To a pastor, shepherding a church can be a daunting task, but to be the founder and pastor of a congregation can be even more daunting. The Rev. Juanita Rivers is very familiar with the rewards and stress of handling both roles as pastor and founder of Ebenezer Temple Pentecostal Church, in Southwest Philadelphia.
Rivers is a graduate of Palmer Theological Seminary, where she earned two degrees: a master of theological studies in Old Testament (1996) and a master of divinity (2001). She was an employee of the Internal Revenue Service for 28 years, holding various technical and managerial positions.
“We founded the church 11 years ago, my husband and I, Elder David Rivers,” she said. Ebenezer celebrated its 11th anniversary in February, and the church is moving forward with great vision and ministry outreach to the community.
Pastor Rivers said being able to do a free summer camp for the community is one of the church’s greatest signature ministry events, free to children ages 3 to 14. Children go through an enrichment experience that includes Bible class, math, English, Spanish, dance, music, weekly trips, and other fun and engaging activities. “This is our third year that we have camp — this year, we’re doing it for five weeks,” said Rivers.
Another highly visible and impactful community-driven ministry is the free income tax assistance program, a ten-year annual event. Rivers said, “We really notched it up — this year (as of last April), we did 1,328 tax returns, we brought back almost $3 million to the people we did the returns for — that has been a blessing.”
“I’ve been a member of Ebenezer now, for about 10 years,” said LaTasha Livingston. Livingston, 31, a teaching assistant at the Caring Center, previously attended Beulah Tabernacle Pentecostal Church, along with Rivers. When Rivers decided to move on to start her own church, Livingston followed. Livingston said, “She was faithful and encouraging to us young people.”
Livingston is the leader of the singles ministry, saying, “Being single, you have to be holy and committed to God,” and have a different lifestyle and level of commitment that’s different from those of most people.
As a single parent of a 10-year-old girl, Livingston contends with the demands of juggling work, ministry leadership and parenting her child, “I work, I have to get home to get (my daughter) from daycare; sometimes it’s challenging.”
Livingston said she is most proud of Ebenezer’s extensive outreach into the community, the free camp, the free income tax preparation, and the counseling services, “Pastor Rivers believes in giving back,” she said. But what’s most significant to Livingston is that her spiritual growth and maturity in Christ have expanded since being at Ebenezer, “Being mature, a closer walk with God, not giving up, even when I want to give up.” Livingston credits God’s use of Pastor Rivers for much of her spiritual growth and transformation, “She’s always reaching out, she’s always supportive — she’s always been a loving and supportive pastor that you can count on, that will be there for you.”
The Rev. Lorain Smith-Whitaker, 62, has been affiliated with Ebenezer since the fall of 2007, originally via an internship while attending Palmer Theological Seminary, pursuing her master’s of divinity degree, Smith-Whitaker anticipates graduating in May, 2013. She came from a Baptist background, but now fully enjoys the greater expanse of worship and praise as a Pentecostal, “As I get older, and look at ministries, I’d like to take those titles from churches. What I really love about Ebenezer is the freedom of worship, spontaneous worship…You can praise, and shout, and cry and exalt God until the Spirit has had its way, through clapping, through dance, through shouting, through utterances of tongues, there’s freedom of worship.”
Jaleel Howard Johnson, 18, is a youth leader and drummer at Ebenezer. He recently graduated from Constitution High School, and will be attending Neumann University, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration, in the fall semester. He’s been a member since he was 5 years old, and he likes that the church atmosphere is, “family-oriented — everybody treats you like family.” Johnson, too, is involved in Ebenezer’s outreach into the community, “I’ve been IRS-certified to prepare taxes.” He’s been active in this ministry endeavor for four years.
Johnson comments on why some youths may not find church interesting, “They think it’s boring.” He says churches should try to make the experience for youths more interesting and engaging, through things like hosting concerts and community festivals. Ebenezer has helped to, “keep me out of trouble, helped keep me grounded.”
Delores G. Spady is a senior saint and a proud and engaged member of Ebenezer, “I’ve been an adjutant for 11 years, I’ve been an usher, and a greeter.” Commenting on Rivers’ leadership and what keeps her deeply rooted at Ebenezer, Spady said, “She has a vision. I find that the church runs very smoothly.” Spady also likes that fact that the pastor is a sweet and gentle person and a consummate prayer warrior, “She knows when something is wrong, and she just prays. You have to come to the church to hear her preach, from the oldest to the youngest — she doesn’t preach over your head.”
Spady giggles as she reflects about Rivers’ animated preaching style, “You can’t keep her on the pulpit!” Spady likes how her pastor engages the congregation by often coming off the pulpit to preach in the aisles of the church, making closer connections with the congregation, “She’s right there with you!” A befitting tribute that best describes Rev. J. Rivers, a warm-hearted, people-oriented pastor, always striving to make personal connections and positive impact in the lives of the people she serves at Ebenezer and the community at large.