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.
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
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/
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.
Listen to an Audio Recording here:
Vocational discernment is one of the great calls of the Christian church, stewarding the varied talents, ideas, questions, and resources of the faithful into meaningful extensions of the gospel. In many ways, this is the critical work of The Christian Association campus ministry at the University of Pennsylvania. A validated ministry within the Presbytery of Philadelphia, The CA serves alongside college students and those of the millennial generation and younger who are at a critical juncture in their lives yet frequently absent from our mainline congregations. “It’s a time when they are exposed to new ideas, asking huge questions, and away from their home congregation and the church they grew up in,” said Rev. Megan LeCluyse, campus minister, “I think we really need campus ministry to be there to help them navigate what all this means.”
One of the ways The Christian Association has been present alongside college students in their vocational discernment and search for meaning has been through their Dana How Scholars and Mentoring Program. A partnership with UPenn’s chapter of Upward Bound, twenty-plus college students work with over thirty local high school students from at-risk Philadelphia neighborhoods as they pursue college admissions and futures alternative to those that may lead to incarceration. Many of the mentors have come from similar communities and are eager to give back to young people as they extend solidarity and affirm their own potential for good. A real praxis in extending the love and grace of Christ, the relationships developed in the mentoring program taps into the empathy, compassion, and social-conscience of college students zealous to love and serve alongside their more vulnerable neighbors. Many of these students, along with others connected with The Christian Association, have gone on to related graduate degrees, work in the not-for-profit world, enrolled in seminary programs, and become active in local congregations post-graduation.
In a year where our Presbytery highlights the need to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, The Christian Association’s mentoring program also serves as one way our ministries are subverting the system and empowering the next generation. “Having these relationships with people who can model for you what this can look like, who also look like you, is a powerful witness,” added Rev. LeCluyse. “It is always powerful to be able to see somebody who looks like you doing something, being that relationally, or gender, or sexuality, breaking through barriers to have someone showing you what it could look like.”
The 126-year-old legacy of The Christian Association is one that hinges on faith formation, inclusivity, hospitality, and advocacy. In addition to the Dana How Scholars and Mentoring Program, which features a retreat to their camp founded over forty-years ago on the premise of racial integration, The Christian Association hosts Queer Christian Fellowship. As individuals who identify as LGBTQI+ wrestle with their sexuality and faith, The Christian Association provides a safe and hospitable environment for those who may otherwise feel isolated from the church yet have their own vocational and faith formation questions. The CA also coordinates weekly dinners open to all UPenn students, which is attended by a diverse representation of theological, racial, economic, and other backgrounds. In these sacred spaces, college students are nurtured for both their present and future work and witness in the world and assured they have value in church and society.
“Many, myself included, talk about the CA being like a family,” remarked Scott, a student at UPenn. “It’s a community of love and respect. The CA further follows it’s value of love through this community, offering an open ear and an open heart to those that need help and support.”
The witness of The Christian Association invites us to consider how our churches and related ministries can walk alongside younger generations in their faith formation, vocational discernment, and search for meaningful contributions to the world. Even more, we are challenged to ensure those who venture from our congregations to college campuses near and far find communities of nurture and support at this pivotal moment in their lives. In so doing, we live into our baptismal vows that covenant to love and support young disciples as they gather and scatter from the sacred waters and into whatever areas of vocational service the Spirit calls them.
- Interested in providing a Wednesday night meal for The Christian Association, contact Rev. Megan LeCluyse: [email protected]
- Click here for Recommended Resources for College Students and Churches interested in Campus Ministry
- College Conference at Montreat
Listen to the podcast:
by Rev. Greg Klimovitz, Associate Presbyter
For over twenty years, the education of children has been a local and international mission focus for First Presbyterian Church in Pottstown. “What part could we play in God’s dreams for the world?” Rev. Kerry Lester, Co-Pastor of First Presbyterian, recalls the mission committee asking. “We started locally and adopted the local [Barth] Elementary School and worked with the leadership there.”
Barth Elementary, located within walking distance of First Presbyterian Church, was not only where some of the congregation’s children attended, but also where a few members taught. After intentional conversations with both faculty and administration, the church and school forged a unique partnership. Guided by the mantra, one child for one hour, the saints of Pottstown committed to serving as after-school tutors, volunteers in leadership development programs, and coordinators of community gardens. Each of these areas of service was a direct response to the needs and assets of both school and church. Barbara Longstreth, chair of the mission committee, commented, “We work with not for. We work alongside.”
As their collaboration strengthened, the public school and congregation birthed the Barth Elementary Peacemaker Award. For the past 15 years, over the course of the school year, fifth grade students learn about past and present peacemakers, related attributes, and where peacemaking efforts are needed in their schools and communities. At the end of the year, students nominate a boy and girl peer to be acknowledged as Peacemaker-of-the-Year. The school and church then host a school-wide assembly, open to their families, and announce the peer-selected recipients, each presented a $100 Savings Bond. In a community where the majority of the students qualify for assisted lunches, this award both celebrates the present witness of the child and makes a small investment in their future.
“It’s an incredible use of resources,” noted Rev. Carter Lester, co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church. “They’re looking at what the qualities of peacemaking are and inviting kids and families into the program.”
The intentionality of this congregation’s resourced efforts extends beyond their immediate neighbors and to impoverished communities in India. Since 2001 and through connections with the Medical Benevolence Foundation, Pottstown has embraced Reeta and Hari Rao as medical mission partners in Uttarakhand, India. Co-Directors of the Society for Nurture, Education, and Health Advancement (SNEHA), Reeta and Hari Rao work alongside underprivileged women and children in poor communities of Dehradun. SNEHA, Hindi for “God’s love,” affords those often-denied access the opportunity to attend school, participate in vocational trainings, and receive essential healthcare services. Pottstown’s partnership with SNEHA has allowed the organization to provide school supplies, textbooks, and uniforms to over 1150 students attending their academy, nutrition to malnourished children, rebuild facilities after severe flooding, leverage small businesses through entrepreneurial women, and engage in spiritual formation in an interfaith context.
This past summer, Pottstown also funded a Pennsylvania furlough for Reeta and Hari Rao. The church walked alongside the Co-Directors of SNEHA as they shared their witness and vital ministry stories not only with the faithful of First Presbyterian Church, but also prospective and current mission partners in the area. “The exposure visit to FPC Pottstown was a great eye opener for us, as we could bring back man new ideas to share here with our teachers and school children to implement in SNEHA,” said Reeta Rao. “SNEHA is working among the neediest slum community in the town…It would not be possible to educate so many children without the help and external support from churches and individuals.”
The witness of First Presbyterian Church in Pottstown reaffirms what it means to be co-workers for the gospel. As the faithful of this congregation have remained open to intentional relationships of empowerment and sustainability, God’s Spirit has extended their reach from Barth Elementary School to distressed regions of India. Even more, their commitment to the education and health care of children has proclaimed the good news of God’s love to those whom Jesus said the kingdom belongs.
As the Presbytery of Philadelphia celebrates our 300th Anniversary, we join alongside our churches and varied ministries that elevate the education of children in body, mind, and spirit. We give thanks for the varied ways our churches rally around their own local and international ministry partners who share such a bold conviction.
“Jesus loves them, but the cards are stacked against them,” Rev. Adan Mairena remarked as he described the tension involved with being the church and place of hope in an inner city neighborhood that struggles with high rates of unemployment, crime, and violence. Living in the manse beside the church, Rev. Mairena knows firsthand the importance of being a safe place for children in the West Kensington section of Philadelphia. In a school system that lacks the quality education of their peers in wealthier areas, and the statistics showing these youth are at an increased risk to end up in the prison system, ministry to youth here is crucial. By revealing God’s love and compassion, and showing each child they matter, the Ministry hopes to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline that plagues Philadelphia neighborhoods such as this.
The Presbyterian Church has had a long witness to the hope of Jesus Christ on the corner of N. Hancock Street and W. Susquehanna Avenue. Once a bustling industrial neighborhood, the impressive church built across the street from Norris Square Park could seat over 500 people in its sanctuary. As industry left and the neighborhood became economically depressed, maintaining a traditional congregation in the sanctuary became unfeasible. But the Presbytery of Philadelphia was not ready to give up on this changing community. For the past ten years, Rev. Mairena has worked to make West Kensington Ministry a place of welcome and love. The Ministry walks alongside youth as they navigate the challenges of their neighborhood and life situations. They hold weekly worship Sunday afternoons in their downstairs hall at 3:00 p.m. which incorporates youth at all levels, from participation to worship leadership. This is a space where children are treated as important and vital to the church today, not just its hoped for future. This is a space where children experience the depth of God’s love and compassion that is for them.
West Kensington Ministry has a powerful impact on the youth in the neighborhood by being able to provide stability while maintaining flexibility. Theirs is not a cookie-cutter ministry or program that can be taken out of context. After Rev. Mairena’s arrival, the leadership discerned a need to have a safe space for teens. The homicide rate was high in the neighborhood and the church wanted to respond with something meaningful, and Open Mic Night was born. Every Friday night this event has become a staple in the community, a place of refuge and welcome.
Open Mic Night is a program for teens by teens. Trust is placed in the youth to set up the equipment and make the night a success. The event varies from week to week, depending upon the youth in attendance, the mood of the neighborhood, and the movement of the Spirit. With a seemingly innocent gathering these teens are learning leadership skills, developing confidence being in front of people, and nurturing camaraderie among themselves.
With weekly worship and Open Mic Night as stable features of the Ministry, other programs arise as need and interest comes to the surface. One of Rev. Mairena’s gifts as a leader is the capacity to take advantage of these interests, allowing an activity to meet the needs of the youth while also discerning when that program has run its due course. This flexibility allows the Spirit to meet youth right where they are, in a particular time and place in their lives. A recent event fitting this description is Thursday night youth cooking night. With an average of ten youth and a few adults, the meal is simple yet significant. Around cutting boards and stove tops is often when these kids open up and are willing to talk about what’s really going on in their lives. Rev. Mairena is committed to going deep and not staying superficial, wanting to express the depth of God’s love that reaches even into this forgotten section of Philadelphia. Over a nutritious meal, youth are being fed in both body and spirit.
Singing and cooking may seem like simple activities, but beneath these happenings flows the rich undercurrent of faith and the love of God that is infused in everything West Kensington Ministry does. “The reason we do this is because of the one we follow,” says Rev. Mairena. It may be too easy to see only despair in this struggling neighborhood, but as Christians, we are people of hope. After a decade of service to this community, Rev. Mairena claims, “I see hope in that it gives (the neighborhood youth) a vision and a sense of, this is what church is: it’s acceptance, it’s love, it’s being a part of something bigger than yourself. This gives them a place where they matter, where they are important.” As a presbytery committed to improving the lives of children, West Kensington Ministry is a living, breathing testimony to the work of the Spirit that includes every person no matter what their life circumstance.
West Kensington Ministry is one of the eight local initiatives leveraged in our campaign to raise $300,000 for 300 Years. More information available here.
The Freedom School: Dreaming Big Dreams by Rev. Sarah Colwill
Fifty urban youth from the Germantown section of Philadelphia held up their letters proudly, spelling out a message to our nation: STAND FOR CHILDREN NOT GUNS. In front of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in our nation’s capital, they were certain the helicopters flying overhead held their president, Mr. Barack Obama, and they had confidence their message was being seen. The Freedom School, a ministry of the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown, brought these youth to Washington, D.C. for a field trip to educate and empower. Executive Director Eileen Jones encouraged their excitement that day, as she cherished this highlight of their program.
The Freedom School is a seven-week summer camp housed at the church, where fifty children from the neighborhood engage in reading, swimming, educational trips, and traditional camp activities. Six years ago the church contemplated ways to enrich the lives of urban children in the area. The church has had a decades-long commitment to running a summer day camp. But they yearned for something that would take the camp to the next level. They were concerned about the declining school system and the statistics showing all children experience learning loss over the summer months. The staff decided to pursue transitioning from a typical summer camp to a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School.
The Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School seeks to enrich youths’ lives through fostering a love of reading by offering a curriculum with books that relate to the lives of these children. As part of this program, the camp’s staff were trained to use the special curriculum to have a significant impact on their campers beyond typical day care. After three years of being an official “Freedom School,” the camp has assimilated the program without its official affiliation due to its $10,000 price tag. The past three years they have modified the camp and continued its commitment to reading and encouraging social, emotional, and academic growth.
The camp wants to serve the whole family, and realizes the needs of parents, opening its doors from 7:30 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. for working mothers and fathers. The cost of the camp is just over $60 per week, and they don’t turn children away because of financial constraints. Through avenues such as the Presbytery’s Covenant Fund Grant, they fundraise the majority of their expenses. Ms. Jones, who serves the church as Director for Urban Ministry, and her staff, seek out grants and other creative ways to provide for these youth. The camp receives breakfast, lunch, and snacks from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, where hot meals are prepared and served onsite daily. They also hold parenting workshops, with several in particular focusing on fathers and their importance in a child’s life. One workshop brought in a trauma team from Hahnemann Hospital, where a doctor and several social workers talked about the special needs of children who witness gun violence.
The Freedom School takes weekly field trips to expand the campers’ horizons, going to places such as Lancaster’s Sight and Sound Theater. They search out cross-cultural experiences to foster a positive understanding of diversity and an appreciation for different cultures. One such trip involved a visit to The National Liberty Museum along with a similar camp that is held at an Asian charter school in Center City. After touring the museum, educators came to encourage ways to break barriers that arise from being of different cultures. The camp culminates each year with a larger trip to locations such as Washington, D. C., Baltimore, and New York City.
The energy and enthusiasm for this program is evident in Ms. Jones’ voice as she talks about the church’s commitment to helping create a vibrant Germantown valuing worship, the arts, education, and the like. The church celebrates and values diversity and the camp takes seriously its commitment to instilling these values in the campers. Ms. Jones claims, “I’m honored and humbled,” to have the privilege of following the Holy Spirit’s lead in equipping parents and strengthening these urban youth. “I love the Lord and that’s contagious,” she says when talking about the witness to Jesus Christ this camp enables. The church’s Director of Christian Education, Christian Heyer-Rivera oversees Bible study taking place three times each week.
While the Freedom School seems to have hit its stride, Ms. Jones still dreams bigger dreams. She wants to provide instructional swimming lessons, knowing inner city children are less likely to know how to swim. She is pursuing a fine arts program with a focus on art journaling projects to help youth express their thoughts and feelings through art. As fun and upbeat as the program is for these campers, she also knows the real struggles of these families and pours her heart and soul into touching them in a way that is sincere and shows the deep, deep love of God. A “rich and expansive experience” is her goal, and she and her staff seem to have placed no limits on God’s potential to keep expanding their reach.
“It’s a feeling you get when you walk in the doors,” so claims Christina Platt, one of the Directors of The Philadelphia Project who is charged with running their bustling preschool. Her energy and enthusiasm around the program is palpable as she talks about the warmth both parents and students feel when they enter their doors each morning for drop-off. The preschool is housed in Roxborough Presbyterian Church, with the entryway resting in the connector between the sanctuary and the classrooms. This connection is precisely what the preschool is aspiring to strengthen. Executive Director of The Philadelphia Project (TPP) and Pastor of Roxborough Presbyterian Church, Rev. Ray Garcia claims the vision of the preschool is to bring together both quality academics and spiritual development.
Three years ago the preschool program was birthed after assessing the needs of the local Roxborough community. There was a lack of affordable, high-quality education that was faith-based, and parents were yearning for such a combination. Members of the church along with their pastor often witnessed families leaving the city for a better public school system in the suburbs. They dreamed of finding a way to have a positive influence on the Philadelphia public schools by walking alongside parents as their children approached elementary school.
Christina Platt was a member at Roxborough Presbyterian Church with a Master’s in Education who was teaching at a school in Kensington when she caught the vision for the preschool. Her mother-in-law runs a preschool in Bucks County, so with her help, Christina, Rev. Garcia, and others began to turn their dreams into reality. Christina left her job and took on the role of director, which felt like a perfect fit for her own call to serve youth both academically and spiritually.
Donna Payne is a preschool teacher with 16 years of experience, the last two being full-time at The Philadelphia Project. She is particularly drawn to this preschool because of its Christ-centered mission that maintains a high level of academic integrity. The teachers begin each day with prayer which is “essential to the start of the day,” Donna claims. The way the teachers build one another up has created a loving environment where both workers and students can thrive. The school currently enrolls 56 children ages 2 through 6, most classes being at capacity with a waiting list.
The Philadelphia Project had its genesis at Grace Presbyterian Church, where Rev. Garcia was serving as Associate Pastor. TPP’s aim was, and continues to be, a hands-on response to both the physical and spiritual needs of the community. After Grace birthed TPP it spent three years housed at Mount Airy Presbyterian Church before coming to Roxborough in 2013. They are engaged in a variety of outreach programs such as housing/construction work, a food pantry, and after-school programs. They most recently purchased a property in the heart of Germantown, with hopes of using the space to house summer volunteers who work on construction projects and share God’s love in the neighborhood.
The preschool depends upon grant monies and additional donors to keep the cost of high-quality education affordable for families in their neighborhood. As a presbytery, we are proud supporters of this program which builds up our city’s youth. They are one of the recipients of the presbytery’s Covenant Fund Grant for both 2015 and 2016, receiving $15,000 each year. As a presbytery we stand on the side of hope as we support ministries like The Philadelphia Project preschool that care for and nurture children in our city. Through our contributions, we are helping uplift students and families as they seek to grow in both faith and education.
As the Presbytery of Philadelphia launches into its 300th year of mission and ministry in this area so rich with history both within the church and in our nation, we Presbyterians stand firm in our commitment to serving Jesus Christ in ways that are faithful, realistic, practical, and transformative. This celebratory year will not only be a chance to look back and be proud, but it will give us the opportunity to renew our dedication to making this city and its surrounding area more reflective of God’s hopes and dreams for the world. To this end, we are taking on the bold endeavor of raising $300,000 to put towards existing ministries that are showing Gospel love and hope to those in need. We have identified eight different ministries that will engage in new programs and initiatives with the funds they are given. One of these eight recipients is The Common Place, which sits at 58th and Chester streets in Southwest Philadelphia.
The Common Place runs an after school program titled, “The Common Place Scholars,” which provides “a sacred place for students to do life together.” By caring for and uplifting local youth, this program is one effort to keep kids thriving in school in hopes to disrupt the “school-to-prison pipeline.” This term is used to describe the confluence of institutional and cultural factors which often act as a funnel for our urban and disadvantaged youth into the criminal justice system. By avoiding truancy and keeping students current on homework and engaged in academics, The Common Place Scholars promotes a better path towards a successful future. This program currently enrolls 45 children who come from neighboring schools. Catching up with Program Director and Assistant Executive Director, Ms. Huan Baum, we learn this program not only touches on academics, but deals with the youth’s social, emotional, and spiritual development as well. Ms. Baum, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a Master’s degree in non-profit management, was hired this past summer for her skills both in academics and in organizing such programs. With her expertise, the program hopes to be a template for after school programs throughout the city seeking to strengthen and develop our youth, particularly in poorer neighborhoods.
The program runs during school days and includes homework help, snacks, and prayer time. Throughout the week different specialists enrich the afternoon with music, art, cooking, or faith-based character development. Ms. Baum sees this program’s broad reach incorporating academics, faith, and life skills as being part of her calling to work with urban youth in a non-traditional setting outside the classroom. The Common Place allows her to help the students “in academic as well as social and emotional development without just teaching to the test.” Her vision for The Common Place is to increase enrollment to the point of overflowing.
Our Presbytery has had a rich history at this particular corner, and while names, leadership, and programming may have changed over its 100+ year existence, its commitment to serve its neighbors with the love of Jesus Christ has not. The Common Place continues to house New Spirit Community Church, a now-growing community under the leadership of soon-to-be ordained Christopher Holland. Through a creative partnership with Wayne Presbyterian Church, this corner in Southwest Philadelphia has entered yet another chapter of faithful ministry to this neighborhood. Rev. Aisha Brooks-Lytle serves both as the Minister for Mission at Wayne, as well as the Organizing Pastor of The Common Place. Monthly, The Common Place holds worship for its neighbors, an evening service which is “kid-led, pastor approved.”
A sign of hope for this community for the past century, the building at 58th and Chester has changed names and faces, but continues to be about the work of Jesus Christ, building up our next generation so they can feel God’s love not only through words and emotional connections, but through the tangible support of a practical program that shows these youth they matter. The old stone structure is after all, just a building. It is the movement of the Holy Spirit that makes this space a home for all of God’s children to be known, loved, and set on the right path for their future.