by Rev. Greg Klimovitz
What do God’s dreams for redemption and restorative justice look like along the Avenue of the Arts in Center City, Philadelphia? For Broad Street Ministry (BSM), a worshipping community and faith-based not-for-profit nested in the old Chambers Wylie Memorial Presbyterian Church, these visions hinge on bridging the divide between the rich and the poor and neighbors marked as first and last by social norms. “We have dreams of making this a more just community,” affirmed Mike Dahl, Executive Director since 2016, “How can we build where everyone is well fed in all aspects of their lives? We dream of that future and know it can exist.” When you walk through the large red doors of Broad Street Ministry and encounter the people there, you cannot help but believe the same.
While Broad Street Ministry has existed since 2005, the last few years have marked a new season of leadership. In addition to Mike Dahl’s arrival, the Rev. Laura Colee joined in 2018 as lead pastor of their worshipping community. Dahl and Colee both affirm the vital services they provide and radical hospitality they offer are intentional extensions of their identity as a Matthew 25 worshipping community. “There is something about us doing communion every week,” noted Rev. Colee. “[In our congregation] there are a lot of teachers, social workers, and lawyers. By doing communion every week, we are giving people that nourishment, the strength to get up every morning and keep doing this [justice] work. I love the way the worshipping community is able to fuel this important work, not only in this space, but throughout the city and surrounding area.”
As the bread and cup have fueled Broad Street Ministry, they have continued to experiment with fresh offerings of love and generosity alongside those more familiar with neglect and scarcity. In 2019, they gathered and scattered from the sacred table to extend over 71,000 free, five-star meals to guests who experience food insecurity. Additionally, Broad Street has partnered with the Philadelphia Orchestra to provide free musical jam sessions to their guests, distributed clothing to those in need of new threads for job interviews or to stay warm during the cold months, and offered mail and identification services to over 3,200 individuals in need of either an address or documentation so they can apply for a job, receive benefits, or register to vote. BSM also hosts a city-approved overnight cafe to Philadelphians experiencing homelessness. Located a block away from the “Gayborhood,” a section of the city known for LGBTQIA+ friendly residences, businesses, and entertainment, many who find sanctuary in the cafe identify as queer or transgender and may not be safe in other local shelter systems. All of this, in addition to the numerous partnerships with local businesses and churches that help to make it happen, is an extension of their identity as an open, affirming, and hopeful worshipping community. “[We hold] a fundamentally optimistic view. There is a belief in redemption,” said Mike Dahl. “With all the odds that are stacked against us and all the systems that are broken and everything that seems to be going wrong, there is one thing that you have to rely on to keep that going and that is faith.”
In 2017, this collective faith also spurred the launch of a new initiative and the hiring of a specialist to facilitate vital services for those who were either re-entering society after a period of incarceration or recently charged with a crime and in need of just consul. A grant recipient of our Presbytery’s 300th Anniversary Mission Campaign, this effort has allowed those who call Broad Street Ministry home to find access to all of the services noted above along with connections to legal assistance, leadership development, and vocational training through the endless networks and people associated with BSM. The dollars received enabled this program to move from an initial pilot to a stable and growing service. “We have always been a place where people would come when they get out [of prison] because they needed clothing or they needed a meal or they didn’t have anywhere else as an address,” noted Mike Dahl. “The question was, ‘what contribution were we going to make?’”
Since 2018, Broad Street has reported that their contributions have assisted their guests as they have avoided roughly 335 months of potential prison time, or the equivalent of 28 years of incarceration, through the reduction of recidivism, awareness of personal rights, access to legal consul, and more. In this way they have worked towards restorative justice and the dismantling of the prison pipeline, both key emphases of our Presbytery’s 300th Anniversary year of celebration and public witness. Rev. Colee added, “We have also largely been in conversation with the city itself about how we care for the residents and our neighbors, especially the folks who sometimes people want to sweep under the rug and say, ‘they are not our neighbors.’”
We continually give thanks for the work and witness of Broad Street Ministry. Their outreach alongside their neighbors on the Avenue of the Arts continues to draw us closer to God’s dreams for a more just and whole world. “I don’t think all churches have to look like us,” said Rev. Colee. “I think we are fulfilling a unique kind of space…We are just part of the that larger body and fulfilling a very particular need. I am grateful for that.” We, as a network of churches scattered throughout Greater Philadelphia, are grateful, too.
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By Rev. Greg Klimovitz
How can a congregation embody solidarity and non-anxious presence in the midst of increased cultural polarity and fear? For the faithful of Gladwyne Presbyterian Church (GPC), their answer has resided in a commitment to local interfaith engagement. A congregation whose membership hovers around 100, this Lower Merion church recently enhanced explorations of the diverse religious traditions in their community so to love their neighbor as themselves. “The spirit of understanding other traditions is part of the DNA of GPC,” remarked Rev. Todd Stavrakos, pastor of GPC since 2006, “By our intentional study of different traditions we are beginning to realize God is calling us to work in different ways and to run counter to how society seems to be more and more stratified- what many of us talk about as people living in silos.”
As the saints of Gladwyne have refused to silo their witness, they have strengthened collaborations with the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Philadelphia and developed significant relationships with local religious communities. These connections have led to a series of interfaith engagements where they not only host conversations with the likes of Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams, but also are welcomed into the sacred spaces of their neighbors at Hindu temples or Buddhist and Baha’i centers. Along the way, Rev. Margaret Somerville, associate pastor at Gladwyne, has asked the congregation, “Can we be bold enough to step outside of our space of wanting to welcome and invite and go out and engage and be in the space and share worship and practices with people of other traditions?” The affirmative response has led GPC disciples, including youth in confirmation, to learn alongside and share with their interfaith siblings and see the image of God reflected in those so often misunderstood and characterized. Participants in Advent and Lenten series have even pushed through initial apprehensions and enriched their love for their Christian faith and contemplative practices. “I think some people who begin to get involved in interfaith engagement as Christians are scared at first that they are not supposed to talk about Jesus. That has proven to be absolutely the opposite,” added Rev. Somerville. “People from other traditions are open as we are trying to be [open]. They want to hear about why we are following the way of Jesus Christ and who Jesus is as our Lord and Savior…They want to hear about why that is the truth for us. That’s a beautiful thing.”
In addition to the impact of interfaith engagement on GPC discipleship, beauty has been found in the mutual trust established with local religious communities that enhanced how GPC responds to tragedy and local concerns. This was evident after last year’s shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Two days before the tragedy, GPC engaged in a series of contemplative practices facilitated by Harold Messinger, Cantor of Beth Am Israel. Over the course of twenty minutes, they meditated and chanted the Hebrew word, chesed, or “loving-kindness.” This discipline and the presence of Messinger left such an imprint on participants that, when news broke about Tree of Life, they responded with the same loving-kindness towards their neighbor and headed to Beth Am Israel to sing and pray with their Jewish siblings. “If anybody asks me what I want to see as an outcome of our interfaith work, that is what I want to see. That we can be in solidarity with others in their times of need and their moments of need,” said Rev. Stavrakos. “And I know that they will be there in our moments of need as well. And that’s really what this is about.”
This embodiment of loving-kindness did not end there. Recently, GPC applied for and received a Great Ends Grant through the Presbytery for a summer initiative, Lower Merion Summer Café, which pulled together collective resources of the interfaith community as response to the pervasive food insecurity that plagues Lower Merion. Aware that over 900 children are on subsidized lunch programs, this venture provided daily food and nutrition to these families during the summer gap in assistance programs. This combined effort underscored that, while there may be differences among them, the interfaith community holds common beliefs that no child should be left hungry and the alleviation of local inequities requires combined efforts of churches, synagogues, mosques, and other faith centers. As Rev. Stavrakos added, “If the church is serious about actually addressing the needs of God’s children in our communities, the best avenue to do it is through interfaith work.”
As our congregations gathered and scattered throughout Greater Philadelphia continue to discern how God is calling them to love their neighbor as themselves, the witness of Gladwyne is an invitation to consider revitalized interfaith engagement. This work will not only enhance the discipleship and Christian formation of a congregation, but also become a renewed avenue for local collaborations as a church lives into the mission of God. As Rev. Stavrakos reminds us, “We cannot proclaim the gospel if we are remaining in silos. We have to be out and about and engaging.” Thanks be to God for how the faithful of Gladwyne Presbyterian Church have indeed been out and about, linking arms in solidarity with their interfaith neighbors.
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