Cultivating Mission through Shared Stories and Conversations:  Discipleship at Carmel Presbyterian Church

by Rev. Greg Klimovitz

How does a local congregation cultivate a shared understanding of mission in an age inundated by polarizing news stories and socio-political realities? For the faithful of Carmel Presbyterian Church in Glenside, they reclaimed discipleship as learning within the context of a gracious community. “[Mission] is about remaining in that student role and allowing myself to be taught what’s next by the Holy Spirit,” said Rev. Ashley Rossi, Associate Pastor at Carmel Presbyterian Church. “I really feel like I am walking alongside the congregation more so than, at this point, necessarily being a leader. I am in this hot mess with them.”

As Carmel has leaned into the messiness of faith seeking understanding, they have facilitated discussions on immigration, invited speakers to address local gun violence, viewed documentaries on climate change and systemic racism, and hosted interfaith and ecumenical partners for dialogue and fellowship. Church members, including youth, have even recently pilgrimaged to other churches and ministries within the Presbytery of Philadelphia to listen to stories of innovation and social engagement relevant to their changing neighborhoods and relationships they have developed. A church whose membership is fairly traditional and all over the political spectrum, each connectional learning experience has helped their people view topics at hand not through the lens of partisanship but Jesus’ optic of neighborly love. “This is a part of mission,” added Rev. Rossi. “The more we can hear other people’s stories the better we can engage our own communities, even if they don’t look and act the same as ours.”

Over the last few years, Carmel’s revitalized discipleship has not only enhanced their learning, but also empowered their ability to live into a collective mission locally and beyond. This was especially evident in the aftermath of *Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island of Puerto Rico in 2017. As leadership began to plan their summer ventures for 2018, various church committees unanimously discerned a call to send a relief team of 12 to Puerto Rico in partnership with an ecumenical faith-based organization.

And they went.

Compelled to extend the love and compassion of Christ alongside people they recognized as distant neighbors, fellow citizens, sisters and brothers of the faith, the entire experience evolved into what Rev. Rossi called an “avenue to alternative perspectives.” As they served alongside local churches, they not only saw first-hand the vast devastation, but also took notice of how the faithful of Puerto Rico rose up in solidarity to carry the burdens of the whole community they considered their God-given responsibility. They were not concerned so much about various lines of division but focused on alleviating the suffering of their neighbors most in need. For members of Carmel Presbyterian Church, this embodiment of the gospel not only deepened their relationships with God and one another, but also renewed their discipleship as they returned home ready to serve in light of what they had just learned on the island. “This [mission trip] made me feel a closeness to God that I have not experienced in a long time,” said Elizabeth Angelo, member of Carmel. “Being surrounded by kind teammates and the wonderful people of Puerto Rico, coupled with our meaningful devotion time, my heart was full, and still is today.”

As Carmel continues to nurture their congregation’s missional identity beyond their summer service, they regularly risk conversations in efforts to reap authentic and embodied discipleship near and far. Whether through formative gatherings and “Free Prayer” at local coffee shops, Ashes on the Go at nearby train stations to begin Lent, or the planned viewing of 13th, a documentary on mass incarceration and the U.S. prison system, the faithful of Carmel listen, learn, and serve as humble disciples. They assure one another they need not to have it all figured out as they follow Christ, who is the One making all things new and right. “Church is not a temple to success. It is not some sort of shrine to how great we are at whatever,” remarked Rev. Rossi. “[Church] is a bunch of broken people trying to come together and make the world a better place and heal ourselves in the process. It doesn’t all have to be a raging success. It really doesn’t.”

Thanks be to God.

*In 2017, the Presbytery of Philadelphia’s Leadership Collegium and Trustees unanimously approved the sending of $25,000 to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance for financial aid in Puerto Rico relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. 

 

Affirming Local Youth as Participants in God’s Mission: Week of Hope and the Anchor Presbyterian Church 

By Rev. Greg Klimovitz

What does a congregation do when enrollment is too low to warrant the implementation of a previously-planned summer VBS?

For the Anchor Presbyterian Church in Wrightsville, they pivoted volunteer energies of committed middle school youth and launched an impromptu, week-long experiment in local mission. “I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to minister to the youth,” remarked Rev. Leah Miller, pastor of the Anchor Presbyterian Church. “Kids have the hope of Christ to share, just like adults do, so why not start that early. Why not give them opportunities to express and share that hope and God’s love from where they are now?”

What was known as the Week of Hope, 11 middle school youth immersed themselves in five days of service, learning, and spiritual formation alongside residents in their immediate neighborhoods and community ministries throughout Greater Philadelphia. Youth sorted toys and clothing donations at Hands in Service, constructed a free little lending library (www.freelittlelibrary.com) outside Anchor’s preschool entrance, and provided lawn and garden care for an elderly church member. Middle school youth also volunteered with the Philadelphia Diaper Bank, which directly benefits low-income neighbors who previously resorted to the reuse of diapers due to the high cost of a new parent’s basic necessity. Each of these ministry efforts was coordinated through connections within their congregation and affirmed mission does not have to involve travel to a distant land. As Rev. Miller affirmed, “We can do so much in our area. Our own neighbors need help.”

Potentially the most beautiful result of the Week of Hope, however, was the way the improvisational program engaged middle school youth for whom this was their first experience with church or youth ministry. A congregation with few youth on their church rolls, Anchor’s experiment tapped into the compassion of their young neighbors and affirmed they were included in the witness of the church and God’s unfolding story of redemption. “The Week of Hope really meant that I was really a part of the church,” commented Emma, a local seventh grader. “I was doing my part.”

This authentic message of agency in God’s mission quickly spread. Youth returned day after day with carloads of friends to join in local service and occasional holy mischief, like painting rocks with biblical words of hope and scattering them throughout their town, Tyler State Park, and along rivers on their end-of-week tubing adventure. In the midst of a world strained by despair and isolation, this playful practice assured that even the rocks would cry out messages of love and belonging to passerbys who stumbled upon these colorful icons.  It also was a reminder that participation in the divine life and care of neighbor can be a joyous venture.  “Week of Hope was a fun way to help others and get closer to God,” added eighth grader Lucian.

As the Anchor church combined play and participation in neighborly love, the congregation uncovered that they indeed had a youth ministry able to draw middle schoolers into a relationship with God. “People might look at our church and say, ‘you don’t have a youth program; you don’t have youth; what are you talking about?’” remarked Rev. Miller. “But if you look beyond the traditional sense of youth groups and ministry within your bounds, you know that you have a ministry that is to whoever is in your community. And they came out of nowhere. Friends. Neighbors. Parents were excited to have their kids involved in something like this.”

As congregations large and small continue to discern ministry possibilities alongside the next generation of change-makers, may the witness of Anchor dare us to look into our communities and remain open to the ideas and passions of our youngest neighbors. Even more, when traditional programs, like a well-planned VBS, no longer prove effective in our local witness, may the church be open and adaptive to how the Spirit can resurrect new ventures to live into the redemptive hope of the gospel. As Rev. Miller said, “Something that at first seemed disappointing- a failure in way- God redeemed it.”  Thanks be to God.

Listen to the story here:

 

Church Safety as Witness of Hospitality and Love of Neighbor: Elkins Park Presbyterian Church

By Rev. Greg Klimovitz

Listen to the Conversation Here 

When church buildings are utilized as public gathering spaces, congregations are afforded tremendous opportunities to engage their local communities. This openness also increases the need for regular conversations about safety and the readiness to respond to potential emergency situations. Over the last year, the faithful of Elkins Park Presbyterian Church have recognized the urgency of these conversations and committed to ensure their space cultivates not only hospitality and welcome in Abington Township, but also an environment of responsibility and sanctuary for congregants and visitors alike.

The intentionality of the Elkins Park Presbyterian Church (EPPC), located a block away from a public school, fire department, and Second Alarmers Rescue Squad, has led to their designation as the emergency evacuation site for local schools, coordination of situational awareness and CPR trainings, full-scale inspections of their building for safety and accessibility, and even the conduction of a fire drill at the end of worship this past Pentecost. Each of these measures was pursued in light of Elkins Park’s theological commitment to love their neighbors as themselves. “If you are going to come here as a new worshiper, you want to feel safe, that you could bring your children. If you are an ailing adult or your spouse is in a wheelchair, you do not want to feel that the space is unwelcoming,” remarked Rev. Cynthia Betz-Bogoly, pastor of EPPC and certified EMT. “It is this combination of safety and welcome- our conversations [as a congregation] are often that way. How is this safe, efficient, appropriate, and shows hospitality?”

As the leadership continued to affirm their desire to be open to their neighbors, EPPC also recognized the variable risks that could jeopardize this intentional balance of safety and welcome. Many of the risks they encountered were related to their physical structure and required greater knowledge about a potential evacuation of the premises in the event of an emergency. This was especially important to the EPPC congregation, as many of their members and visitors have physical disabilities. In efforts to be hospitable to all God’s children, Rev. Betz-Bogoly contacted the local police department for a free inspection of their property and the development of a comprehensive report related to their building’s ease of access, egress, and other safety measures. The findings led to both minor and more involved enhancements to their physical space that enabled their witness both to congregation and the broader community to be more inclusive and responsible.

In addition to the safety of their physical building, EPPC also became increasingly aware of how all congregations are vulnerable to intruders due to being an intersection point for varied relationships among congregants, families, local residents, employees, and other patrons on their premises. As a church that hosts community programs, a daycare, and serves as an election polling place, EPPC was moved to tap into the relationships they have with local school administrators and first responders, some who are church members, to empower, equip, and educate leaders to recognize and respond to potential threats. While there is a temptation for congregations to be on the offensive related to these security measures, Rev. Betz Bogoly noted how local law enforcement urged the congregation instead to develop discernment tools to be situationally aware. “Houses of worship should not be equipped to go to battle,” Rev. Betz-Bogoly remarked. “They are to be aware [and] to be hospitable.”

This approach of responsible awareness has led to thoughtful trainings of ushers, greeters, program leaders, and members of session in efforts to increase their collective ability to recognize and respond to potential dangers in both low and highly trafficked occasions. “I have always thought of our church facilities as a place for worship and fellowship,” added Phyllis Sharman, ruling elder and property chairperson at EPPC. “Now I also think about how I can keep people safe when they are here.” These situational awareness trainings have also helped to reduce potential responses to visitors and circumstances out of angst, ignorance, prejudice, and implicit bias, further testaments to EPPC’s commitment to safety and hospitality. “If I am supposed to care for the people of God, then part of that caring is ensuring that the place that I am inviting them to worship, fellowship, and study is safe and not of danger to them,” added Rev. Betz-Bogoly. “It is a place that is not only physically safe, but also that feels socially and culturally safe and is a place where they would want others to come.”

As our congregations continue to open their places of worship and recreational facilities to the public, the witness of Elkins Park Presbyterian Church reminds us of the call to safety as an extension of hospitality. Our willingness to prepare for potential emergencies in our highly trafficked premises and assure our most sacred spaces are accessible to all proclaims the good news that in the church everyone is welcome and their lives valued. In this way, the church is able to offer a more holistic invitation not only to members of the congregation, but also and especially local neighbors in search of safe space to worship, play, and participate in the life of the faith community.

Practical Steps for Churches to Improve Safety and Awareness as Suggested by EPPC: 

  1. Annual planned fire drills as part of worship
  2. Annual walks through the building and property by session and relevant church leadership to explore safety measures
  3. Contact local police department and inquire about free building inspections for safety and security
  4. Develop a list of church members who are trained in varied emergency responses who could be contacted in the event of an emergency. Make public to leadership.
  5. Develop intentional relationships with local schools, emergency responders, and public officials to make church available in the event of an emergency within the community.
  6. Host situational awareness trainings, CPR trainings, and other pertinent educational opportunities to equip and empower congregational and community leaders.
  7. Frame safety and security as an extension of our commitment to the gospel and care and concern for our neighbors, especially those most vulnerable in the event of an emergency.

Other Resources:
https://presbyphl.org/leadership/commissions/finance/cfm-workshops-resources/
https://www.presbyterianmission.org/legal-resources/emergency-plans/
https://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/documents/33007

Listen to the story here:

 

Clean Water and the Ministry of Reconciliation: Local Congregations Partner with Living Waters for the World


Rev. Greg Klimovitz || May 4, 2018

An estimated 2.1 billion people worldwide lack access to clean water [1]. Whether in remote international communities or urban and rural U.S. neighborhoods, the inability to attain this basic human need is one of the greatest tragedies of our day. Aware of this broken reality, the faithful of Lower Providence and First Presbyterian Church in Ambler have each partnered with Living Waters for the World, a ministry of the PCUSA’s Synod of Living Waters, to provide filtration systems alongside congregations in developing nations.

Since 2008, Lower Providence Presbyterian Church (LPPC) has collaborated with Living Waters to install nine total systems in Kenya, India, and Cuba. This ministry partnership began when Kary and Nanette LaFors, members of the LPPC Serving Committee, prayerfully walked alongside the leadership of their congregation and discerned a call to live into biblical story of God’s reconciliation of both people and land. “It’s a relational ministry, which drew me to it, because it talks about reconciliation,” remarked Nanette LaFors. “God made the world good and he wants us to have a good life. That is a part of it- we want to restore [human life and creation] to being good.” After attending Clean Water U, an exploratory training program offered by Living Waters and initially funded through grants of the Presbyterian Women, they identified partners in international congregations and linked ecumenical arms with churches from Washington to Conshohocken to work towards God’s mission of reconciliation.

As Lower Providence has equipped their leaders and empowered international hosts to maintain and freely distribute this newly-purified water, the health of individuals and local relationships have been transformed. Even more, violence and crime, some that targeted the church, has been reduced. Kary LaFors recalled stories shared when they returned to their partner congregation in Holguin, Cuba following a 2017 hurricane, “After the clean water systems were installed, nobody was throwing rocks at the church, people from the community- not members of the congregation- come and help and clean up around the church, and the crime rates dropped.” This is a testament to the kind of reconciliation that can occur when God’s people intercede on behalf of those who lack access to a vital necessity for human life and flourishing.

In addition to Lower Providence, the First Presbyterian Church of Ambler has also leveraged a new Living Waters partnership in Haiti. After a 2016 Lenten book study, The Hole in Our Gospel, the Ambler Church earmarked for this initiative the balance of their capital campaign and was awarded a Covenant Fund through the Presbytery. Since then, they have sent and provided supplemental funding for 25 members to install and manage their first filtration system alongside Haitian neighbors. A representation of the church will return for a second install in May of this year. “You look at all the social and cultural issues in Haiti and they are hard to address,” remarked Rev. Ryan Balsan, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Ambler. “But when you go there, work with Haitian people, and you address the needs in a particular community, you find that you are part of the answer. I believe it is part of God’s answer to the brokenness of the world.”

While tempting for congregations to reduce mission to international, short-term experiences, the Living Waters partnerships of these two congregations has also had a reverse impact. Their intentional collaborations have empowered church members to engage their immediate contexts with intentional embodiments of the gospel. Whether through collaborations with interfaith networks to combat local poverty or the purchase and rehabilitation of homes that benefit families in economic transitions, these congregations are tirelessly working to address the needs of their near and distant neighbors. This is what Rev. Balsan refers to as a positive missional feedback loop, “[By] responding to God’s call to respond to the needs of people throughout the world, our eyes have been opened not only to the needs there, but also the needs here.” The same holds true for the saints of Lower Providence. “Mission has been an incredible unifying force in who we are as people of faith. That has been critical,” said Rev. Ted Mingle, pastor of Lower Providence Presbyterian Church. “We come together through mission through Jesus Christ in reaching our local community and our global community.”

As churches from around our Presbytery continue to discern God’s call to participate in the reconciliation of the world, we give thanks for the local and international witness of First Presbyterian Church of Ambler and Lower Providence Presbyterian Church. Their collective efforts to provide vulnerable communities access to clean water are glimpses into what is possible when we live into our discipleship as followers of Jesus, who is the Living Water of both body and spirit.

[1] http://www.who.int/en/news-room/detail/12-07-2017-2-1-billion-people-lack-safe-drinking-water-at-home-more-than-twice-as-many-lack-safe-sanitation

You can listen to the interviews here:

Part 1:

Part 2:

 

 

Partnering with the Seminary and Local Church for Revitalized Gospel Witness: Ministry and Leadership Incubator 2018

A First Place of Welcome: Transitional Housing Ministry for Refugees at Ardmore Presbyterian Church

Rev. Greg Klimovitz | January 27, 2018

What is the church called to do in a time when there are an estimated 61 million refugees around the world?  How are we to respond when distant neighbors made in God’s image flee homelands ravished by war, engulfed by pervasive poverty, and overwhelmed by oppressive regimes?

Since February of 2017, the faithful of Ardmore Presbyterian Church have facilitated a transitional house and hospitality initiative known as First Place. A recent Covenant Fund grant recipient of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, First Place is one of two approved Philadelphia residences that provides a fully-furnished apartment and community of support for the first thirty days of a refugee’s resettlement. Over the course of the last year, federal government agencies have referred to First Place 28 refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Guatemala, and Honduras. “We are kind of the initial caregiving people, the people who show the initial welcoming to the folks who come in,” remarked Rev. Sturgis Poorman, Parish Associate at Ardmore and Coordinator of First Place. “We try to show Christ’s love to the folks that come in, whoever they are.”

Ardmore Presbyterian Church has over a century’s worth of history of extending welcome to refugees, whether to new arrivals from Italy in the early 1900’s or refugees from Hungary in the aftermath of World War II.  Initially funded by a bequest from the June Reid Estate, First Place builds upon their tenured witness of hospitality with a commitment to love those who flee contexts of oppression and seek refuge in the Ardmore community. The ministry also exists as a unifying mission for a congregation with a broad range of socio-political convictions. “There is no dissension, as far as I can tell, around the whole First Place,” noted Mary Ann Blair, member of the First Place Task Force. “It’s a uniting theme in the congregation and among the ruling elders of the church.”

This spirit of unity around a topic that often evokes polarized disagreements is largely due to the relational nature of the ministry that moves the refugee crisis from controversial and abstract issue to real people with names, faces, and stories. Ardmore has even hosted families with young children, with whom they can relate in a unique way. “I think [the launch of First Place] speaks to the realization of ‘who is my neighbor?’” remarked Rev. James Hodsden, Pastor of the Ardmore Presbyterian Church. “I think the congregation has been willing to jump behind it and be supportive because your neighbor is someone who is right there…People are willing to show hospitality to someone who is right in front of them.”

As the congregation has welcomed these distant neighbors now right in front of them, they have begun to share resources and foster community alongside diverse friends at the beginnings of a fresh start in a new country. “What is sort of exciting about First Place,” said Rev. Hodsden, “is that each family and each person that comes through is dealing with a different set of circumstances. We might discover that there is this person in the congregation would be a great resource for this particular [guest at First Place]. And the next person that comes in, this person over here in the congregation has wonderful resources that could help.”

Aware that each refugee receives a one-time government benefit of only $925, youth and adult members of the church have generously provided for various needs ranging from bikes to breakfast, networks for prospective employment to an all-utilities paid apartment. First Place has also partnered with a consortium of churches in Wayne to connect one teenager with a local family who has embraced him as their own as he completes his education at Radnor High School. “These folks are not just numbers. They have names,” Rev. Poorman shared as he read through a litany of those who have been guests at First Place.

In the midst of this global refugee crisis, we give thanks for the witness of First Place and the saints of Ardmore Presbyterian Church. Their faithfulness has modeled the teachings of Jesus with generosity and grace to their named neighbors from distant lands. As congregations and worshipping communities scattered throughout our presbytery likewise wrestle with the complexities of the ongoing refugee crisis, may we also dare to embody a common understanding of Jesus’ call to love the strangers among us. May we do so in a manner that transcends the polarization of politics and seeks the unifying mission of welcome to those longing for refuge and a new place to call home. After all, this just may be what it means to be the people of God in such a time as this.

Listen below to an audio interview:

Church as Playful and Prophetic: Ministry at The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill

New Doors Open to New Neighbors: Arch Street Presbyterian Church’s Ministry in the Shadows of a Corporate Giant

by Rev. Greg Klimovitz

What opportunities is the Spirit exposing when the neighborhood around your congregation rapidly changes and shifts the cultural landscape surrounding your sanctuary? This is a question churches must ask to ensure their ministry is both faithful and relevant.

But what is a congregation called to do when this question is raised because the newest neighbor in town is a Fortune 50 corporation who has constructed a skyscraper next door?

This is the unique challenge leadership of Arch Street Presbyterian Church has faced since 2008, when Comcast first opened the doors to their state-of-the-art, high-rise corporate complex a mere sidewalk-width away from their 162 year-old church. While many may have been tempted to collapse in the shadows of this entrepreneurial giant, possibly digging in their heels to prepare for battle, leadership of Arch Street instead adapted their witness and rediscovered holy opportunities for renewed community formation on their block of Center City.

“What are you prepared to do and how are you prepared to behave and how are you prepared to pivot in a way that takes into account these potential threats and not get defensive and not be paralyzed by fear,” Rev. Bill Golderer, pastor of the Arch Street Presbyterian Church, has asked with regularity. “[We must] recognize that what is being asked of you is to figure out what faithfulness means inside what could be understood as a threat.”

One way Arch Street figured out faithfulness has been through literally pivoting their witness and flipping their historical main entrance along 18th and Arch Streets to the newly formed terrace in the back that connects skyscraper and sanctuary. As Arch Street has become more of a loading and unloading zone, with minimal foot traffic and less visibility for the church, the congregation carved out new openings with three doors in the wall of their St. David’s Chapel. While the quaint chapel at the building’s south side remains an open worship space, it now has expanded functionality for varied formative gatherings and fellowship opportunities accessible to those who may never have previously set foot into the church. This project, officially dedicated on Monday, increases the probability that employees who come in and out of the Comcast Center, locals who rest in the plaza’s green space, and others who pass by in their pedestrianizing can find their way into what God is doing in this faith community. “We’re trying to figure out again how we can be a blessing on this corner in the future,” commented Rev. Mike Pulsifer (HR), who previously served as moderator of an Administrative Commission to Arch Street and now calls this congregation his home.

The new entrances attest to Arch Street’s refusal to fear the giant and instead to bless with welcome and unhinged hospitality those the giant draws to their shared corner. This redemptive posture has been assumed as they have recognized that along with their new corporate neighbor comes an influx of fresh cultivators of God’s dreams for a world made right and whole again. As Rev Golderer added, “There are believers all in these buildings. They’re everywhere…This church’s space is [now] a convening space to surface the agents of the invisible church who are kingdom workers, on their terms not ours. We are not here to turn them into pledging units but to help organize, coalesce, and unleash their capacity in the world.”

Arch Street Presbyterian Church, much like other congregations throughout the Presbytery of Philadelphia, has regularly wrestled with questions related to inherited real estate, property management, budget constraints, membership fluctuation, and an evolving community context. Along the way, the faithful have returned again and again to their central call to be the Church of Jesus Christ right where they are with whatever assets they possess- including the ability to install new doors. Their leadership has released grips on tired models of ministry and covenanted to the exploration of new metrics of fidelity, ecumenical partnerships for resurrection possibilities, and a willingness to take costly risks for the sake of the Gospel. In so doing, Arch Street has not only become agile enough to flip their building one-hundred-and-eighty degrees, but also opened a preschool for children of families across socio-economic divides, hosted world-renown choral benefit concerts, facilitated public discussions with local officials on issues facing their city, engaged in interfaith bridge building, and even forged a relationship with this global corporation whose employees just may become cultivated companions in genuine expressions of neighborly love. All of this is the work of a church that, nearly a decade ago, dwindled to only a handful of members uncertain about their future.

As our congregations continue to ask questions about relevance within evolving community contexts, may the witness of Arch Street Presbyterian Church serve as invitation to carve new openings for faithful witness. Where there are supposed threats to the work of the Spirit and the movement of God’s people, may the faithful choose not to collapse in the shadows of giants and instead construct new entrances for ministry partnerships. When what once were gateways to sacred spaces are no longer trafficked by our neighbors, may the church be willing to pivot and reconfigure in such a way that extends hospitality and welcome to new residents gathering around us. When tempted to be paralyzed in fear about the future or to dig our heels into protecting and preserving what always has been, may we hear the call of Christ to be willing to loose our grips and expend everything for the hope of the gospel. After all, the call of the church is to point to the person and work of Jesus Christ whose kingdom doors are always open to whomever seeks entry.

New doors at the grand opening.

Comcast Center is to the far right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audio Excerpts from Interview with Rev. Bill Golderer and Rev. Mike Pulsifer (HR). 

Read more about Arch Street Presbyterian Church’s recent project in an article by The Inquirer last November: http://www.philly.com/philly/business/20161127_Venerable_Arch_St__church_embraces_the_busy_environs_its_corporate_neighbor_creates.html

Bearing One Another’s Burdens in Bucks County: Ministry Alongside Families Battling Addiction

Rev. Greg Klimovitz

In 2012, The Presbyterian Church of Deep Run lost one of their youngest members, Anna Straw, to a heroine overdose. She was 19 years old. The tragic death of one of their own was a wake-up call to the congregation to view addiction no longer as an abstract issue, but as a very real disease being battled by members of their communities, families, and churches. Even more, the passing of Anna Straw awakened within the faithful a holy empathy and desire to bear the burdens (Galatians 6:2) alongside families in their congregation and surrounding neighborhood whose loved ones battled addiction.

“After Anna’s death, we could no longer say this is a problem ‘out there,’” remarked Rev. Kris Schondelmeyer, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Deep Run. “This very much is a problem right here in the midst of our own community, indeed right here in the midst of our own faith community.”

In the middle of their grief, the saints of this Bucks County church rallied alongside Anna Straw’s parents and inaugurated the Anna Straw Initiative. A separate 501c(3) partnership with The Council of Southeast Pennsylvania (CSP), this initiative offers a PRO-ACT Family Education Program and monthly support group to those whose loved ones battle addiction, strive towards recovery, and grieve in the wake of tragic death. The Anna Straw Initiative ultimately provides safe space and community on a monthly basis for those who frequently experience shame and isolation. “Jesus intentionally reached out to those who were sick, those who were struggling, those who were vulnerable,” added Rev. Schondelmeyer. “We are providing safe and sacred space for vulnerable people who are struggling with a loved one’s addiction while we offer the compassionate hands of Christ [and] teach them about this terrible, chronic disease.”

The Presbyterian Church of Deep Run is not alone in their efforts to extend the compassion of Christ alongside families strained by addiction and loss. Thompson Memorial and Doylestown Presbyterian Churches also have developed programs in partnership with CSP in light of their own experiences with the loss of church members to the devastating realities of addiction. In 2016, after an elder from each congregation witnessed children die from alcoholism, the two congregations began to collaborate and host support networks for families, alternating as hosts each month. Similar to the outreach of Deep Run, trained leaders of Thompson Memorial and Doylestown facilitate small groups and form intentional community alongside those who often feel alone and afraid. “This illness often brings with it shame to the family,” commented Rev. Keith Roberts, Associate Pastor of Doylestown Presbyterian Church. “We want to offer a place where honest reflection takes place yet where no judgment is made of others…Our churches hope to continue opening doors of understanding as we seek to share the hope of the Gospel with those who battle the disease of addiction and their families who love them.”

The reality of drug addiction, whether to opioids or alcohol, heroine or numerous others, has made headlines in local and national news in recent days. The stories of those battling this nation-wide epidemic have also underscored addiction’s ability to transcend race, class, and geographical location. As Rev. Schondelmeyer added, “Addiction is in your church. It is in the lives of the families you serve.” The same is true for the shame associated with and deeply felt by those battling the disease and their families. This despair leaves many to wonder, is anyone willing to help shoulder the weight we have carried alone for too long? Is there even a place for us in this house of worship?

The witness of these three Bucks County churches affirms that in Christ’s church all belong and in the communion of saints all can find healing, hope, and companions to aid in burden bearing. As congregations throughout the Presbytery of Philadelphia become increasingly aware of the broad impact of addiction on our church members and local neighbors, the ministry of Deep Run, Doylestown, and Thompson Memorial Presbyterian Church serves as an invitation to imagine new ways to extend solidarity, love, and welcome. We give thanks for their ministry and continue to pray for all who wrestle with addiction and related loss, assured the day is coming when sorrow and death will be no more.

*On November 8, 2017, the Anniversary of Anna Straw’s death, the Presbyterian Church of Deep Run, in partnership with the Bucks County Drug and Alcohol Commission, will host a community forum on addiction and recovery. All are invited. More details: http://pcdeeprun.org/anna-straw-initiative/

Moving from Other to Neighbor: Wallingford & Swarthmore Urban-Suburban Partnership with FUSE

Rev. Greg Klimovitz | September 21, 2017

And who is my neighbor?

This was the preface to one of Jesus’ most prophetic parables that cut through first-century religious, cultural, and ethnic divisions that continue to challenge us today.

This question also frames Swarthmore and Wallingford Presbyterian Church’s partnership with the Fellowship of Urban and Suburban Engagement (FUSE). An interfaith and ecumenical network in Delaware County and the City of Chester, FUSE bridges the gap between urban and suburban communities through the nurturing of cross-cultural relationships. In a time of increased polarizations and awareness of personal and systemic biases and privileges, members of Swarthmore and Wallingford have linked arms with FUSE to affirm their commitment to the beloved community that transcends race, religion, class, and social location. Along the way, they have nurtured relationships that transform strangers into valued neighbors.

Recently, the two congregations partnered with FUSE to fund One-to-One Coffee Conversations.  A 2016 Dream Tank for Ministry Innovation grant recipient of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, this initiative provides gift cards to pairs of FUSE participants from different backgrounds for raw and honest conversations at a local coffee shop or mutually agreed upon restaurant. The distributed gift cards eliminate potential financial barriers, prohibit one person from becoming beholden to the other, and foster a level of equality vital for truthful storytelling that dismantles prejudice and elevates love of neighbor. “If we are willing to engage that space together and have the ability to be on equal ground there and begin to talk about all the other things, we begin to develop empathy for one another,” commented Rev. Sarah Cooper-Searight, Associate Pastor of Swarthmore Presbyterian Church. “Our empathy is what leads us to genuinely caring about one another…and when you genuinely care about someone then you genuinely want to do something to work towards change.”

What has been critical for these conversations, of which there have close to twenty person-to-person first-time meet ups since receiving the grant, has been the freedom to be open and risk vulnerability. Clyde Killebrew, member of the FUSE steering committee and Executive Administrator of Making a Change Group, added, “A lot of people are really curious about things they don’t understand. [They] really would ask if they felt they were not going to offend or be ostracized or punished because they said something that didn’t come out quite the way that it should have.” This permission to ask the tough and unrefined questions in safe and gracious spaces is central to the vision of FUSE.  “We talk about trying to expand the fences,” added Bonnie Breit, member of Congregation Ohev Shalom and the FUSE steering committee, “recognizing that there are differences but trying to find ways to get people to learn from each other.”

As Wallingford and Swarthmore congregants have expanded their fences and participated in various FUSE-sponsored events, they have deconstructed assumptions and affirmed the value of those who live just across the urban-suburban divide. “FUSE invites and encourages its members to tear down barriers,” noted Rev. Francois Lacroix of Wallingford Presbyterian Church, “[FUSE encourages us] to get out of our ‘silos’, to actually walk with others, to get to know the other as brother and sister.”

In addition to these formative conversations, FUSE participants have worked together on local community restoration efforts, to include park clean up days and care for local community gardens. These ventures are more than token service projects. Instead, they are affirmations of what is possible when strangers become collaborative neighbors and share resources to improve the communities they both love. Even more, they embody the same neighbor love wrapped within Jesus’ ancient parable. “The gospel is written all over this,” said Rev. Cooper-Searight. “If this is not the work to which I am called I don’t know what is. This is how I worship God and glorify God.”

As our congregations ponder their local call in such a time as this, there is much to glean from the witness of Swarthmore and Wallingford’s commitment to FUSE. They have affirmed that if we are to work to undo the effects of racism and slow the impact of our biases and varied privileges, it begins with a commitment to view the other as neighbor. This will require a willingness to invest in new community partnerships and holistic relationships of grace. Only then can we begin to work towards the kind of change in our neighborhoods that mirror God’s dreams for a world made whole, right, and good again.

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