Ministry alongside Caregivers in Chester

TMT Memorial Presbyterian Church Residency and 1001 New Worshipping Communities
by Rev. Greg Klimovitz

How can a congregation envision ministry of empathy alongside neighbors all-too-familiar with isolation and neglect? This has been the framing question for the Rev. Dr. Carroll Jenkins at Thomas M Thomas Memorial Presbyterian Church (TMT) in Chester. The last of five Presbyterian congregations in this three-mile urban center alongside the Delaware River, TMT has recently re-established their commitment to intentional community engagement as incarnations of the gospel. “We are really trying to identify people who have particular needs and out of those needs there is a spiritual thirst. As we can identify that, we can help them find the spiritual resources that will strengthen them and help them to go forward,” remarked Rev. Dr. Jenkins. “We [have begun] to talk about how we can improve the quality of life within the community.”

Once a primary hub for industry and business, Chester is no longer primarily known for its production, vibrancy, or vocational opportunity. Major corporations have closed, political interests have shifted to the suburbs, resources for the public school system have been slow to come by, and employment has been on a steady decline. All of this has contributed to a strong sense of abandonment felt by local residents. This is where TMT has discerned and renewed a call to subvert the narrative of despair and envision ministry of solidarity and support alongside the good people of their beloved city. “We were not sure what we were going to grab onto as an interest area,” added Rev. Dr. Jenkins. “[We knew] this was something we needed to think about- how do we bring people together without saying you got to come and worship in this place?”

The openness to new possibilities ultimately led TMT, in collaboration with the Presbytery of Philadelphia, to pilot a residency program through the 1001 New Worshipping Communities (NWC) movement of the PCUSA. Launched in July 2018, TMT welcomed Kearni Warren to facilitate a venture in contextual engagement with their neighborhood. A child of Chester and proven entrepreneur from a lineage of small business owners, educators, and Presbyterian ministers, Kearni has a natural ability for collaboration and vision casting. As Warren and Rev. Dr. Jenkins dreamed together and spoke with local residents, they sensed a call to facilitate the beginnings of a new ministry of empowerment alongside caregivers. This is something Kearni Warren knows much about, as she served as the primary caregiver for her mother, the late Rev. Bernice Warren, in her fight against cancer. “Caregivers for a long time have been a forgotten community [and] there have been stereotypes about caregivers,” said Warren. “Up until recently, the face of caregivers has changed. It is no longer that person whom we think is working at a nursing home or who may be uneducated and doesn’t possess a lot of skills. Today caregivers are professional people who have either quit their jobs to take care of mom or dad or grandmother or they are professional people who are trying to juggle their work while providing care for a family member.”

This budding initiative, known as the Caregiver Society, not only extends community to those who care for the terminally ill, but also those who nurture Alzheimer patients and adults with special needs, second-time-around grandparents raising grandchildren whose parents are incarcerated, individuals who walk alongside family and friends battling addiction, and more. As caregivers expend themselves for the sake of another, self-care and support networks are vital, “So for me to be able to provide a sense of community where we can all come together to express what we are going through so that we do not feel alone [and] to offer spiritual guidance, that is the core of what the Caregiver Society is about,” added Warren, whose residency was recently extended for a second-year. “[We are] forming a community where we can go to each other, count on each other for support, whichever way that may come.” This support ranges from vision board parties that foster clarity of vocation and personal ambition, conversations with experts in a variety of professional fields, and spiritual formation practices to center the mind and spirit wearied from the on-going self-offering to loved ones. One caregiver shared with Warren, “I have never been a part of something so big.”

In many ways, the identified demographic of caregivers has become a gateway to serve those in Chester most vulnerable to poverty, unemployment, grief, and loss. As the residency program of TMT has shifted their leadership’s emphasis from filling church pews alone, they have linked arms with those who humbly live into the gospel beyond their congregational walls as embodiments of the church of Jesus Christ. “The commitment of Christ is that you allow Christ’s Spirit in you,” commented Rev. Dr. Jenkins. “You have to allow the church to be in you, not something you are going to, but something that you are already a part of every day. It doesn’t make any difference where you are. You become Christ in the flesh.”

We give thanks for the way the faithful of TMT and the Caregiver Society are indeed Christ in the flesh alongside those who provide compassion and care to their most vulnerable neighbors. Their witness serves as a reminder that faithful ministry often occurs as we simply come alongside those in our communities who already model what love and generosity look like beyond our church buildings. May our eyes and ears be open to these messengers of hope, even as we strengthen their mind, bodies, and spirits for their good and faithful work. In so doing, we just may shift individual and cultural narratives away from despair and towards the bigness of God’s wide welcome and affirmation of belonging.