Interfaith Coalition to Seek Answers To Philly’s Poverty Woes

A faith leader and member of POWER.

Pastor Zack Ritvalsky is a faith leader and member of POWER.

They may not look like much by themselves, but what could happen if all the people from each of those storefront Baptist or Evangelist churches in Philadelphia got together to start a movement?

The answer to that question is POWER, or Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild, an interfaith coalition that will officially launch with a gathering at Tindley Temple United Methodist Church this Sunday, Sept. 25. It wants to become a movement for lifting hundreds of thousands out of poverty in the city.

“What we have as a collective whole with 45 congregations, is probably about 15,000 members within those congregations, not counting the communities or the number or residents in the communities that we serve,” said Pastor Zack Ritvalsky of Sweet Union Baptist Church in Carroll Park, West Philadelphia, who is a member of POWER’s sponsoring committee. “The goal is to bring a portion of those people together to ideally publicly demonstrate that POWER has power, if no more than in the people that have an interest in the issues.”

The members want to tackle five core issues that they say are the most pressing for their communities in the city: education, jobs, poverty, crime and immigrants. They decided on these issues based on “one-on-one conversations… hearing the pain that people are feeling, the frustrations, the challenges, the obstacles,” he said.

In Philadelphia, five ZIP codes are at a 40 percent or higher poverty rate; what’s more, there’s a very fine line in statistical poverty reporting, where a dollar over a certain person-to-income ratio can mean the difference between poor and not poor. So statistics may poorly reflect the true reality of Philly’s poverty problem.

A better indicator, says Ritvalsky, is the urban context: “The blight that’s in the neighborhood, the high violence and the crime rate that’s in our communities. The substandard education that unfortunately prevails within our neighborhoods. In this community, most people don’t have health care because it’s inaccessible and unaffordable, so… they have a tendency to be the emergency room patients who come in with heavily distressed physical ailments. It’s unfortunate, but they just don’t have the medical insurance that’s necessary to be preemptive.”

That’s what he, and he says his colleagues, were interested in when they began planning in 2009 what would eventually become POWER. The organization hopes to have a serious ear-to-ear with Philadelphia’s power structure. In other words, they’re expecting Mayor Nutter to be at church on Sunday evening. And they want to start Philadelphia towards employment, training, education and a liveable income.

“The reality is, there are social forms of injustices that have become institutional,” the pastor continued. “Look that the financial debacle of 2008. People were exploited by those who had companies and skills that the objects of.. the financial crisis (us, who got screwed) didn’t have. And that resonates to other aspects of the system… unfortunately, it’s embedded and it’s impregnated within these institutions.”

The coalition is mostly comprised of Judeo-Christian groups, but is reaching out to other faith-based organizations like Buddhist temples and Muslim mosques. POWER isn’t so much about faith as it is the idea that faith-based organizations have a conduit into the heart of communities. So, Sunday’s session at church won’t be about prayer, but rather a convenient place to “let the city of Philadelphia know that there are faith communities that have an interest in the oppressed, and we are a conduit for champion their cause and be an outlet for their voice.”

The details:

What: POWER Founding Convention
Where: Tindley Temple United Methodist Church, 750 S. Broad St.
When: Sept. 25, 5:30 p.m.

RSVP at: power.rsvp@gmail.com

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