By Barbara Sherf
Since the protests over the killing of George Floyd began earlier this summer, a white, suburban millennial and his younger sister have been making their own statement by standing on Bethlehem Pike in Flourtown trying to engage motorists in conversation over the Black Lives Matter movement.
Tim Israel of Lafayette Hill, 26, was waving his oversized sign that reads “Black Lives Matter – Here for Discussion” solo one day last week when Springfield resident Beth Warms, wearing her “Vote” mask stopped on the sidewalk in front of the Acme and across the street from Wawa.
“I just wanted to thank him,” Warms said. “We are both on the same side of this issue, so there wasn’t a whole lot to discuss.”
Box Marin of North Philadelphia walked across the street from the Wawa to take a closer look at the sign and thanked Israel as well.
“I came over to tell him that I liked the sign. We are all going through hard times and we have to have a new look and new way of doing things,” said Marin, who is African American and didn’t expect to see the display in sleepy Flourtown. “I didn’t expect to see someone waving a sign and engaging in discussion, especially in this hot weather. It was refreshing.”
For Israel, his Bethlehem Pike vigil is all about engaging people where he lives in conversation. He is currently between jobs and doing volunteer work in his spare time.
“Being in the ‘burbs right now, my sister and I talked about how hard it is to get into the city every day, so we decided to stay in the suburbs and engage people here in conversation. I want people here to understand systemic racism and how it impacts our communities,” said Israel, who was doing a 3:30 to 6 p.m. shift of sign waving and chatting with people who pulled over to the Acme parking lot. Employees from Wawa bring him cold drinks as do others who see the sweat dripping off him.
“The majority of people talk for under 15 minutes, but I’ve had people talk for up to 90 minutes on this and a whole range of other topics,” he said. “I’m here to try to disrupt people’s day and have a relevant conversation and civil discussion in this country about systemic racism.”
The next morning Israel was joined by his sister, Emily, 22, who is enrolled this fall in the clinical doctoral program for psychology at Chestnut Hill College.
“We brainstormed and wanted to make an impact in a neighborhood that wasn’t directly involved in protests and give people the opportunity to confront some of these issues,” said Emily, whose sign read “We stand for love and justice.”
Israel has learned more in the past few months than he ever did in academia.
“I’ve probably talked to hundreds of people and I’ve learned a lot. While I study here, I also learn a lot online in my own home,” said the Abington Friends School graduate. “Most of the conversations are getting easier for me now. People are willing to park and some get very emotional to the point of crying. Others are just curious, and others are angry with what’s going on in this country and I give them the space to just tell me what’s on their mind. I’m hoping this discussion is taken back into the corporate offices and around the dining room table. I hope I’ve given people something to think and talk about when they leave.”
He acknowledged he could be in the cool comfort of his Lafayette Hill home talking to people online, but he chooses to stand on busy Bethlehem Pike to engage people.
“Online, I wouldn’t find this kind of discussion as I do in person,” he said. “I don’t ask people what party they are from. I actually try to keep that out of the conversation.”
Andrea Rogers of Mt. Airy was with her mother and saw the sign while driving to the Giant market and doubled back to thank Israel.
“I really appreciate him and what he is doing,” said Rogers, 16, an African American. “I appreciate you and what you are doing, reporting on this too. It’s such an important topic and I appreciate the solidarity.”
While most people just honk and wave, others turn to offensive gestures.
“This is a fight for justice and for equity and for love. We need more leaders stepping up and sometimes I get the middle finger and those are the people I’d really like to engage with,” Israel said.
A regular visitor is Chestnut Hill resident Dr. Quintin Robertson, who is the Director of Black Church Studies at United Lutheran Seminary in Mt. Airy.
“These are my heroes,” Dr. Robertson said. “They are out here in the hot sun sweating and educating people on an array of topics. I’m so appreciative of them. The first time I blew my horn and drove by, but the next time I stopped in to thank him and to tell him how much he is appreciated.”
Israel said he had two women in their 50s who acknowledged voting for Trump stop because they simply wanted to be educated.
“I spent some time with them and talked for an hour until they understood the Black Lives Matter movement and they even held the sign for a bit and got some honks,” he said.
Erdenheim resident Melissa Gatewood was jogging but rerouted herself to the Acme bringing cold water to the siblings.
“It’s important to continue this discussion and we can all come together,” said Gatewood. “I do appreciate what they are doing.”
There is no set time when he is out with his sign. It depends on his schedule and other volunteer work for the day. But donning sunscreen, he is usually out daily for three hours doing his work.
There is an email to follow up conversations: ReflectAndEngage@gmail.com.
Dr. Robertson had the last word.
“It’s really nice to see him and when I do talk to people what I’m most impressed with is that most of the younger generation really gets it. It’s not just black youth but black and white and Tim represents the future of black and white America and I like what he stands for,” said Dr. Robertson.
Contributor Barbara Sherf can be reached at CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com.