It was raining and unseasonably cool on Saturday afternoon as about a dozen African American males casually dressed in jeans, jackets, and hoodies gathered near the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
They stood around a bit chatting, and then the strangest thing happened: The men gathered in a circle, joined hands, and began to pray.
Mind you, this wasn't a religious group. Far from it. These were just average guys — bartenders, city workers, retail workers. Led by Philadelphia police officer Jonathan Josey — yes, that one, but that's not what this column is about — the men prayed for themselves. They prayed for the city. They prayed that more black men would step up and become the heads of their families.
"I prayed for brothers to offer encouragement and to uplift each other," Josey told me Wednesday. "Society hardens us to make us somewhat antisocial. I asked God to soften the hearts of people who are out there preying on other people and for African American males who are hurting, and robbing and stealing and killing. When one person does something, oftentimes it's a reflection on everybody."
The men also prayed for, as Josey said, "responsible black men to be that living, shining example of God" in a society that too often views them as thugs and criminals.
I love it. Outside of church or religious events, you don't often see people standing on the street praying like that.
"Traditionally, men, especially black men, we are trained to be tough and [told that] 'men don't cry,' " explained Nate Rogers, who last week came up with the idea of forming the group, which calls itself When Black Men Pray. (The group's Instagram page is @whenblackmenpray.)
"I woke up one day and God just laid on my heart, 'Hey, have this men's prayer [group]," he added. "All black men of all faiths. And it's more than just prayer, let's get together and talk. If you're having financial struggles, we'll maybe come up with some programs for you. … It's more than just prayer. It's a networking situation."
Josey, whom he had known for a few years, was the first man he told about it, and the idea grew from there. The group had its first meetup Saturday afternoon.
The goal is for the men to start meeting weekly in various locations around the city. They also gathered Thursday night at 15th and Oakdale Streets, near the North Philly home of Amber Therese Jackson, 25, who was fatally shot earlier this month. Police haven't disclosed a motive in the slaying or disclosed the relationship between her and Khaleem Martin of the 2300 block of Fairhill Street, who was identified as a suspect and later turned himself in to authorities.
They joined hands near the home where Jackson's all-too-short life ended so tragically. Once again, they bowed their heads and called on God for strength and guidance.
How powerful. How strong. How beautiful. I hope that the men's presence will make an impression on the youngsters in that neighborhood. It really takes a strong man to stand in the street and expose his vulnerable side like that. My father was a man of faith who loved God and attended church every Sunday until he couldn't, and as his daughter I'm all there for men praying together.
I hope people will be moved to support what the men are doing. I can't think of a better way to declare that the bloodshed in that neighborhood is not acceptable. It's an outrage that a young woman's life was snatched away. How many people have to die before something changes? If enough people show up, it would be a statement not only for the people in that neighborhood but for the entire city and beyond.
"Eventually, we can make it a big national thing, where we have men and women coming together, families out there praying," said Rogers, 42, a bartender and the owner of Mix it Up Bartending School.