On the corner of 58th and Chester in Southwest Philadelphia sits a beautiful, expansive stone church. The chipped paint and worn-out carpet reveal a story too familiar for congregations whose glory days have come and gone, as neighborhoods change and members move away. But on this particular corner in the Kingsessing neighborhood, the Holy Spirit is astir once more, beckoning the church to pay attention to God’s movement that never stopped in this community, sparking wonder and hope that perhaps the best is yet to come.
Wayne Presbyterian Church has had a decades-long relationship with this community, so when Pastor and Head of Staff, Rev. Casey Thompson, led the congregation in discerning how to be church beyond its own walls, the corner of 58th and Chester called.
“Our church needed a prodding to do something bigger than we have customarily done, something to make us stretch ourselves,” says Rev. Thompson. “We prayed about it, and ultimately we felt God was asking us to help kids in Southwest Philadelphia flourish in their schools. So, we asked our congregation to create an educational outreach center in that neighborhood, and to plant a new worshiping community next to New Spirit’s existing one dedicated to reaching out to families in that neighborhood.”
Led by Wayne staff members Rev. Aisha Brooks-Lytle and Rev. Sudie Niesen Thompson, this new outreach, called “The Common Place” will exist alongside the New Spirit congregation, who will once again worship in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings after recently moving locations because of prohibitive building upkeep. “The chance God has given us is to understand the building is the building and we are the church,” proclaims New Spirit Ruling Elder Lorraine Outterbridge. “God has given us a new way of looking at ministry that is truly outside the box.” This new undertaking has reenergized the New Spirit congregation to engage in the missional work to which they feel God is calling them.
A walk through the church is akin to a construction site, as new walls are being erected for office space, carpet samples are considered for the sanctuary, and large rooms are envisioned with energetic students being tutored after school. This community gathering space will house Cornerstone Christian Academy offices and Turning Points, along with New Spirit’s congregation and The Common Place.
September 8 marks the beginning of The Common Place Scholars, an after-school program for students from nearby Cornerstone Christian Academy and Mitchell Elementary. With assistance from the Presbytery’s Covenant Fund Grant, weekly worship will begin on Sunday, September 7 at 5:00 p.m., called The Common Worship Experience. This service is “kid led, pastor approved” and will strive to reveal God’s joyful hope for the lives of worshippers. “The worshipping community is designed to help develop a community of support in the neighborhood for the outreach center,” says Rev. Casey Thompson, “and to help folks from Wayne find a place of interaction and engagement with that larger community.”
Stepping out into this new way of being church through collaboration among community groups and congregations alike, The Common Place is “a sacred space to do life together.” This ministry seeks to expand the “we” – from Wayne to New Spirit to the Kingsessing neighborhood to the Presbytery to each one of us. Distance is no longer a way to recuse ourselves from the responsibility of ministering to communities who need to hear the Good News. Our connectional nature enables exciting new ventures such as The Common Place to be more than lofty dreams and high hopes. New Spirit’s openness to change, Wayne’s vision for ministering to this neighborhood, and the Presbytery’s investment through grant monies has converged to bring these dreams to fruition. When asked about the risk taken by the Wayne congregation and the unknown question of success and survival, Rev. Brooks-Lytle avows, “we saturate our ministry in prayer and we are committed to walking in obedience to God’s will and way.” May we add our own prayers to further saturate this ministry with God’s wisdom and blessing.