POWER Play

COURTNEY MARABELLA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Crowds cheer Sunday at Deliverance Evangelistic Church in North Philadelphia, where Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild (POWER) rallied for better wages for airport workers.
COURTNEY MARABELLA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Crowds cheer Sunday at Deliverance Evangelistic Church in North Philadelphia, where Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild (POWER) rallied for better wages for airport workers.
Posted: April 23, 2013

AT THE SITE where Connie Mack Stadium once stood, thousands rallied together Sunday, chanted "We are POWER!" and tried to hold their highest players accountable.

This wasn't Connie Mack's "Field of Dreams" moment, for what happened Sunday at Deliverance Evangelistic Church, on Lehigh Avenue near 20th Street, was never meant to be a game. It was meant to be a game-changer.

The massive rally - organizers estimate a crowd of more than 3,300 - was held by the interfaith movement Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild (POWER), a group of 40 congregations from across the city and the faith spectrum that was founded in 2011 "to exercise power in the public arena."

The original intent of the rally was to advocate for living wages - some 50 percent above the minimum wage - for 3,000 subcontracted workers at the airport.

That original cause still stood, but the rally also touched upon two other issues that cross faith, race and ethnic lines - schools and immigration reform.

The speakers mirrored the diversity of the crowd, from women in yarmulkes to an imam in a sky-blue robe and a priest with a pony tail, all while donations were gathered in brightly colored plastic sand buckets while the theme to "Rocky" played.

The Rev. Ernie Flores of Second Baptist Church of Germantown electrified the crowd with his repeated chant that "God is watching." He also offered solace to the downtrodden.

"When the laborers cry out . . . when no one else is listening to our cries, God is listening," he said.

Several undocumented immigrants shared stories of how they or their family members live in fear and how difficult it is to obtain citizenship.

When it came to schools, speakers railed against school closures, low graduation rates and poor student performance.

Philadelphia schools superintendent William R. Hite, who attended the rally, told the crowd he would support POWER's mission but said, in turn, POWER would have to stand behind him and the School Reform Commission, especially in battles against state budget cuts.

"We can't go up alone," he said. "We need this kind of organization behind us when we're going to fight for resources for our young people."

When it came to living-wage jobs, perhaps nobody made POWER's case better than Tara Russell, 42, a mom of five from Northeast Philadelphia who works for $7.25 an hour as an airport baggage handler. She makes $325 every two weeks. Her rent is $650 a month.

"I'm always broke. How can someone who works full time in the richest country in the world go hungry?" she said. "I keep reading that Philadelphia is the worst big city in the country for poverty, but I don't need to pick up a newspaper to know this, because I live it every day."

Russell said she'd like to see airport workers unionize. POWER is also advocating for the city's living wage of $10.88 to be applied to airport workers when the city renews its contract with U.S. Airways in June.

Councilmen Mark Squilla and Kenyatta Johnson were the only two council members in attendance at the rally. Both pledged their support for living wages for airport workers. Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez pledged her support via video message.

The rally ended with Rabbi Eli Freedman of Congregation Rodeph Shalom noting that Philadelphians need justice in this city as much as they need air.

"Can I get an Amen?" he said. "They don't let me do that in my church."


On Twitter: @FarFarrAway

Online: ph.ly/crime

Blog: ph.ly/Delco

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