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Kairos Is Now: Present and Future Witness in West Philly
Greg: We talk about this new fire that has been stirred up and breathed upon in the ministry of these collaborative churches in West Philly. What is happening now and where are we potentially headed?
Eustacia: [We began] a year of visioning and spiritual practice. I think it is really important for pastoral leaders and congregations, especially when you are in seasons of transition, you have to cease just doing a bunch of programs…and to learn how to hear from God. You have to learn how to facilitate and hold space to hear together. So our session meetings, which we call tri-session right now…we spend time together asking what is it that God is calling us to do. We build the agenda around the worship format. We gather. We study. We hear God’s word. We respond with our reports. And then we go out…
We also had an all church retreat in November. Where right now we are averaging about 60 in worship, we had about 40 at that all church retreat…We left with spiritual formation, leadership multiplication, [and] a target mission field of youth and families. We left with a pathway for what we believe how spiritual formation can take place through music and art, through the green economy. Because we recognize we are in West Philadelphia, where we have economic issues, where poverty is real, [and] where violence is an issue. We knew and know the needs of the community to which we have been called to serve. So we took those bits and parts and we developed a vivid description of the vision. We put pen to paper that scripture. We talked about write the vision and make it plain…We see our church as a river moving people in the way of Christ and doing this through joyful worship, collaborative learning spaces where folks can love one another and grow together in Christ…
We are located in West Philadelphia, what activist Karen Washington calls “food apartheid.” We are in an area where we have issues around access to nutrient-rich food. It is food apartheid because of the reality that these are systems that are designed this way. We want to call it out. Part of our vision is developing a commercial corridor, where you have social impact ministry happening. Whether it be a grocery store or something that would be of service to the economics of the community…I have been in the community talking to different people and looking at different kind of models. Really you need business and nonprofit models, as well as the church model, a hybrid coming together to figure out how they create this…And at the end of the day, this whole journey is about loving God, loving people, and serving the world. Loving God through our joyful worship.
Ruth: It is this Ezekiel moment. Can these bones live and breathe? The breath come from the four winds, from the four corners of the world…[and] God calls together a community to then incarnate new possibilities. So, that’s all I have to say. I am just so grateful that we find ourselves here.
Kevin: The nexus of where the world knows about the love of God and the love of neighbor, is the love of self. A big piece of that, particularly for a gritty city like Philadelphia, with the economic decay, addiction, [and] poor education…[is to look at] those pivot places where we offer something up to create the space for God to do the new thing. So stay encouraged and ask [God] that question, of what stone to let go of so that you have the open hand for God to give you something else to work with [in ministry].
Greg: That is the resurrection story. We are a resurrection people. Thanks be to God for the way we can all join hands and celebrate that story and be resurrection people together.
Eustacia: Thank you.
Kevin: Thank you.
Ruth: Thank you.
We give thanks for the faithful and creative work of the Administrative Commission, which continues to walk alongside leaders of the West Philadelphia Presbyterian Partnership:
Rev. Dr. Janel Dixon (Cedar Park) – Moderator
Elder Jim Ballengee (Arch Street)
Elder George Henisee (Bryn Mawr)
Rev. Sarah Searight (Swarthmore)
Rev. Todd Stavrakos (Gladwyne)
Rev. Jimmy Lee Stratton (HR)
Elder Diana Taylor (Germantown Community)
Presbytery as Partner in Ministry Improvisation
Greg: We talk a lot [as a Presbytery] about the prophet and the priest working together in innovation and in faithful ministry improvisation. The Presbytery has served an important role here in this work. How has the Presbytery. in terms of the nuts and bolts, been a part of this new thing in West Philly, especially since 2015?
Ruth: I think what the Presbytery did, was to allow itself to be creative, to be curious about possibilities and genuinely love the people they were trying to engage…and consider, what is the most helpful thing at this time?
Kevin: Amen to that. I listen to Ruth talk about the using governance in a new way…A lot of the way that it was perceived [was] that Presbytery [was] coming to shut us down. This was coming from a totally different spirit and use of an administrative commission, not to fault, fine, or move you to closure, but as a way of being present in a more focused and intentional way… The AC is actually a collection of resources for congregations, to help them in dreaming and provides presence, which is the other thing I was wanting to get to…All ministry comes down to relationships and the capital of a good relationship is trust. A mentor of mine once said, “the best definition of trust is met expectations.” And there is no way to microwave that. If you start from none, we have to have an opportunity for me to show that my word can be made good and only after that, then we have a little bit of capital in the trust bank. If that ever gets squandered or wasted, you are in a negative hole. You are in a trust deficit. When you have folks that have been around as long as the Presbytery of Philadelphia, there are a lot of trust deficits. When you are dealing with the same individuals and or the same congregations, even in the same communities, where folks have had the ouch of having had their trust betrayed, you cannot start from zero and pretended that stuff never happened. Part of the pivoting is for individuals as well as institutions to have that “come to Jesus” moment of confessing where there has been lack of trust, where it has hurt, where it has made trust going forward more difficult, and hearing God’s word of forgiveness and grace. Then pivot, to the assurance of pardon, that enables God’s word to be heard in a new way- that is generative.
Ruth: I will say that in fairness to the Presbytery of Philadelphia, they were part of a model, a functioning that was prevalent in the bigger Presbyteries throughout the country. They were a product of the 60’s. [This was] a corporate model that was supposed to keep you decent, in order, administratively, balanced.
Greg: One of the biblical references that you mention frequently, Ruth, is the dry bones in Ezekiel. This was an important reference in light of the 2016 fire at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church. So could you briefly share about what happened with that fire and how that has become a pivotal turning point even for this partnership?
Kevin: It is important to know that the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, although logistically very close to Calvin Presbyterian Church, was not part of that earlier discussion about collaborative ministry. They did not perceive themselves as having a similar ministry or even a possibility of a similar trajectory moving forward. Then in August 2016, a fire happened that gutted the Good Shepherd structure. The way that the community around Good Shepherd spontaneously showed up and actually had a community organizing action, with cameras from the news media to say, “we want this church rebuilt.” Even though this congregation was small, their doors were always open to other congregations and community groups. The pastor there had been faithful; he had a background in urban planning, I believe. So he knew the importance of walking the streets and he said, “A church that is not part of its community is not a church- an this church got it.” So that was what they would bring to the table. So as a Presbytery we walked alongside that congregation, honoring their ministry that was still vital, and honoring them in their profound season of loss and devastation. [We gave them]the agency to cry, to mourn, to grieve, [and] to then get up after they had taken what they could from the ashes, and began to ask the question, what next? And when they did, it was a different kind of fire at that point. That was very evident when the three [churches] had come together and started to have serious conversations of, “Oh, so now we have not just resources of another congregation, but the resources of the funds from that insurance money that this one congregation is willingly willing to put into a conversation beyond itself.”
Ruth: I want to commend their former pastor J.B. Adams. He was this priest in the community. Retired 20 times over, but when he saw the moment, he allowed for that to move forward without him. That was bold and not to be taken lightly…We kept [the funds] with [Good Shepherd] and their agency until now all [the funds] moved under the WPPP agency. But that was an intentional decision. It was a statement that we were making. We could have recommended that the money be used and divided in different ways…But when would we ever get an opportunity to invest in perpetuity in both leadership and in a significant part of construction or refurbishing.
Eustacia: Since I came in July, my first task was to talk to every single member of our congregation. In talking with them, I learned much of what has just been shared. I asked questions like, “what has brought you alive?” And some of the members said, “Well, we felt a spark when we started having seminarians come.” So very much what they are saying was happening at the Presbytery level was filtering down to one on ones. Folks were sensing the spirit moving and discerning.
Pivoting and Planting: How We Got from There to Here
Greg: Kevin, you are the veteran Philadelphian here, and you have had your hands in this for quite some time. So can you take us back a little bit, from whence this is all came?
Kevin Porter: Ruth talks about the time that we first went into first African shortly after she got here. It was not with a clean slate; we all walk into a narrative. Part of the narrative that we were walking into was folks saying, “Oh, First African. They are just about their history. They are stuck in their ways. There is no life and ministry going on there.” That is why, when Ruth came and saw that was not the case, it spoke so powerfully. So it was not a thing of us trying to resurrect something that was dead, but to nurture the embers that were still there…
The context that is important to me- this was not the first effort in trying to do something collaborative at First African. About 20 years ago, there was an attempt with five congregations of which First African was just one, and Calvin was in that conversation as well, to see what could be done collaboratively with the five. And it just was not the right time. For a number of reasons, it got to a certain point and then could go no further.
When you hear Ruth talk about the joy in the kairos of being able to call Eustacia, Eustacia was not around 20 years ago. So when in retrospect you can see God’s hand at work through the whole process. That is very important, whatever your ministry situation is, do not be scared of risking; and do not be afraid if your risk does not turn out the way you intended. It may not mean that it was meant to be at that moment, but seeds can be planted for another time when God’s will be done and fruit will be born…
Listening to the ceremony that happened [at the baptismal font] to incarnate what God is doing in this day…when you put your own stones in, the same amount of water can actually flow to the top to the point of overflowing. So, folks can look and if they are bearing witness to God’s presence in this place and look at it and say, “there is almost no water left in the there. It is almost bone dry.” What God can do if you offer your stone to the water is actually have that water be overflowing. That is a powerful witness in and of itself.
Ruth: Kevin reminds me of something that I think is invaluable- how we saw ourselves as a Presbytery during that time and reframing how people viewed the Presbytery. We deepened relationships. Our role is not to sit as judge and jury over the effectiveness of a witness but to come alongside and talk about the theology possibilities as opposed to the theology of scarcity. That was proven so significantly in my first conversation with the same to First African. We took a selfie that day of all these leaders and something was birthed. The beginning of a relationship that would result in dialogue. This trust allowed us to partner with the Princeton Seminary’s Association of Black Seminarians to introduce another model of ministry that would open them up to something new…That relationship led them to be open, too. And then we gathered together an Administrative Commission. It is an extraordinary story of improvisation along the way.
Eustacia: Part of my discernment process coming here, was seeing what I observed with the Presbytery and the relationships that had already been born with the congregation. I knew that to come here and do what this assignment call for, it was almost an impossible task. I knew it can only be done, not by one leader, but by many. Ruth just so beautifully articulated all the different people that came alongside this process that began to engender trust. I did not come just because we did not want these congregations to die…That would not have been enough… It is much deeper than that. We do see that there is some clouds and a pillar of fire leading this thing. That this is God inspired, God-breathed.
Greg: As you lean into the history of these three congregations, the history of these churches is one of innovation and improvisation. How does that speak into the current energy and vibes of what is happening there?
Eustacia: At this point and this time, we have really leveraged the history to move ourselves forward as opposed to getting stuck…We are using [history] to help spur us on to something new. All three of these churches have histories of activism in the world. Particularly First African, being the first black Presbyterian church. A history of abolition with one of their first pastor, John Gloucester. He was actually a freed slave, who came out of Tennessee. His particular witness is incredible because not only did he pastor this church, but he also went back into the South to free his wife, to pay for the freedom of his wife and his four kids.
William Catto, who is another historic pastor and abolitionist, an activist. His son, Octavius Catto, who is a well-known Civil Rights leader in Philadelphia. He tells the story of how tenacious and how much grit John Gloucester had. And when money ran out, he traveled to England and overseas to secure the funds to free his family. That is one story of many stories that can be told, but it tells you this is a people with a whole lot of perseverance and a whole lot of boldness. I see that often showing up in the work that we are doing today.
Ruth Faith Santana-Grace: From the time I arrived in this Presbytery, I think what Kevin and I identified was this spirit of courage and determination grounded on a history that allowed them to keep on keeping on as a people of faith. With what the world might identify as limited resources…I think Eustacia used a beautiful imagery [in worship on Sunday] of how you went to the waters of baptism with stones to help them claim this moment tactically.
Eustacia: After our congregational meeting, we had a milestone ceremony and created a little baptismal vessel. Inside was water and stones. Each person in the congregation was also given a stone. We were holding the stones and I was sharing that in many ways we are all living stones. Our lives are built on the chief cornerstone, Jesus Christ. This act of coming together is really an act of rooting ourselves in Christ and also coming together, being baptized as one in Christ…
Each person was able to take their stone, drop it into those baptismal waters [and] see what happens when all those stones come together. The beauty of it, the stones were also diverse, because we are coming from different places and spaces and yet we are all in this together. Baptized as one in Christ. It was also communion Sunday. So we intentionally draped our communion table with a beautiful fabric that was multicolored and all of that. So when they came to drop their stone, they were actually coming to the communion table where there was this baptismal vessel. I will tell you- there were tears. Tears of joy and tears of grief. It is an all mix of just really living into the moment and even knowing that in the midst of knowing that we are turning this corner and some still wrestling with that grief. There is a joy set before us.
The one special moment for me is when Mother Winder, who is 99….[she] put the stone in the vessel. So I came, and then another member came, and together we locked hands to help her put the stone in the waters. It was just a moment for me. It symbolized multiple generations. Really in that moment was three. I happened to be the youngest in that. But three generations of putting the stone in the water. That really speaks to the continuity of what has been, and also spurs us onto what shall be.
Ruth: So just hearing this story right now, this is such an affirmation…[In 2014] we really were prayerfully considering how to make this a new thing. And the one thing I can say for [Kevin and me] was that, as we started meeting monthly with the sessions of these three churches, it had become one of our greatest privileges. Because the relationships of trust kept forming incarnational dependability…So we would have these candid conversations, and even though we were uncertain as to what it completely would look like, we were convinced and convicted that God was before us in the cloud and the fire. We knew that, and that’s what kept the conversation going…So for me, my heart is so full that we’re here.
Twenty years ago, our Presbytery planted the seeds to explore new possibilities of a collaborative worshipping community in West Philadelphia. As some would say, though, kairos was not then.
In 2015, the conversation was reconvened in light of a new series of events, which ultimately led to the formation of an Administrative Commission and the calling of a new and full-time pastor, Rev. Eustacia Moffett Marshall, to shepherd what is known today as the West Philadelphia Presbyterian Partnership. A new name is in the waiting.
Kairos, however, is not. Kairos is now, as the Spirit is awakening something beautiful in West Philly through the collaborative efforts of leaders from the former First African Presbyterian Church, Calvin Presbyterian Church, Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, and the Presbytery of Philadelphia. What follows is the redacted transcript of a conversation with Rev. Eustacia Moffett Marshall, Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace (Executive Presbyter), Rev. Kevin Porter (Stated Clerk), and Rev. Greg Klimovitz (Associate Presbyter). We are humbled and excited about this shared venture and invite the faithful of our Presbytery to continue to lift in prayer this historical and faithfully revitalized witness.
Living Stones: Leveraging History to Spark a New Thing
Greg Klimovitz: We are really excited to be seated around this table and tell the story of what is happening in West Philly. It is a good story. It is one of our better stories right now. Eustacia, if you could share a little bit about the present reality of the West Philly Presbyterian Partnership.
Eustacia Moffett Marshal: The West Philadelphia Presbyterian Partnership is a marriage of three congregations: Calvin Presbyterian Church, First African Presbyterian Church, and The Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church. All of which have a combined history of 492 years. First African, the first historic black Presbyterian witness in our denomination, was founded in 1807. Calvin was founded in 1902. Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church was actually a merger of two churches, one of which is West Park Presbyterian Church, which was founded in 1859…So we have a tremendous task. We have three churches…coming together to do a new thing. I am here to help facilitate and to help dream with an amazing group of called people.
This past Sunday was a milestone moment. We voted to move the process to create a formal new entity so we would be petitioning our administrative commission to draft the legal documents necessary to become one body. We also voted to transfer membership from the three entities into the West Philadelphia Presbyterian Partnership. And we voted to transfer our assets into the West Philadelphia Presbyterian Partnership. So it was a special day. It was a tremendous day for us, as we look forward to moving together with the spirit and do what God is doing.