Just a Building: The Common Place Continues to Thrive in Southwest Philadelphia by Rev. Sarah Colwill

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.