HearTOGETHER Podcast

Rev. Mark Tyler

January 20, 2021 The Philadelphia Orchestra / Tori Marchiony Season 1 Episode 4
HearTOGETHER Podcast
Rev. Mark Tyler
Show Notes Transcript

Though many spiritual leaders preach visions of a better future, it's also common to bypass hard facts and focus on the happy ending. Not so for Reverend Mark Tyler.  On this episode of the HearTOGETHER Podcast, Tyler shares his path to leadership, the importance of slogans in activism, and what "Defund the Police" means to him. 


  • JOHNSON & JOHNSON, "Lift Every Voice,"  The Philadelphia Orchestra w. vocalist Laurin Talese
  • "Magic," Maze ft. Frankie Beverly
  • WESLEY WORK JR., "Go Tell It On The Mountain," string quartet  w. vocalist Patrice Hawthorne 
  • TINDLEY, "We Shall Overcome," brass quintet


Hosted by Tori Marchiony. Mixed by Teng Chen. 

JOHNSON & JOHNSON, "Lift Every Voice,"  The Philadelphia Orchestra w. vocalist Laurin Talese

Happy New Year! And Welcome back to the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra. I’m Tori Marchiony and this a space to hear from the artists and activists working hard to improve our world. 

Today, you’ll hear from Reverend Mark Tyler. He’s a community leader, co-host of a daily radio show (on WURD), and for the past 13 years has served as Pastor at Mother Bethel Church in Center City Philadelphia- the oldest African Methodist Episcopal congregation in the U.S., (founded back in 1794). It’s a prestigious, powerful, and inherently political position, that Tyler takes seriously. That’s why in 2011, he and the Mother Bethel congregation joined dozens of others to form POWER Philadelphia- an interfaith coalition focused on mobilizing its membership to support causes ranging from funding education and affordable housing to climate justice and living wages. 

Much like the icon we celebrated on Monday, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Reverend Mark Tyler fuels his vision for a better future with faith, and puts the “Active” in “Activism”. But if you had told a teenaged Mark Tyler that such comparisons would be made decades down the road, he probably would have called you a liar…or worse.  

Host: What was the role of church in your life growing up? And at what point did you decide that getting into ministry was something that might be for you?

Rev. Mark Tyler: Well, church was not very important at all growing up. Um, I joined as an adult on my own when I was about 19 or 20, the only person that I knew that went to church all of the time, it was my grandmother. And when we went to visit her, uh, just started attending her church, which was AME and had no idea this, you know, rich family legacy that we were a part of. Um, and I've discovered this by putting together, um, our genealogy and, um, just kind of doing, you know, family research. The oldest ancestor that we know for certain in our family was, uh, his name was Jesse W Divine. And he was born in Pennsylvania of all places in 1818. And he was an AME minister. Uh, he actually visited Mother Bethel where I pastor for a conference in the 1860s. Uh, we pastored in the same areas in Ohio. Um, it's, it's just an amazing kind of overlap, but, uh, we didn't have, we've not had another preacher in our family officially, uh, since him, uh, before I entered the ministry, but I would be remiss not to include that, that grandmother, uh, we all believe she had a calling on her, but she was born in the 19 teens before the AME church officially recognized women in ministry. So, you know, she was forced to do other kinds of things, but her real calling really was, you know, ministry. She was one of the strongest, uh, unofficial ministers in our congregation. Everyone looked up to her, including the pastors. And, uh, it's just a shame that, uh, that the rules of the church prevented her from really living out that calling. My mom was kind of that generation that said, um, she'll let us grow up and make that decision on our own and didn't force us to go to church. And, um, I'm not sure that was the best decision given all the trouble that we ended up getting into, uh, the kind of trouble that could either leave you incarcerated for a long time, uh, dead or, um, just like strung out on drugs. And so, uh, I mean, you know, my first year and a half or so out of high school was pretty traumatic. These were the summers where we had the most homicides. Uh, I lost a number of friends, uh, in those summers and, you know, the real conversation among many of us was if I make it to 21, um, what I'll do. And I mean, so though, you know, that was really where I was. So coming into the church was such a shock to everybody because, you know, nobody saw it coming and immediately I felt at home, all of these family and friends were extremely happy and rejoicing, you know, many of them had known me as a child. They knew my mom very well. They knew the kind of life that I had been living. And, um, so I know a lot of them were praying for me. 

Host: Um, was there like a “rock bottom” moment or a “calling” moment where you were like, “I, I need to go to church, like something's got to change”. Was it like that? Or was it a slow kind of “all right, grandma I'll come to church with you”? 

Rev. Mark Tyler: No, it was, it was so my experience and my transformation was absolutely a result of hitting rock bottom and, you know, it's, uh, it's amazing to look back now at my age and think that, that my rock bottom was at 18 and 19 years of age. Um, but, but it was. And so, um, you know, w what we call The Game is something that just eats you alive. And that's, you know, that was my only job. That's all I did 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Um, and so, uh, you know, I committed fully to it, and it is something that just like in a movie, it starts off great. It's, you know, um, you know, it's the fast life. It's a lot of money. I mean, we, I mean, we had thousands of dollars in our pockets all the time. Uh, we had fast cars, new cars, you know, women, everything. So the first few months is wonderful. And then all of a sudden the drama comes, right? And friends, you know, start, you know, um, lying to each other. And I mean, you know, business deals go bad and you don't know who to trust. Uh, the circle starts to get tighter, and then you find yourself hooked on the drugs that you're trying to sell. And for me, that's ultimately what led to my own, uh, rock bottom. And so, you know, I remember, you know, kind of realizing that I was at a point where I'm selling drugs just to stay high, where you, you get, you know, things, give it to you on commission. You just want to pay them off. And then you use the rest for yourself. And this rationale that the next time will be different. The next batch will be different now get back on my feet. And so, um, you know, I remember being, it was at my mother's house. I'd never really stayed there for a year. My, um, uh, the folk that was involved in, we were always like, somewhere else, like in hotels or motels or friends' homes. And, but I found myself back at her house. Cause again, you know, you hit rock bottom money becomes tight. And so, you know, I'm like on the floor in her room, I mean, in my room, in the dark, like on the floor, literally searching for like any remnant of like drugs. And so it was in that moment that for me, something just triggered and was like, I mean, literally like a question in my mind, like “how did I get down here?” And not like physically down here, but like, I don't even understand how I got down here. And so I got up that night and I went downstairs and I started listening to a record. It was Never Let You Down, Frankie, Beverly and Maze, which is still one of my favorite groups.  So I'm listening to their new album and back then albums had in the insert, you know, a bunch of things on the back. And then the insert would also have different messages. And so they had a poem and the poem was called Gaining Through Losing. So I read this poem and it was just like so intriguing because I'm thinking, you know, I spent my last year gaining through taking never like gaining through losing it's, like that doesn't even make any sense, like how do you gain by giving? Right. Um, and so I finished reading it and I was like, “man, I really wish I had something else to read”. I hadn't read much in like over a year. And I started looking around and there was an old Bible, um, down, you know, down in my mom's, like in one of the little TV stands or something in the living room. And so I found it, opened it up and just started reading. And, uh, it fell open to the Isaiah text that talks about the spirit of the Lord is upon me and has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And so, um, I read like all night went to sleep for a little bit and woke up. It felt like I'd slept for days. I mean, I hadn't had that, that kind of sleep in like a long time. And so that's what drove me to sit down to my grandmother. And I went down and started talking to her. We had this all day conversation. So that was the turning point. And for about a week or two, I was good. And then I fell back into it, but I wasn't the same anymore. And I'll never forget. I was, uh, one of the persons that was doing business with, you know, we got into an altercation with a guy who owed us money and there was gunplay. And so, you know, the person I was with pulled a gun on the guy and I, I jumped between them and I'm like trying to stop him. And so after the guy runs off, he looks at me and he says, “you're going to get us killed. You need to make up your mind to get your head right now.” He meant make up your mind and get back in this. And I was like, “you know, you're right”. And that's kind of when I started to recognize that I can't exist in both these places. And from there on, I started that real hard grind of like, you know, stopping to use drugs was the hardest part. And then, um, turning my back, paying off all my debts and, um, then enduring the ridicule of my quote unquote “friends” cause I had no car and I'd walked on. I was walking and taking the bus, you know, I was like their favorite punchline now, you know? So it was like, “oh, here come Bible boy,” you know, “Hey Mark, read us a story. Tell us about Noah”. And man, they just like crack up and fall on the ground laughing. So yeah, so it was funny to them, but I was like, you know, I'm good. And consequently, within that year, you know, some of them were killed and other dramatic things started to happen. And then everybody started looking at my decision differently and you know, started coming back and wanting to talk to me about, you know, how I did it. Um, and so, so that, so that is also been like one of the foundational moments in the friendships that I've continued to maintain. I mean, I've always we've, that was like my first fraternity. I grew up on a block with about 12 boys and we were together from the time we were little until, you know, we became young men. And so, and so we often always laugh about, you know, kind of the ways in which they treated me at that moment, but then even how they changed as well. And ultimately in their own ways, found their way out. And they weren't, they weren't always the same ways, but they too ultimately found their way out. 

Host: That’s awesome. That's so annoying that they had to like “Bible boy!” make fun of you. So, um, so was there any anxiety, reticence awareness when you decided to make that step into leadership into ministry of like, how am I going to stay one of the good guys, how am I going to not let the power of being a leader, overwhelm me with ego? Was that a conversation that you had to have with yourself? 

Rev. Mark Tyler:  Oh, heck yeah. So, um, you know, people are people and there are a lot, there are a lot of people that I've met who have gone into ministry for the right reasons. And then I've met some who sometimes you have to question, you know what I mean? It's like, is it just because it's the family thing? Is it just a job? Is it just a secure paycheck, is it because you think this is easy to do 

Host: Is it because you’re a raging narcissist and like to hear yourself talk?

 Rev. Mark Tyler: Yeah. I mean, is it, is it that, you know, that it's all about you and this is a place where you can get a lot of attention and, you know, I think that it's certainly some of that for everyone. Um, but I never felt, so Bishop Hildebrand who was kind of like my mentor, he was one of our professors, uh, and really helped guide me to Mother Bethel. Um, because that was a political process as well. I didn't know until after I became pastor all the stuff he did behind the scenes, but, you know, he would often say in our classes, he had just retired as an active Bishop when he taught us. So we were really fortunate to have a person with that kind of wisdom. And so he would often say some of the best people that I've ever met were in the church. And some of the worst people I've ever met were in the church. And, and I, and I appreciated the balance. And so I've never really gotten into the- the church is filled with all these bad people or all these good people. It's just filled with people and you look, none of us are above becoming the bad people at any moment or of the good people. So we all have a daily choice to make, to, you know, to, to do the very best that we can. 

WESLEY WORK JR., "Go Tell It On The Mountain," string quartet  w. vocalist Patrice Hawthorne 

That was an excerpt of “Go Tell It On The Mountain” performed by a string quartet of The Philadelphia Orchestra with vocalist Patrice Hawthorne (from the October 12, Our City, Your Orchestra concert at Historic Belmont Mansion and Underground Railroad Museum). You can hear the whole piece at our website, Philorch.org as part of the concert honoring Martin Luther King Jr., featuring Rev. Tyler. Speaking of, let’s get back to him now.

Host: So Obama was recently criticized for his critique of the phrase “Defund the police”. And that to me gets at a lot of sort of respectability arguments of like, if someone's asking for their humanity, do they have to make sure that the tone is exactly what you are comfortable hearing? And I'm wondering, as someone who is used to speaking publicly to lots of people and swaying them, what is your take on that? 

Rev. Mark Tyler: You know, that I have to spend more time debunking what the term means than anything else. And once I do that and walk people through, “so defunding means, right, do we really need military tanks in Philadelphia? No.” Right. So should we have spent, like, I don't know, whatever they cost five, 10 million bucks on tanks. And at the same time, we don't have like officers who can treat mental health, ill, you know, mental health. And in Philadelphia we have a high population of people with mental health, Walter Wallace, tragic killing illustrates that. Um, and so you start walking through the different ways that policing can happen because it's really a conversation about public safety. So we want the public to feel safe, every part of the public. And so when you kind of walk people through that and we re so we start with, there is a finite pie of money and nobody is ever afraid of talking about defunding public schools. Conservatives love talking about defunding that their favorite thing to defund is Planned Parenthood. It that's the first time I heard defund was them talking about defunding Planned Parenthood and women's right to choose and women's access to healthcare, you know, and they do it and they say, “well, the funding won't make public education worse. It'll make it better”. Right. Then that's what we want to do, want to defund police to make it better! And so I think what Obama was saying, and I understand it because I have to fight it all the time. That just as a word, it is a difficult word to, for people to understand when you put it with policing, 

Host: I feel like Defund goes into even the Black Lives Matter slogan, that it's like, if you're getting to the point where you're in a semantic argument, you're so far beyond missing the point that we're not even having the same conversation. So it's like, yes, it could have been like a sexier, more palatable title, but I feel like there's just such a commitment to misunderstanding it that it almost doesn't matter what you call it?

Rev. Mark Tyler: Well, let me just say this. So, I mean, seriously, because, so, and, and I know, so like in the movement space, that that's the way that we talk about it. Right? And the truth be told when you think about who is most impacted by gun violence in a place like Philadelphia, talking about Black families. When I speak to like older Black residents in West Philly and in North Philly, they are alarmed at the idea of Defund. They hear you saying, "we're going to get rid of the cops all together”, which is what some people in the defund world, cause in the defund space, there are two extremes and I'm not on the side that says abolish all the police in five years because I'm concerned about people in the community. And if you take the cops out in five years, then who is bad as they are, do we then turn to vigilantes? Do we all carry our own guns? Do we resolve our differences? So I don't see that as a workable option, although I share the sentiment. So to Obama's point, I think that if we were to do this over again, we would have probably be branded it's something that was catchier. I mean, I give Republicans credit for this. They know how to brand stuff. And I mean, look, they got a Black conservative in California to get rid of affirmative action. He called it a civil rights initiative and everybody jumped on it, even Black folk until they read it and like, “whoa, what is this?” From a branding standpoint, it was genius. And it worked. And so, so I think there's the salesmanship of it versus what it actually is, which is why I said that it really needs to be a conversation about public safety. Because I mean, you don't need the very people that you're trying to work for working against you because the term itself has turned them off. And I kind of believe that that was the kind of the art, the point that he was making. I don't think he's against the, you know, what I believe in which is that we spend way too much money into the militarization of policing thinking that that makes us safer. You know, I continually ask the question. So we have never said no to the police on any raise or any budget until this year when we fought to stop them from getting this extra money in COVID-19 when every other budget was slashed, by the way. And they just wanted more money. I don't know what they were going to, what kind of toys they were going to buy. So they have $770 million, almost a billion dollars a year. Homicides have risen at a record pace. Their clearance rate of homicides is abysmal from a business standpoint, I say to my conservative Republican friends, “you're the ones who are always saying, you know, ROI return on investment. Is that a good return on investment $770 million?” And you clear what maybe 20 or 30% of the homicides that means they're like killers running around the street. So obviously policing as we do it today does not work. So let's take a realistic look. It is not communist. It's not radical. It's not leftist. It's common sense. Policing does not work in addition to all the racial issues as well. So, uh, defund has a long way to go. Uh, we do see that people are getting beyond the title and beginning to understand what it actually means and are less afraid of it, you know? Um, and, and I will acknowledge again, that there are people within the movement when they say defund, they do mean a $0 budget in five years. And they do mean like no police and no jails ever again, to which I say that's as a Christian, that is obviously my ultimate goal because I preach about a day where heaven happens on earth, where the lion and lamb will lie down together. You certainly don't need police and jails with that kind of vision. Can we do that in five years? It’s probably not doable. At least in my mind, you know, I ask questions like, “so what do you do with, I mean, I don't know, like pedophiles and rapists and murderers, do we just literally open the jails and just tell them to just go and behave now?” So, so there's some real intense conversations that are happening in the space. I enjoy having the debate. I love the activists, you know, who, um, who, who, who, who are locked in that way. And as I say to them all the time, “I'm not disagreeing with you”. Again, our timelines are different and how we get there is different. But I think if at the end of the day, we keep the goal in mind, then we don't have to hate each other because we don't agree with how they get there.

To hear him tell it, activism and religion seem like perfectly natural partners. After all, they both deal in hope, and depend on community. You can find more from Reverend Tyler talking about the role of faith in current movements for equity and justice, and how he’s carrying on Dr. King’s legacy, as part of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Tribute Concert- check out philorch.org for more. Like the gorgeous rendition of We Shall Overcome you’re about to hear in the outro…Which is my cue to hop out of the way, so, until next time, thank you so much for joining us and remember to like, subscribe, rate, review, comment, share, and tune back in next month, for another episode of HearTOGETHER. 

TINDLEY, "We Shall Overcome," brass quintet