The Knights of Peter Claver and its Ladies Auxiliary found an original way to raise money for the St. Athanasius Catholic Church in West Oak Lane and their community outreach projects recently. The guild brought together indigenous Pacific island dancers, soul line dance tunes and even a roasted pig with an apple in its mouth for a Hawaiian-style fundraiser.
It took place at the church located at the corner of Limekiln Pike and Washington Lane on Aug. 17 from 7 p.m. to midnight. A full house turned out to for the third annual event. They were greeted with leis at the front door and entered the St. Athanasius School auditorium that was decorated with pineapples, Hawaiian masks and palm trees.
“This comes after we had our national convention here in Philadelphia,” said Janine Masoenburg, the Grandlady of the Ladies Auxiliary. She has been a member of the church for 13 years. She assumed her current position last January.
“Many people don’t realize that we are a charitable organization,” Masoenburg said. “We have served meals to the shut-in and we have a large food pantry. We also give away food baskets at Thanksgiving and we work on many community service projects. This is one of our major fundraisers.”
Preston Wakefield has been Grand Knight of the St. Athanasius chapter of the national African-American organization. The Knights are the counterparts of the Knights of Columbus. Wakefield, too, was elected to his position at the start of this year.
“One of the things I really walked away with after our convention is to be dedicated to our community mission,” Wakefield said. “We do have events where we enjoy ourselves, but we are really here to help show others what Christian charity is and to help draw them to the Lord.
“I also work with the Junior Knights. These are boys who need help with projects they do and programs they have. We also fund scholarships. We holding a fundraiser to Rehoboth Beach in Delaware to raise even more monies for our church and this community,” Wakefield said.
On hand for the event was the Knights chaplain, the Rev. Rayford Emmons, Office of Black Catholics director William Bradley, St. Athanasius pastor, the Rev. Joseph Okonski, screenwriter and church member Clayvon Martin, and church member Marie Watson, who was the longtime head librarian for the West Oak Lane branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia until her retirement in 2006.
“I try to support or volunteer for most things that supports my church and serves this neighborhood,” Watson said. Emmons said Philadelphia is home to several courts of the Knights and Ladies Auxiliary. “It’s great to come here to see what is going on, have a little fun, and support a great cause,” Emmons said.
“This is just one of many examples of the African-American Catholic community trying to make money to be of service to others,” Bradley said. “I am a Knight of St. Gregory, but I support the Knights of Peter Claver. They just do so much charitable work throughout the year.”
Mary Wade’s scholarly writing and work usually center on spiritual topics. She’s published many writings and did her doctoral dissertation on the spirituality of Howard Thurman. She is the founder of the spirituality and mindfulness group Elevating Our Nation (EON), and coordinates workshops like the recent “Aging Gracefully” through Building Respect in Communities, a ministry of Wayland Temple Baptist Church in North Philadelphia.
Now Wade is integrating her love of the arts with spirituality and social commentary in her new book, “Can You See Me Now: Poems, Prayers, Songs for Trayvon Benjamin Martin.” She will hold a book launch at a private residence in Mount Airy on Aug. 30 and will host other book signings through her church and nonprofit group affiliations in September.
“I was actually in Washington, D.C. doing research at George Mason University when I heard the verdict,” Wade said. “The decision totally distracted me from my work. The title came to me and I immediately just started writing down my thoughts.
“It was an inspiring process. The work just came through me, so I put down the project I was working on about Howard Thurman and kept writing. The result was 22 spiritual poems. Since I was in D.C. I just ran over to the Library of Congress and put the copyright on it,” Wade said.
In fact the new volume was a spiritual catharsis for Wade. The matured adult scholar and writer found many similarities between her life and that of Martin, she said. Growing up in North Philadelphia from an ordinary family, she was not groomed to go on to higher education or a professional career.
“Many of the teachers and others I encountered [prejudged] me based on my background or just by looking at me. Sometimes I even thought those things about myself. That was before I knew that God has important work for me to do,” Wade said.
Consequently, in many ways Wade feels that Martin was stereotyped as she was based on the fact that he was a young ordinary African-American male wearing a hooded jacket. In her book Wade intuits that Martin may have had a calling to bring up those difficult spiritual questions about race, class and ethnicity many Americans avoid facing.
Before and since the jury’s decision Wade has attended rallies and vigils for Trayvon. She said she felt the sacred connection with the adolescent even amid a crowd of more than 700.
“It’s just like when I was first working on a work about Howard Thurman I felt that spiritual connection,” Wade said. “I felt it with Trayvon Martin and this is why I had to write this. It’s something deeply religious about this experience. I think that this book brings the spiritual centered approach to resolve deep feelings after that decision.”
Most Philadelphia churches have more members on the official rolls than one finds in the church pews on Sunday morning. Not so for the Germantown Church of the Brethren. In fact, at a typical 11 a.m. worship summer service one will find nearly double the number of members in its church log and during the holiday season that number may even triple.
Yet, that is not the only thing that is unique about the predominantly African-American Northwest Philadelphia church. The congregation has been worshiping in the same stone church with stained glass windows since 1723. As the “Mother Church” to the United States for the Protestant denomination it has a long history dating back to when Germantown was a suburb of Philadelphia. The Germantown church also traces its religious ancestry to the early 18th century Brethren movement in Schwarzenau, Germany.
“Many people are even surprised that we are an active church that worships inside and outside the church,” said the Rev. Richard Kyerematen, who has been the church’s senior pastor since 1989. “During the summer when we like to worship on the church grounds, we attract many people who are surprised we are a church. They look at the historic building and think that it is some sort of museum. They get excited when they see that we are actually making living history here.”
One of the things that keep many returning to the church is their Christ-centeredness, according to Kyerematen. He is quick to point out that the church steers clear of using the phrase “Bible-believing church” because of its overuse. “It is more accurate to say that we are a Christ believing and a Bible teaching church,” he said.
Another thing that draws those from the surrounding Germantown and Mount Airy neighborhoods to the church is the relaxed environment. One will not find members profiling in designer suits and women adorned in ostentatious headwear. The summer outdoor worship service has a revival atmosphere that is welcoming even to those who ordinarily do not go to church every Sunday.
“The simplicity of our services creates a relaxed and non-threatening environment,” Kyerematen said. “We also have an eclectic worship style that appeals to all kinds of people. I like to say it is a different worship taste buds here. That’s why we are so intergenerational and transcultural.”
Another unique aspect of the Germantown Church of the Brethren is that it has forced partnerships across denominational lines and with various nonprofits to engage in social justice projects. Currently they have partnered with the Lafiya Family Services Center and the Integrated Community Services.
In the past they have joined forces with other groups in the area as well as held a summer performing arts camp. In fact many who tap into their myriad of community services are often surprised to find out that the church membership rolls average only about 50.
“People will ask how is it that a church this size can accomplish so much and I will answer that God always sends people our way to take our ministries to another level,” Kyerematen said. “When God gives a vision it comes with the provision.”
Kyerematen, a native of Ghana in West Africa, brings a global dimension to the small congregation. After earning his undergraduate degree in English and philosophy from the University of Ghana he relocated to Sweden. It was at the University of Uppsala that he studied messiahology and ecclesiology.
When he immigrated to the United States he has his sights set on going to seminary in other parts of the country. He was accepted into the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. He chose to bypass the warm weather and attend Lancaster Theological Seminary to earn his master of divinity degree because he had relatives in Pennsylvania.
“I worked in journalism and mass communications in Ghana,” Kyerematen said. “I originally went to Sweden on a guest scholarship to contextualize what was my calling. I really thought I was called to work in religion and education, but gradually I realized I was not called to [academia] but to have an impact on society by working with the people through ministry.”
Kyerematen said that it was providential that he was chosen to pastor a predominantly African-American church in a predominantly white area. He was particularly excited that he would be working in one of the less affluent areas of Northwest Philadelphia, an area that includes wealthy communities like nearby Chestnut Hill and West Mount Airy.
“I like that the church has its own unique legacy,” Kyerematen said. “This part of Germantown was once called beggar’s town because it has a history of supporting the unfortunate. The original church had German and their Mennonite ‘cousins’ who would often help the struggling German and other immigrants as well as the Blacks who lived in this area. So I see it as a privilege to continue that legacy of catering to the community.”
Most of the members live in the immediate area. Many walk to church, take a short trek on public transportation, or drive a few blocks. Yet their presence is felt throughout the Northwest Philadelphia area as they have adopted the nearby Emlen Elementary School, Chew and Upsal streets in Mount Airy. They have also expanded their campus to include the old Upsal Lumber Company building on the 6600 block of Germantown Avenue as well as a fellowship hall further south on Germantown Avenue. Thus, the church’s official address is now 6601-6615 Germantown Ave.
The Germantown Church of the Brethren is pleased that there is a growing number of adolescents who are attending many of their services. Kyerematen feels that this is laying the foundation for a church filled with young families within the next few years.
“Our five-year goal is really to continue to create an environment where children and young people will be positively impacted,” Kyerematen said. “I am hoping that they will let the Lord inspire them to be people of faith. I also hope that we will be able to develop even more youthful leadership.
“Personally, I would love to see our churches filled with the youth especially teenagers. We have been blessed to have a high-end digital recording studio recently built in the church. Prayerfully that and other ministries designed exclusively for the youth will help convince them that the church is listening to and here for them,” Kyerematen said.
The Rev. Neil Bond, and his wife, the Rev. Gwendolyn Johnson-Bond, have experienced the joys of matrimony and parenthood. Yet, as co-pastors of the St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church they have also shared the pulpit for nearly a quarter century. Just as their family life flourished, so has the corner stone church located at 74th Avenue and Briar Road. in West Oak Lane.
St. Peter’s is truly a neighborhood hub. The basement frequently hosts block association meetings, acts as home to three Girl Scout troupes, and even Alcoholics Anonymous/Al-Anon get spiritual renewal there.
The lower level floor has been graced by Agape Liturgical Dancers, Brenda Lee Dance Studio and members of Philadanco’s West Oak Lane school branch, choreographing and learning dance steps when they needed additional space.
One can still hear the voices of the Joy Unlimited Youth Mass Choir under the direction of Charlotte Webb rehearsing at St. Peter’s. The church’s own All Saints Choir is also directed by Webb. Two South African choirs did tours at the West Oak Lane church. Sometimes one might even hear Johnson-Bond show her vocal prowess singing with one of the church’s ensembles.
“In an age of Walmart-type churches, we are kind of the Mom and Pop store,” said Neil Bond, a native of suburban Reading. “Our members are drawn here because they like the neighborhood church. They like that the pastors know their face and name, that when they need something they don’t have to go through levels of hierarchy, and that the church is in walking distance even if they choose to drive three blocks.”
Many of those in the surrounding neighborhood have been to St. Peter’s even if they are not Lutherans or members. Once a year the church hosts a Town Hall Meeting sponsored by State Rep. Cherelle Parker. The nonprofit Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation and Youth Build Charter School rented space at St. Peter’s when their headquarters was in transition. Currently, the Lutheran Children and Family Services of Southeastern Pennsylvania rent office space at St. Peter’s.
On the third Saturday of every month St. Peter’s distributes groceries through Food Share from 10 a.m. to noon. Philabundance will also be coming on board this fall. For matured adults, there is the Senior Food Box program the first Friday of the month at 8:30 a.m. Through a new partnership with Whole Foods Supermarket St. Peter’s gives out fresh produce and breads on the second and third Thursday of the month at 1:30 p.m.
“When you go to seminary not every pastor wants to work in an urban setting,” Johnson-Bond said. “I grew up Lutheran, and this is not a predominantly Africa- American denomination. When I was a teenager in a predominantly African-American church I felt a need to become an African-American pastor and work in an urban church.”
The Bonds each entered seminary not sure that being a pastor was their calling. Neil Bond, who has an undergraduate degree in English, initially worked in a steel mill right before he went to seminary. Johnson-Bond enjoyed teaching first and third graders at a South Bronx elementary school. Yet she, like her husband, knew that she wanted to have a stronger impact on her community.
So, the couple consciously set out to have a social justice theme for their congregation. Bond, an alumnus of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mount Airy, was drawn to his wife because of a mutual vision for community service integrated with a strong ministry. “Growing up near Reading I was somewhat lonely and after seminary I chose to pastor at a church in West Philadelphia rather than a rural town in northeastern Pennsylvania,” Bond said.
Johnson-Bond is a native of the Bronx, N.Y. She has lived in different parts of the country, including in California while earning her M.Div. degree from the Pacific Lutheran Seminary in Berkley, Calif. The couple met at a regional Bible study group. After getting married in 1980, they served at a Lutheran church in Baltimore and another local church before coming to St. Peter’s. Since arriving at the West Oak Lane church they have shared one salary.
“A small urban church cannot afford two salaries,” Neil Bond said. “The church was in transition in urban areas during the 1960s as a white Protestant denomination. Many other churches did not survive after the racial [dynamics] of the neighborhood changed.
“We are now a predominantly African-American church in still what is a predominantly white denomination. We have 400 members and on a typical Sunday we might average more than 100. Yet the church is doing well. We have remained vibrant because of our connection to the community,” he said.
The interracial couple, who are in their early 60s, have two children — 25-year-old Samuel and 21-year-old Amada. The younger Bonds grew up in the West Oak Lane parish and neighborhood. Their son is now an accountant in Harlem, N.Y. and their daughter recently graduated from Boston University. Yet, the couple is not totally empty-nested, they reared Bond-Johnson’s nephew for a year after his father passed in 2010, and they are still active in the child’s life now that he resides with his mother.
The co-pastors also enjoy the vibrancy of having younger families worshiping alongside the more seasoned members. St. Peter’s will celebrate Grandparent’s Day on Sept. 8. Writer Elaine Jones, who is an active member, is already planning the intergenerational festivities, according to Johnson-Bond.
Then another church committee is planning a special event for their annual Women’s Day event. They will be inviting a guest speaker and guest choir for this event. It will be held on the second Sunday in October.
“On short notice we were able to raise $7,000 to send six young people and two adults to the ECLA Youth Gathering convention in New Orleans last year,” Johnson-Bond said. “The young people returned with lots of energy. We have an active group of young people at the church who love to serve the Lord.”
There is a monthly Game Night at the church that also brings together the youth and adults. At this gathering one might find children playing board games with seniors or a multigenerational entourage on the lower level floor learning the latest line dance. This will resume in September, after a summer hiatus, on the second Friday of the month from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Johnson-Bond will readily point out that she ministers best to the youth on a one on one or small group basis, while her husband is the stronger one of the pair in the pulpit. She said that Bond has the gift of “crafting the lectionary” so that it appeals to the intergenerational membership at the church. “We both convey that in serving Jesus Christ there is sacrifice involved and as Christians we must never forget the sacrifice,” she said.
Neil Bond concurred. He said that as an evangelical congregation he often reiterates the importance of evangelization. “We know that we are living in a self-oriented age, but that does not mean we should keep the gospel to ourselves. We must be sure that we are sharing the gospel even within the church.
“I think we are doing that here because we have [additional] younger children, those in elementary school and teenagers now. Like most churches we still have those who are little older, but it’s also encouraging to be in the pulpit and hear babies crying. That is always good,” Bond said.
The Kenya Catholic Community in America will be celebrating their nation’s 50th anniversary with a special Sunday Mass. This will take place at our Lady of Hope Church, 5200 N. Broad St. on Sunday at 11 a.m. The Mass will be celebrated by Archbishop Charles Chaput of the Philadelphia Archdiocese.
Among the those scheduled to be in attendance are Philadelphia’s St. Gabriel Small Community, the St. Agatha Small Christian Community in Central Jersey, the St. Patrick’s Small Christian Community in North Jersey, the Kenya Catholic Community in Delaware, the St. Andres African Ministry in Massachusetts, the Wasafiri Voices of Baltimore and the Kenya Catholic Community Friends of Boston.
“This is an exciting event for the entire Philadelphia community,” said Cynthia Brown, who serves as chairperson of the Our Lady of Hope finance committee. Brown’s other volunteer hats include being past chair of Our Lady of Hope’s Need to Grow Archdiocese campaign, vice president of the church’s Women’s Day Committee and vice Grandlady of the Knights of Peter Claver Ladies’ Auxiliary Court 342, based at the St. Athanasius Church in West Oak Lane.
“It was last year that an entourage of us from the Black Catholic community went to the National Black Catholic Congress in Indianapolis,” Brown said. “Events like this are about keeping that momentum going. This, along with a recent citywide revival we had at our church, shows the Philadelphia that we are in an energized community.
“This particular event will be monumental in that we are hosting so many Kenyan communities. We are easily looking forward to having 500 people coming from all over the region and as far away as Maryland. Here at Our Lady of Hope we are saying goodbye to Father Paul Maina who is from Kenya and will be leaving us at the end of August.”
Perhaps no one is more optimistic about the fruits of Sunday’s Mass than George N. Marucha, the chairman of the KCCA and a member of the Mumuiya community. He said that the event will not only bring together those of Kenyan heritage, but give the Philadelphia African-American community and the local Catholic community a change to learn about the East African nation.
“We want as many people from all cultures to join us in this celebration,” Marucha said. “The Mass will be in Swahili and English. It will be done in a way that expresses our roots. So it will be a good cultural experience.
“We will also be praying for all the world leaders, but especially for those from Kenya and the rest of Africa. We feel it’s important to pray for the world leaders no matter what their origin,” Marucha said.
Marucha said that the organization was founded last year with a mission of bringing together those of Kenyan heritage who are scattered throughout the United States. Since many Kenyans are Catholic bringing together these people of faith is their first initiative.