West Kensington Ministry: A Place of Refuge and Hope for Our Youth by Rev. Sarah Colwill

“Jesus loves them, but the cards are stacked against them,” Rev. Adan Mairena remarked as he described the tension involved with being the church and place of hope in an inner city neighborhood that struggles with high rates of unemployment, crime, and violence. Living in the manse beside the church, Rev. Mairena knows firsthand the importance of being a safe place for children in the West Kensington section of Philadelphia. In a school system that lacks the quality education of their peers in wealthier areas, and the statistics showing these youth are at an increased risk to end up in the prison system, ministry to youth here is crucial. By revealing God’s love and compassion, and showing each child they matter, the Ministry hopes to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline that plagues Philadelphia neighborhoods such as this.

The Presbyterian Church has had a long witness to the hope of Jesus Christ on the corner of N. Hancock Street and W. Susquehanna Avenue. Once a bustling industrial neighborhood, the impressive church built across the street from Norris Square Park could seat over 500 people in its sanctuary. As industry left and the neighborhood became economically depressed, maintaining a traditional congregation in the sanctuary became unfeasible. But the Presbytery of Philadelphia was not ready to give up on this changing community. For the past ten years, Rev. Mairena has worked to make West Kensington Ministry a place of welcome and love. The Ministry walks alongside youth as they navigate the challenges of their neighborhood and life situations. They hold weekly worship Sunday afternoons in their downstairs hall at 3:00 p.m. which incorporates youth at all levels, from participation to worship leadership. This is a space where children are treated as important and vital to the church today, not just its hoped for future. This is a space where children experience the depth of God’s love and compassion that is for them.

West Kensington Ministry has a powerful impact on the youth in the neighborhood by being able to provide stability while maintaining flexibility. Theirs is not a cookie-cutter ministry or program that can be taken out of context. After Rev. Mairena’s arrival, the leadership discerned a need to have a safe space for teens. The homicide rate was high in the neighborhood and the church wanted to respond with something meaningful, and Open Mic Night was born. Every Friday night this event has become a staple in the community, a place of refuge and welcome.

Open Mic Night is a program for teens by teens. Trust is placed in the youth to set up the equipment and make the night a success. The event varies from week to week, depending upon the youth in attendance, the mood of the neighborhood, and the movement of the Spirit. With a seemingly innocent gathering these teens are learning leadership skills, developing confidence being in front of people, and nurturing camaraderie among themselves.

With weekly worship and Open Mic Night as stable features of the Ministry, other programs arise as need and interest comes to the surface. One of Rev. Mairena’s gifts as a leader is the capacity to take advantage of these interests, allowing an activity to meet the needs of the youth while also discerning when that program has run its due course. This flexibility allows the Spirit to meet youth right where they are, in a particular time and place in their lives. A recent event fitting this description is Thursday night youth cooking night. With an average of ten youth and a few adults, the meal is simple yet significant. Around cutting boards and stove tops is often when these kids open up and are willing to talk about what’s really going on in their lives. Rev. Mairena is committed to going deep and not staying superficial, wanting to express the depth of God’s love that reaches even into this forgotten section of Philadelphia. Over a nutritious meal, youth are being fed in both body and spirit.

Singing and cooking may seem like simple activities, but beneath these happenings flows the rich undercurrent of faith and the love of God that is infused in everything West Kensington Ministry does. “The reason we do this is because of the one we follow,” says Rev. Mairena. It may be too easy to see only despair in this struggling neighborhood, but as Christians, we are people of hope. After a decade of service to this community, Rev. Mairena claims, “I see hope in that it gives (the neighborhood youth) a vision and a sense of, this is what church is: it’s acceptance, it’s love, it’s being a part of something bigger than yourself. This gives them a place where they matter, where they are important.” As a presbytery committed to improving the lives of children, West Kensington Ministry is a living, breathing testimony to the work of the Spirit that includes every person no matter what their life circumstance.

West Kensington Ministry is one of the eight local initiatives leveraged in our campaign to raise $300,000 for 300 Years. More information available here.