That title might sound a bit like one of the characters who were “off to see the Wizard of Oz”, but that is what it was for me as I went to Philadelphia on Saturday, September 26, during the weekend of Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia and the concluding days of the World Meeting of Families.
As a pastor, I really was off! I had to make arrangements for pastoral coverage and a guest pastor to take care of Grace’s worship services that Sunday. I purchased the “Papal Passes” for Saturday and Sunday for train transportation to and from the event. Then as the days lead up to that special weekend, I began to wonder if I had made the right choice. “Pastor, why are going there?” came from many congregation members and community friends, generally followed up with something like “Better you than me!” The local news carried information regarding the many anticipated problems. There were preparations for every eventuality. I thought it was interesting because I had also attended the World Series parade 7 years earlier and was completely astounded by the lack of preparation for the event. As more information was shared, it seemed like fewer people were going to attend. Buses were cancelled and transit passes were still available.
The night before I packed food and drink, which was the recommendation of a pastor friend who lived in the secured area and chose to be away during the Pope’s visit. Saturday morning, I went to the train station at Pennbrook. There was lots of people there to help, a long row of “Job Johnnies” at the station. You could feel the excitement from a variety of people of all ages including some Hispanic folks already singing Gospel songs to a man with a bullhorn and a sign calling for repentance. There was one wake up call to reality a we had to enter one narrow gate to board the train. The gentleman there said, “I don’t need to see your ticket, I’m monitoring everyone for radiation!”
When I got to the city, I got off the train and talked to the Hispanic group there. It turned out that they were from a group of Spanish-speaking Roman Catholic churches in Minnesota. Hey, isn’t that Lutheran country? When I told one young woman that I was Lutheran, she did say, Oh yes, the Lutherans are very thick where I come from too!”
I was amazed by the peace and quietude of the Philadelphia. There were no cars or trucks on the streets, no engine noise, no fumes. Philadelphia was a walking city again! People were walking in the streets, talking and meeting one another. Street vendors had any papal souvenir one could imagine. I was interviewed by a French newspaper while standing in the middle of Broad Street. He seemed to know English and the city well and upon seeing the Phillies shirt I was wearing, at the end of the interview he said, “sorry about your team!”
I participated in the Mass on Saturday morning at Franklin Square, a beautiful small park that had a Jumbotron at the corner. People sat in the grass. But it was more than watching– people sang and prayed. When the people of the Mass shared the Peace, we did too! I met people from the US, Latin America and Eastern Asia, some folks sharing food that I had no idea what it was. I met others after the service, walked across a serene Benjamin Franklin Bridge which was now a 6 lane footbridge. In the afternoon, I was very close to Independence Hall, watched the many people share stories of immigration and acceptance, the Pope’s speech, and the ringing of the bell in the tower. When I took my years of Spanish in high school and college, I never would have imagined that one day I would be hearing a pope speaking in Spanish at Independence Hall! Our world has grown!
I was blessed to be given a ticket to the evening events of the Festival and went inside for awhile to see what was happening there. Again so many faithful Christians sharing their faith in the streets of Philadelphia! I was amazed at the stage built, the many fences and barriers put up throughout the city to make the event as safe as possible.
I was awe struck by all the police, medical and emergency workers everywhere. On one street, there was waiting dozens of ambulances from Baltimore to upstate Pennsylvania where I was born and raised. Several hundred Pennsylvania State Police were assembling as I left the train that morning. Many served as volunteers, trying to be helpful and all were courteous. My only sadness of the day was a band of very organized preachers with banners, amplification, and accompanying videographers to record any mishaps. They spoke rudely about the Catholic folks and faith and tried to disrupt things whenever possible. I was sad to see such a display from other Christians and their lack of tolerance.
Finally, I think of those displaced during the Festival week. Residents who had to find new homes for their families and cars for a week or more. I think of the homeless that I met last year through our own Lutheran Welcome Church on Logan Square and how that community was moved. I look forward to seeing them again the Sunday after Thanksgiving as Grace and other churches in our cluster will worship with them. I ended up watching the events of Sunday from my home, exhausted from the long day before, but felt more a part after my visit on Saturday.
The weekend helped me to recognize the breadth and depth of the Christian Church in both theology and in location. I was glad to share faith with so many freely for a day where it is rarely shared openly. I thank all those who made the World Festival of Families possible.