"My brothers and my sisters, it is preaching time," Tyler announced to a chorus of "Amens."
Massive curved wooden beams crisscross above. Scrolled columns support the gallery. And in the arch above the organ pipes, gold letters spell out "God Our Father, Christ Our Redeemer, Man Our Brother."
Dedicated in 1794, it is a place steeped in history and faith.
For Jillian Wright, 8, however, it was most memorable for the snacks. "I like when we have the crackers and the drink," she said, after receiving communion.
Jillian, her little sister, Lauren, 6, Lauren's stuffed pink pig, Whopper, and the girls' parents, Ernest and Miriam, awoke at 4:40 a.m. to prepare for the sunrise Easter service. It was the first they had attended as a family. Ernest, senior budget analyst at the University of Pennsylvania, and Miriam, director of enrollment management at the university's College of Liberal and Professional Studies, were married in Mother Bethel 12 years ago.
"We've always felt comfortable here," said Miriam. "I always feel we get a message that can relate to our lives."
The break-of-day sermon was delivered by retired Rev. Alexander Stephans, who offered an impassioned delivery of the story of Jesus Christ's resurrection.
"The Devil thought he had check-mated Jesus," Stephans said. "But God had one more move."
It has become a tradition, Tyler explained, to invite the beloved Stephans to return for the Easter Sunday sunrise service since his retirement in 2005.
Nettie Davis, a retired nurse, and her daughter, Michelle, drove in from their home in Bucks County to hear Stephans speak. "He's an excellent pastor," said Davis. And her ties to him, she said, went beyond the spiritual. The delicate wide-brimmed organdy hat she wore was sold to her by Stephans' daughter.
About half the women wore Easter bonnets, sequined white, pink flowered, glossy black. But Madeline Shikomba, one of the church greeters, chose a purple tie-dyed African skirt, blouse and head wrap.
Shikomba, 70, a retired Philadelphia public school teacher, had lived in Africa for many years and her late husband was from Namibia.
Getting up before dawn, she said, was not easy, but she didn't mind sacrificing a few hours of sleep. "It's a beautiful service to recognize Christ's resurrection, which was discovered early in the morning," she said. "I think it's worth it. It's only one Sunday in the year and I'm free the rest of the day!"
At the 11 a.m. service, Rev. Tyler, who has become known among congregants as "the hip hop preacher" for his topical sermons, would speak about the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida, tying it to Edgar Allan Poe's short story, "The Telltale Heart."
"For me, racism is the ghost that won't go away," he said, "until we pull off the plank boards and pull out what's hidden."
Authorities have not yet determined whether racism played a role in the shooting of the unarmed Martin, a 17-year-old African American, by a neighborhood watch volunteer whose race has been described as both white and Hispanic.
But that kind of thought-provoking discussion, said Miriam Wright, and the church's social activism is what keeps her family connected to Mother Bethel. "My dad always said the church needs to do more in the black community."
Mother Bethel's congregation has built bicycles for city children, provides feeding programs, runs a voter registration program and is part of Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild (POWER), a faith-based, non-partisan group that advocates for job growth, public education and other community issues.
"There's more to a church," Miriam said, "than just giving on Sunday."
Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or email@example.com.