mountaintop experience, but if we go back to business as usual, what was it worth?”
CHURCHES GIVE A HELPING HAND
So, with an estimated 860,000 people in Philadelphia during the weekend trying to take in the Pope’s visit, it resulted in lots of congestion. Roads were closed, hotels were completely full and plenty of other inconveniences were experienced by those in the area. It also created an opportunity for churches to step up and open their doors for the visitors – and even their neighbors.
Arch Street PC was front and center for the event. Located in the middle of Philadelphia, it housed 165 people, most of which came from two predominately Latino parishes in Yonkers, N.Y.
“ASPC was one of several churches, synagogues and other public spaces that worked with ‘Philadelphia Pilgrimage’ to host pilgrims for the Pope’s visit,” explained Bill Smith, who was dubbed Arch Street PC’s ‘Ambassador of Welcome’ for the Papal visit. “We provided sleeping and lodging space on Saturday night and kept their stuff while they were participating in events outside.”
The groups slept in places like the sanctuary, fellowship hall, chapel and pre-school. Everything went well, but the church had to cancel its Sunday morning worship due to the crowds.
“They had prayer and informational discussions in our chapel and fellowship hall,” Bill added. “They were very easy, gracious and appreciative guests. They insisted on bagging up all their trash and sweeping the place. You never knew we hosted 165 people after they left. We cancelled Sunday worship because we were at ‘ground zero’ for the Pope’s visit, and it would have been impossible for our members to get to here. However, Bill Golderer and the pastoral and music staff videoed an hour-long YouTube service that members could view at home.”
At Glading Memorial PC, over 40 Latino immigrants were camping out after making the trip from Oregon. They connected with the church through World Meeting of Families.
“This was an opportunity to learn the value of hospitality,” said the Rev. Samantha Sale Hudson. “There’s no ulterior motive. These Catholic pilgrims are already Christians. We’re not trying to take members of the Catholic church. It was just offering hospitality to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ because that’s what Jesus called us to do.”
With Glading Memorial located in a predominately Dominican and Puerto Rican neighborhood, Samantha hopes doing something of this nature will be a springboard for more activities like this.
“It’s what we’re working towards,” she said. “This was a great first step. It was not a long-term commitment. We just got a taste for what it’s like. We’re working a lot on being welcoming cross-culturally, especially for immigrants. It was great entry into trying to reclaim our identity as a neighborhood church.”
The group arrived Friday – one day earlier than expected – and stayed through Monday morning. The church does not have beds or showers, but that didn’t keep them away as they slept on hard, concrete floors in the Fellowship Hall. The worshipers at Glading Memorial did step up in a big way by donating snacks and breakfast foods for the traveling group.
“People came by the church who I never met in person and said ‘I read that you’re doing this thing and I have a lot of love for Catholics – there’s Catholics in my family – and I want to be a part of this,” Samantha said. “It was really cool to see lots of people gathering that food together.”
In the Fishtown neighborhood, First Presbyterian Church of Kensington opened its doors for the community. The church planned a family movie night on Friday night, a community play day on Saturday and showed Pope Francis’ mass on a big-screen television on Sunday.
“After I heard the news about the city shutting down, I decided I wanted the church to do the opposite and open its doors,” said Pastor Shawn Hyska. “The most attended event was the community play day on Saturday, with around 30-35 or so families showing up with their children (aged between 1-4). That was an energy-filled event, with a lot of credit going towards the influence of the Fishtown Playschool (who uses the building a few days a week, whom the church partnered with on the event). Even though the movie night and Papal mass were not as well attended as the community play day, everyone who came out throughout the weekend was glad we were open and provided activities for the community.”