St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church is in revival mode. The church, located at 8398 Lindbergh Blvd. in Southwest Philadelphia, has seen its membership and attendance increase four-fold in just the past year. There are more active ministries than in recent years and many activities are on its calendar for the coming weeks and months.
Senior pastor, the Rev. Frank Smart, arrived at St. Paul AME in 2013. He was previously an associate pastor at its sister church, St. Paul AME in Malvern. When he arrived the average Sunday attendance had dwindled down to about a dozen and weekly tithes were nominal. After arriving eight months ago the church now averages more than 100 at a typical worship service and has quadrupled the weekly and monthly tithes.
“Many things can affect a church’s decline,” Smart said. “This is a community where there was a high rate of mortgage foreclosures and loss of homes. The church also had to move in a different direction. Sometimes you do need a change of leadership. In this case, it has led to increase making us financially responsible so that we are able to pay our utilities, our salaries and other obligations over the last eight months.”
Community outreach is one of the revitalized hallmarks of St. Paul AME. They have a full roster of spring activities already slated to draw in their members and the community. There was a Westside Release Party held at the church on March 7. Then the Annual Women’s Day is slated to take place on April 27 at the 11 a.m. service with a special program at 3:30 p.m. Finally, the church’s Spring Revival will be held from April 30 to May 2.
Yet, the 32-year-old Smart is quick to point out that a spiritual renewal is the true hallmark of St. Paul. As a Philadelphia native, he understands the dynamics of the city of neighborhoods and how Philadelphians connect to religion. Smart is an alumnus of William Penn High School and the Lincoln University before earning his M.Div. from the Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio.
He received his calling on Oct. 15, 1997 and initially ran from it. It was while attending a Philadelphia Preachers Meeting given by the AME denomination that the revival sermons by the Rev. Granger Browning about being called “fishers of men” that he realized that God was truly giving him his lifelong assignment. So, after completing his theological education, Smart served at the Mount Zion AME Church in Pine Grove, Salem County, N.J. from 20008 to 2012 before being assigned to St. Paul in Malvern for about a year.
“What has made this church special is our ministries,” Smart said. “We have dynamic a dynamic men’s, women’s and young adult ministries. The young adult ministry began recently. Even though it just started in 2014 it has already shown signs of being a great success. We have eight new members in the last three weeks from ages 21 to 37. So, we are growing and our choir, ushers, children’s choir, and our Young People Missionary Society are all growing.”
St. Paul has a rich history in its Southwest Philadelphia. The congregation dates back to 1905 making it among the first African American churches in the city. When the church formed as a Bible study group in Eastwick the primary house of worship in the area was a Catholic church. They were invited to join the African Methodist Episcopal Philadelphia conference, and this enabled them to purchase a new church home.
“We actually purchased land and property from the Catholic church,” Smart said. “We were able to move to the old location at 85th and Bartram. The Philadelphia airport was expanding along I-95 and we were forced to move. Originally the members did not want to move, but with the inability to continually maintain that old building and its upkeep we were forced to move and this made way for the Bartram Hotel and more airport development.”
Still St. Paul soon learned that God can turn even adverse situations in the higher good. First, they were able to relocate virtually around the corner to 84th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard. Now they have a new edifice that was built in 2008 under the Rev. Eugene McDuffie.
Most of St. Paul’s membership are descendants of the church’s original families or have strong ties to the surrounding Eastwick and Elmwood neighborhoods, according to Smart. While there are many who walk, catch public transportation or drive a short distance to the church, others commute from throughout the Delaware Valley Region. Most of the commuters still live in the surrounding area in Darby, Yeadon, Sharon Hill, Glenolden, or South Philadelphia. What the core membership have in common is a connection to the church itself or its neighborhood, according to Smart.
“We even draw in the community for different [collaborations],” Smart said. For instance, the PhillyRising Team out of the city’s managing director’s office has joined forces with organizations in the Elmwood and Eastwick area. St. Paul is among the partners who will be working with Councilman-at-Large David Oh, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, Licenses and Inspections, the Philadelphia Police Department, and others to improve the quality of life in Southwest Philadelphia.
Additionally, St. Paul is part of the Eastwick Social Action Committee. This group is keeping a close eye on the revitalization and expansion of the Philadelphia International Airport and the impact of new hotels coming to the area as well as the possible expansion of the Wildlife Reserve. “We are one of the religious partners of this groups. We give a religious and theological [perspective] and since we are part of the community we have the voice of the community people,” Smart said.
Furthermore, the church meets regularly with the Penrose Shopping Plaza owners. They also have had meeting with the Korman Suites apartment buildings in the area. This is all part of the “having a working relationship with all community partners,” the pastor said.
Even with these civic activities Smart insisted that his first commitment is to the St. Paul members and their spiritual needs. One of his favorite sermons is, “Let’s Get to Work.” From the pulpit the senior pastor encourages those in the pews to be vigilant about healing racial and class divides, being concerned about the least among them, and actively growing closer to God. This sermon is based on Nehemiah chapters 3 and 4 where the Jewish servant of the king led the exiled Israelites to rebuild.
“When things get broken we have to come together as a family, as a community and as a church,” Smart said. “We have to know that we can rebuild this city. We can make those changes that need to be made. We can make a difference in our community by being community oriented. We have to know that we can live in the best homes and they can be removed or destroyed, but then we can come together to take the initiative to develop a new program. We can even come back stronger than before.”
Consequently, Smart said that the church is firmly committed to its motto and theme. This is one that puts the gospel of Jesus Christ center stage while ministering specifically to those in the Elmwood and Eastwick communities and beyond. “We are here to restore, rebuild, empower, inspire, and uplift the family, community and individuals through the liberty of Jesus Christ through our word and deed,” Smart said.
The “African American Sacred Music Concert” will kick off this year’s five-day “Preaching with Power: A Forum on Black Teaching and Theology” series March 9, at 4 p.m. This opening ceremony will take place at the Reformation Lutheran Church, at 1215 E. Vernon Road in Mount Airy.
Choirs from various churches will perform. Aside from Reformation’s own gospel choir, they include Gospel Choir of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the Monumental Baptist Church choir, Mount Pisgah AME Church choir and the choir of Vine Memorial Baptist Church. The dance ministry of Grace Baptist Church of Germantown will also perform.
“This is the third year that we are starting the series with music,” said the Rev. Dr. Quinton Robertson, director of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia’s Urban Theological Institute and coordinator of Preaching with Power.
“We used to have the concert during the daytime on a Wednesday,” he said. “We realized that it would be better to start Preaching with Power with a sacred concert. This way rather than being in the middle of the week this year the concert is was a way to start it off … like putting the bread in a hot oven…It would set the tone for the rest of the week.”
The concert is just the tip of the iceberg for a week set to include some of the best African-American preachers from the northeastern seaboard.
The Rev. Jerry M. Carter, Jr. will be the first pastor to preach during this year’s Preaching with Power. He is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Moorestown, N.J. and a Drew University adjunct professor. He will preach at Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Germantown, 41 W. Rittenhouse St., on March 10 at 7 p.m.
Dr. Cain Hope Felder from the Howard University School of Divinity will deliver the theological lecture at LTSP’s Brossman Center, 7301 Germantown Ave. on March 11 at 11:15 a.m. That evening, Dr. Alvin O’Neal Jackson will preach at the Harold O. Davis Memorial Church, 4500 N. 10th St. at 7 p.m. He is pastor of the Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City.
“The money raised [these] nights will go towards our Rev. Joseph Q. Jacksons scholarships,” Robertson said. “Mt. Zion is the ideal location for this. Rev. Carter is an excellent preacher who preached at one of our citywide revivals. So this is a great way to start the preaching portion.”
“We are excited to have Bishop Audrey Brunson with us this year,” Robertson added. “As many know she was head of the Philadelphia Black Clergy and Vicinity. She will be preaching that Wednesday right here at our campus chapel.” The Schaeffer-Ashmead Chapel is located at 7301 Germantown Ave. Brunson is scheduled to preach at 11:15 a.m.
That evening the Mount Airy Church of God in Christ in West Oak Lane will welcome guest preacher the Rev. Dr. Joseph Conner, Sr. This service will begin at the church located at 6401 Ogontz Ave. on March 12 at 6:30 p.m. “We have gone to the Mount Airy Church of God in Christ for the 32 years that we have been having Preaching with Power,” Robertson said.
Finally, this year’s Preaching with Power will culminate with the Rev. Margaret Elaine M. Flake, the wife of former Congressman Floyd Flake. The Flakes are co-pastors of the Greater Allen AME Cathedral in Jamaica, New York. She is the author of “God in Her Midst: Preaching Healing to Hurting Women.” She will preach at the Mother Bethel AME Church, 419 S. 6th St. on March 18 at 7 p.m.
“This is a chance for those in Philadelphia to hear preachers they may never have heard,” Robertson said. “These are prominent preachers who are coming to local churches. This is kind of a revival happening in local churches. Though they all have credentials this is more about preaching than academics. So, please plan to come out to hear some of the best Black preaching in America close to home.”
The Rev. Marilyn B. Kendrix will be making a national case for the mass incarceration dilemma facing Philadelphia’s African American communities. On the heels of giving her “Unlikely Neighbors” sermon at the Grace Epiphany Episcopal Church in Mount Airy recently, she will continue to discuss mass incarceration at a very different venue.
That is because Kendrix is now a member of the convening table of the National Council of Churches in Christ’s Education, Ecumenical Faith and Leadership Formation. She will work closely with the other three convening tables. They are Faith and Order, Interfaith Relations, and Joint Advocacy and Justice.
“Philadelphians are much more [cognizant] of the ramifications of mass incarceration,” Kendrix said. “When I was at Grace Epiphany I realized that those who live in Mount Airy are well aware of the new Jim Crow, how it got started and the complexity for their community. More of the country needs to understand how this is affecting society and all poor people in general. It has adverse effects to us as a community and us as society.
“The Philadelphia response was somewhat different for me. There is different demographics here than the churches I usually visit in Connecticut. Most UCC churches are predominantly white because it is the largest denomination of churches in the Connecticut. I’ve taken this message to many suburban and rural conferences where people are largely untouched by mass incarceration.
“So I am bringing new news and many are appalled. In Philadelphia I don’t think people are as shocked. In fact when I was speaking about certain things many were there nodding their heads [in agreement],” Kendrix said.
Kendrix has been touring United Church of Christ churches throughout Connecticut. She resides in New Haven, Conn. is an associate pastor at the Church of the Redeemer United Church of Christ (UCC) and an adjunct professor at the University of New Haven. Usually her largely white and suburban audiences are shocked or occasionally in disbelief as the reverend articulates the ramifications of incarcerating so many young men of color or poor white populations.
Kendrix has a special mission in going from church to church educating many about mass incarceration. The reason she targets this population is because many, particularly the UCC churches, are concerned about social justice and eradicating injustice. By drawing attention to the problem she hopes that they will join the movement to eradicate this practice.
“I realized after my ordination that I had a call to interface with religious people about this,” Kendrix said. “It’s important for people of faith to understand this. This call is grounded in my understanding of this. Sometimes I speak to audience that are not Christian or nominally Christian. Many just don’t know that there is something they can do about this injustice.”
Kendrix plans to bring up this issue at the National Council of Churches meetings. This is part of her three point agenda about what needs to be done about mass incarceration. The first thing, she said, is to have a positive response to those who have served their time and are being reintegrated into society. To this end, Kendrix lists helping the formerly incarcerated secure jobs, giving them resources until they find jobs, and housing them until they start steady employment.
Another thing local communities can do to reduce and eventually eliminate mass incarceration is to become educational advocates.
A graduate of Yale Divinity School, Kendrix has done much research. Her scholarly work drew her to the link between those receiving a poor education and failing to complete high school with the likelihood one will end up in prison.
This advocacy must start with accessible early childhood education, according to Kendrix.
“By advocating for universal pre-school education we can make a huge difference in the lives of young Black boys particularly in the inner city to help them make different choices later in life. By advocating for youth centers and quality education this can have a huge impact. I plan to bring this up as part of faith formation and leadership,” Kendrix said.
Lastly, Kendrix gives the example of a legislative ministry team that a New England church started. They have gotten together to talk to their elected officials about the various advocacy issues that will ultimate reduce mass incarceration. This includes providing them with entrepreneurship opportunities, access to public housing, reinstating voting rights in states where they are discriminated against, and having access to public assistance like welfare and food stamps.
“Unconscious Racial Bias: Catholic Social Teaching Post Trayvon Martin” was the topic of a lecture by the Rev. Bryan Massingale at Saint Joseph’s University’s Campion Student Center in West Philadelphia last Monday. Massingale, a Jesuit priest, is the author of “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church” and teaches at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
Massingale ticked off advice for young men, in the event they were pulled over by police: Keep both hands in full view and on the top of the steering wheel, speak slowly, politely respond with “sir,” and control your temper — even if you feel racially profiled.
Like many males of color, Massingale said he had to internalize the rules of the road when pulled over, in order to avoid battery or arrest. But he noted old rules that allowed him to escape conflict with police in the 20th Century no longer keep young Black males safe. Some have lost their lives just for being present, he said.
“Unconscious racism is synonymous with deliberate acts,” Massingale said. He pointed to example after example of what he called “racialized policies” or actions that prove the insidiousness of race in the fabric of American culture. Yet being aware of one’s bias is not enough if one is unwilling to challenge oneself to action.
“There are two reactions students get when they hear this information,” Massingale said. Some use it as an impetus to change their ways and even find a way to change policy or the system that created it. Others feel flooded by the information. “They are so overwhelmed they avert looking into my eyes and emotionally tune out. Or they say that I am whining,” Massingale said.
Massingale offered three suggestions to help overcome racial bias. First, he said that since racism is a sin, one must grieve the loss of potential of its victims. “When President Obama said that he could have been Trayvon, I wanted to add that Trayvon could have been him. Maybe he could have been a researcher, a student on this campus, a pastor, a community organizer, maybe even president. …We need to grieve all the hidden treasures in our midst,” Massingale said.
Secondly, Massingale said one must develop cultural empathy and compassion.
Third is allowing one’s discomfort to lead one to act. He challenged the crowd to ask if the candidate for which one votes on Election Day respects the dignity and potential of others.
He urged the audience not to be “socially naïve” in thinking that overcoming bias was an easy process. Nor should one be without hope because we can all “heal, unite and restore. … Therein lies the hope and the challenge,” Massingale concluded.
During the question and answer session following the lecture, philosophy professor Vanessa Wills called race “a complex phenomenon” sometimes “used for a justification for exploitation.” She posed to Massingale whether Pope Francis had begun to change public perspective with his focus on the economic conditions of the poor.
Massingale responded by stressing the importance of seeing the poor without moral judgment, just as it is important to see any other fellow human without moral judgment. He said he felt Pope Francis’ approach highlighted that poor people aren’t poor due to their own fault or to some personal failing. This, along with challenging those who have to do something about poverty, is positive, he said.
Robert Brown of Mount Airy, an adjunct professor at the Haub School of Business, challenged the idea of using the word “minority” about African Americans when the group makes up a majority or certainly not a minority of residents in the city of Philadelphia.
Massingale touched on the importance of choosing vocabulary carefully in order to get rid of unconscious racial bias. For instance, he felt the use of the word “diversity” or “multicultural” was a way of avoiding the need to confront racial issues and racial injustices head on.
“Father Massingale’s analysis of racial injustice uncovered the unconsciousness of the idols of racial superiority and privilege,” said Sister Mary Norbert. “(It) enabled the U. S. majority to understand the inflictions and suffering, even death, that racism causes in its various expressions that continue to shock us with such instances as Trayvon Martin.”
Ann Bernard of Mount Airy offered, “I thought his lecture was just wonderful. He’s very clear, and I could tell that the students got the message. It’s important that we are open about these types of topics if we are going to heal the
The Haven Peniel Sanctuary Choir, the New Anointed Choir youth singers and Little Angels childrens’ choirs combined their voices behind the pipe organ that resonates in the pristine sanctuary.
The gleaming wood beams overhead serve an umbrella for the shiny oak floors and pew benches that face the gleaming brass cross handing overhead.
The Rev. Gertrude Duckett took to the pulpit dressed in a black robe trimmed with red piping as the full congregation gave occasional “Amens” or stood still as she delivered, “There Will Be Glory” sermon.
This was the scene in the Haven Peniel United Methodist Church on “Justice Sunday,” a six-year tradition at the African- American Protestant Church. Members call it the best kept secret in the heart of North Philadelphia. Located at 2301 W. Oxford St. Haven Peniel UMC has a rich tradition of bringing together some of the city’s leading professionals together with the surrounding working class and lower income community. This was clearly evident when there was a full house gathered on Jan. 19 at the 11 a.m. worship service.
“Sometimes God gives a bad report because after he [intervenes] then you have a testimony,” Duckett said. “There will be glory after that. When you are down you can know that you will get through this.”
Duckett, who is a grandmother, shared anecdotes about taking her own grandchildren, Dashanae and Leila, shopping. She said that they, like many young people, do not have the same concept of money that adults have. “Children think that this money just comes easy,” Duckett said.
It was two years ago that Duckett was appointed to be pastor of Haven Peniel. She found it a challenge stepping into the 130-year-old church that is actually a merger of two congregations, Haven and Peniel, both located in the vicinity of 20th and Jefferson streets. Yet this Petersburg, Fla. native who has lived in Philadelphia for more than 30 years, was very familiar with the North Philadelphia community through her other hat — being a full time community health nurse.
Duckett weaves what she calls her second calling as a nurse into her sermons. On Justice Sunday she said the Lord also wants his servants to do their best so that the things they do “gives God glory,” she said. Yet like any parent, especially mothers, can attest that there will be times when “tears are shed” or one “becomes heartbroken” because of the actions of one’s offspring. Yet Duckett reiterated to the Justice Sunday crowd that “there will be glory after that, there is a reading to give God praise.”
One of the lessons we all must learn is to be a leader rather than a follower, Duckett said. Yet as Christians, she said, we all need each other. “Sometimes it is raining and you will have someone to give you an umbrella,” the pastor said. Duckett then drew attention to after overcoming difficult and challenging times, the church draws ever close to each other and in “declaring Jesus Christ as Lord … there’s always a reason to give praise.”
The National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice presentation opened with a welcome from its treasurer Margaret L. Turner. Marq Temple, the executive director of the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Center, introduced the special guests.
After Superintendent John Thomas of Chester gave the Justice Sunday history remarks and state Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown said that justice was needed as far as preserving voting rights and she mentioned the recent victory to preserve these rights in Pennsylvania by the striking down of the Voter ID requirements.
Other remarks came from Philadelphia Police Department first deputy Richard Ross as well as Philadelphia Prisons representative Juanita Goodson. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell then presented the Lucien Blackwell Humanitarian Awards to Michael Coard. The defense attorney said that he would continue to battle for justice. He said that the Pennsylvania chapter of NABCJ is a vital organization in advocating for justice in what can often be an unjust system.
There was a stellar praise dance performance delivered by the Canaan Baptist Church Conservatory of Arts before NABCJ president Arthur Blackmon, a retired warden, gave final Justice Sunday remarks.
Duckett culminated her sermon with a Call to Christian Discipleship as the tri-choirs sang “Just as I Am, Without One Plea”: The musical postlude was followed by the benediction and the three-fold Amen. Then it was off to congregational business since the church has a full roster of ministries. Haven Peniel has 237 members on their roll and more than half show up each Sunday.
Among them is the Kitchen Café under the director of member Jennifer Crosby. Every Tuesday it serves 140 local community persons. They even get a bag of groceries to take home to hold them over until they return for the following week’s meal.
Then there is the ecumenical and interdenominational outreach the church does through their faith giving service in cooperation with Mills Memorial and their work with North Philadelphia cluster churches. This includes Mt. Zion United Methodist, Tindley Temple, Meditation Parish, Devereux and the New Vision Church, formerly Tioga United Methodist. They hold combined Lenten activities and come together for an annual summer picnic.
During February there will be the Ushers Annual Sermon. The Agape Love Men and Agape Love Women groups will host an event on Feb. 15. The church is going to “Sight and Sound” during May, after the children’s ministry raises funds during their March bake sale.
“We are starting a new ministry for young adult women,” Duckett said. “We have found that this group made up of women from 18 to 35 is facing many challenges. They have health issues, emotional problems and children issues. We want to bring them together so they can talk and get a blessing in an atmosphere where they are guided by the spirit. Our church secretary, Alexandra Houston, is organizing this.”
Duckett said that her current full-time nursing assignment takes her to West and South Philadelphia. Before that she worked in North Philadelphia, including the neighborhood where Haven Peniel is located. She said that going into people’s homes for wound care and other services gives her an added dimension of what her congregants need. “I find that the senior adults and the young women have the most issues. The older adults are often lonely and need assistance, while the young adult women are very overwhelmed,” she said.
“That’s why my favorite sermon is about love,” Duckett said. “I don’t feel that sermons about damnation and hell are needed as much in these times. People really just need to know that God loves them. It’s as simple as that. So, when you come to this church you will find that when I preach I give practical sermons focused on love.”
Duckett herself grew up in a loving and church going home. Her grandfather was a minister and her grandmothers were deaconesses. She said that by the time she was 12 she had already read the Bible three times in its entirety. It was at the age of 21 she sensed her calling. After earning her associate’s degree in nursing from St. Petersburg Junior College she decided to migrate to Philadelphia where her aunt and uncle lived.
She then earned her Bachelor of Nursing degree from Hahnemann Hospital. While embarking on her nursing career she entered Palmer Theological Seminary (formerly Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary) and earned her M.Div. She was initially licensed to preach in 1979 at the Hickman Temple AME Church, but joined the United Methodist denomination 10 years later.
The weekly Sunday worship service at Haven Peniel UMC is only the kick-off for a full weekend of activities. The church also has a Wednesday evening Prayer Service at 6:30 p.m. followed by a 7 p.m. Bible Study. There is always a Resource Table set up in Jefferson Hall for information about the church ministries and community service. This is available during regular church hours from Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.