Many want to know about the possibly negative downside of inner workings of the contemporary megachurch model. This was never clearer than when attorney and author A. J. Chappelle held the book signing for her new book, “Revelations.” The event was held at the Moving Arts of Mount Airy Center, 550 Carpenter Lane in West Mount Airy, on April 19 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
There, a standing room only crowd heard Chappelle, which is her pen name, discuss the inspiration for her novel that reveals what can sometimes happen behind the scenes of a larger house of worship. Chappelle was clear that her legal experience in this arena, as well as in a prosecutor’s office, was not in the commonwealth. Yet she also admitted that many who saw the pre-release copies said that book rang true.
This is because Chappelle actually was an attorney for a high-profile African American megachurch congregation. She said she didn’t start out wanting to be a church lawyer. Her early experiences with the Black Church were ambivalent. Growing up in West Oak Lane her mother took her to church and made sure she attended Sunday School. On the other hand, her father warned her that the church was often a haven for “thieves, pimps and prostitutes.”
She saw both sides—the loving church folks as well as the hypocrisy of others. Yet she thought the corruption she saw in her home church as an isolated case that only happened in her own community. So, she kept quiet.
“I didn’t grow up learning about power and politics,” said Chappelle. “So many walk into these high powered worlds of universities and corporations without realizing they are blind. This is just a topic that is not articulated in the mass media or school classrooms. You really have to learn how to maneuver your way through the legal system or even deal with church politics.
“You even have to learn a college culture before you get to your career if you’re the first in your family to go to college. In the church you have to learn about church politics as well. It’s for your own safety. That’s why I wrote the book,” Chappelle said.
So, Chappelle said she was naïve when she went to work for a church. This came on the heels after leaving a prosecutor’s office disillusioned. She thought the church would be a save haven, but she was mistaken.
“In fact it was much worst than I expected,” Chapelle said. “I was doing some legal work for the church and the things that were going on behind closed doors were shocking. I thought what I saw in the legal profession was bad, but this was worst. These were some immoral people, I thought.
“I think it was worst for me because it was a church. I’d watch these idealist young theology students who didn’t know. That’s why I had to write this book. I put it in fiction and it is a fictional account. Yet the stories are real in that many of the incidents did happen. This truth will raise awareness. It’s a very dangerous thing when you think you’re going to serve the Lord and you run into demigods. It’s very disillusioning and I had to struggle with my faith after this experience,” Chappelle said.
Chappelle’s book, “Revelations” is available on amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com.
Full of Faith Ministries in West Philadelphia is a non-traditional, interdenominational and family-centered church, according to its senior pastor Clifford J. Fair Sr.
When it opened its doors on May 15, 2011, it did so with a core of 10 members. Among them were Fair’s mother, Annie L. Holloman-Fair, who serves as the church’s trustee, and his wife, Diane, a schoolteacher who coordinates their outreach ministries.
The church now boasts 80 members and a team that includes Kenyatta View and Carmela Ford, the pastor’s assistants. Full of Faith Ministries is gearing up to move from its current location at 501-509 N. 66th St. to a new church home at 62nd and Noble streets, site of the old IPI after-hours nightclub. Fair said the sale and renovation plans are being worked out to convert the edifice into a state-of-the art worship center.
“We are a special place because we do not turn anybody away,” Fair said. “When you come in, you can feel right at home. You don’t have to wear anything special, because it doesn’t matter how you dress. So, I say that we are non-traditional because on the second and fourth Sundays we even have a worship dinner.”
So when Fair steps into the pulpit one may find that he, too, may not be attired in the traditional clergy garb. He may preach from the Bible book of Nehemiah with the sermon, “Can it be fixed?” as he did on April 7.
As he asked the congregation if they had parts of their lives that were broken or not working, he stood in front a wall backdrop to illustrate the key points of his sermon.
Fair preaches to a diverse African-American population. Some are working-class and professionals with a solid church background. Others are among what Fair calls “the converts,” the “unchurched,” who are on their initial spiritual journeys. And there are many in Full Faith who are overcoming a wide range of “addictive behaviors” and are seeking supernatural intervention, according to Fair.
“We don’t badger people with a lot of rules of what is right and wrong,” he said. “We don’t convict anybody or look down on anything they do or have done. We don’t spend time preaching at them, but we do show them love and allow the spirit to convict them. As they [fellowship] with us the change comes.”
Part of the inspiration to make a Christian transformation is the church’s music, men’s and women’s ministries, which offer opportunities for the new converts to associate with those more mature in the faith, according to Fair. Yet it is through the leadership ministry that many find their gift and calling. This helps bold new members for the total transformation, Fair said.
In fact, Fair himself took this type of transformative journey. A native of the Jacksonville, Fla. area, he said he didn’t immediately embrace his call to the ministry that came in childhood. After migrating to Philadelphia, it was while under the ministry of Lonnie Hunter that he became a deacon in 2011. By 2007 he recognized his gifting was to the pulpit. So, he became a licensed minister that year and was ordained in 2009.
“I call the church interdenominational, because we are not non-denominational,” Fair said. “We are kind of Baptist in our [orientation] but we are also Pentecostal in our spirit. But, we are not under any particular denomination, and that is what makes us interdenominational.”
Four times a year Full Faith brings an ecumenical blend of performing arts talent to its West Philadelphia worship site for an interdenominational concert. On hand are local gospel singers and choirs, mime artists, Christian poets and rappers, spiritual quartets, and others from various Protestant, evangelical and non-denominational churches. “I am not a musician, but I have a lot of music connections. I know that having this draws more into the church,” Fair said.
Yet the distinguishing mark of Full Faith is the family atmosphere, said the pastor. Fair insists that every member of the congregation has his personal cell phone number. They are free to text him during the course of the day, he said.
Also, every member is treated as an extended family member. In fact, living in the home with Fair, his wife, and their recently adopted baby are homeless members. His mother and other church members have also opened their homes to the growing displaced population in the church’s immediate area.
“Part of our vision for the new church is to be able to have a place that can house people for up to six months,” Fair said. “This will be part of our jumpstart ministry. There are so many people and families that need help these days beyond just preaching to them, because many no longer have a place to live.
“We come from a [background] where you treat church members like your family. That’s why when we have our worship dinners. My mother and others will cook the food. Or, when someone is evicted we make sure they either get into a shelter or other place to live, or we take them in. We look forward to providing more services like this when we have more space,” he said.
This familial spirit is one of the reasons Fair and his wife took the step to expand their family last July by adopting a newborn. The couple was married in 1998, and Fair was already the father of three children, ages 21, 28 and 34, and the grandfather of eight. Yet, as his congregation grows, so does his family.
“We are just looking to bring more people into our family,” Fair said. “We are concerned about the welfare of people. We don’t want to see anyone go hungry or homeless. So we are from that school where if someone is hungry, you give them something to eat and if they are homeless you make sure they have somewhere to live.
“I just want the community to know we are here for them. That’s why we set ourselves up honestly with all the necessary legal paperwork. We are a completely legitimate church and we do plan to bring more people into our family-centered church,” he said.
It’s not easy to mesmerize nearly 100 adolescents for more than an hour. Yet when author and evangelist Myles Munroe spoke to the students at the Mennonite High School in North Philadelphia recently he did just that. He was the guest speaker at the nation’s only urban based Mennonite school located at 860 N. 24th St. on Tuesday.
Munroe said he heard the freshman to senior pupils used his book, “Releasing Your Potential” as their text for their weekly Small Group Chapel sessions. So, the Bahamian pastor and his wife, Ruth, squeezed the school in their hectic itinerary through the Delaware Valley.
After eating a full-course buffet lunch in the school cafeteria and giving a presentation, he even hung around autograph books and take photographs with the students.
“Dr. Munroe was awesome,” said Kairi Creighton, a 16-year old West Philadelphian. “He showed me how I can be successful as a Christian. I learned how to do just that even at my church, Calvary Baptist on Haverford Avenue. He is such a great speaker.”
In his presentation Munroe, senior pastor of the Bahamas Faith Ministries International Fellowship, urged the students to realize that each one is carrying a seed. Just as an apple seed has the potential to become a tree with fruit, and each fruit has seeds to produce more trees with fruit, they have gifts to be developed. The preacher said that each student has a forest that needs seeds to plant in their fertile soil and then allow it to grow.
“I really enjoyed the presentation,” said Jessica Williams, a 16-year-old student from Upper Darby. “At first, when he showed the scenes of the graveyard on the screen, I didn’t get it. After he explained how if we don’t pursue what God put us here to do we will end up not sharing our gifts, like not dying with poetry in us.
“So, the lesson I learned was that we should pursue our dreams. I have to never give up. I have much to share and I should share what I have, so like Jesus at the end of my life I will leave here empty saying that it is finished.”
The school’s principal, Barbara G. Moses, and vice principal, the Rev. Douglas Powell, were equally excited about Munroe’s presence at the school. “They have been preparing for this visit and since his schedule was tight we even prepared by having oxtail and all the other things on the menu,” Moses said.
“It’s important to really engage in your calling,” Powell said. “I understand that I was placed here six years ago after I had an accident. Dr. Moses, too, thought she was retiring from the school district when she was called here in 1987. God always has a hand in allowing us to fulfill our potential.”
A native of Nassau, Munroe has penned more than 40 books. He is founder and chair of the International Third World Leaders Association. He is also the recipient of Queen’s Birthday Honors of the Order of the British Empire, bestowed on him by Queen Elizabeth.
Munroe was a featured speaker at the Kingdom Culture Bible Conferenceat the Living Faith Christian Center in Pennsauken, N.J. on April 9 and 10. He is also one of the featured speakers at the Singles Conference at the Crossroad Christian Church in Dover, Del. from April 12 to 14.
Mandatory minimum sentences, the prison system as big business for Pennsylvania, and the ill effects of unjust drug-related incarcerations on families was the focus of a program in a Northwest Philadelphia sanctuary recently. That’s why the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church East drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 3,000 to its east campus at 2800 W. Cheltenham Ave. on Friday, April 5.
The evening started with a film about the aftereffects of the so-called “drug wars.” The documentary was Eugene Jarecki’s “The House I Live In.” The executive producers are Danny Glover, John Legend, Brad Pitts and Russell Simmons. The film’s showing was co-sponsored by Enon and the Church of St. Martin in the Fields in Chestnut Hill.
“There are 30 million people who are affected by this—that is a voting bloc,” said Jarecki to the full house that overflowed to the church’s balcony. He said those incarcerated who were highlighted in the film are among “the persecuted poor” who are victims because of “the deck being stacked against them.”
After the film there was a panel discussion followed by a question and answer session. Panelists included Montgomery County chief public defender Keir Bradford-Grey, Philadelphia defense attorneys Michael Coard and Tariq El-Shabazz, University of Pennsylvania political science professor Marie Gottschalk, federal mitigation investigator Susan Randall and poet Joshua Glenn.
Bradford-Grey pointed out that she works closely with the “poor and indigent” who cannot afford to pay a lawyer. She agreed that many public policies cause the sentencing injustices shown in the film, creating a sustem stacked against those from low-income and working-class families.
“This film was really intense,” said Nate Smith, a 17-year-old Enon member who attends Abington Friends School. “I think it did a good job in showing why some get involved in drugs and what can happen. I hope that the legislators do something about some of the (unjust) issues raised in the film.”
For Kevin Brown, 35, of North Philadelphia, the film emphasized the importance of the responsibilities of congregation members who are better off to reach out to those who are struggling. He credited the role of the Pitman family, whom he called “my second family,” for mentoring him, taking him to church and enrolling him in programs like the Boy Scouts. Without this affiliation he would have succumbed to his neighborhood’s drug culture, he said.
“When church members, especially Black men, see there’s a drug house on the block,they need to go up to them and ask if they can take their children to church,” Brown said. “This is a big church here. I hope after this they will do more to bring more of the people who are involved in drugs into their circle, even if it means housing, feeding and clothing them so they won’t turn to selling or using drugs.”
Philip Jones of Germantown concurred. He said while he thought the film was riveting, he became a bit frustrated with the think-tank that followed. “I’m all about action more than rhetoric, and I do believe that prayer is action. I also believe in reaching into the trenches by taking young men off the corner, getting them jobs, and then bringing them into the church fold,” Jones said.
The First Baptist Church of Paschall in Southwest Philadelphia is doing what many churches are not able to do. It is building a congregation of young people and growing families. In fact, anyone who attended its Resurrection Sunday services would find that the average age of the congregation is about 25 to 30-years-old.
Pastor Eric Simmons credits this to the youthful vibrancy he brings. The 39-year-old senior pastor was the youngest ordained minister at his original church home, Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. There he served as youth pastor for many years.
“We say that we are a church with a helping hand for a hurting humanity,” Simmons said. “When I started here as pastor in 2006 we had 100 members, but now we have grown to about 850 to 900. We have an influx of young people, between the ages of 20 and 35, who worship along with a few senior members. But, the majority in our church is young.
“I think they really like my style. I am (approaching) 40 but I look younger than I am. I am into Gospel music with a more youth-oriented sound. I am a Gospel artist known nationally and I have served for many years as a youth pastor. I understand young people, and that is why we have an influx of them at this church,”he said.
So, among the ministries at the church is an intensive pre-baptismal program. Rather than having new members attend weekly Bible instruction or a series of conversion classes stretched out over months, the church holds a special half-day Saturday session. This is followed by baptisms on the fifth Sunday of the month, when congregants arrive at 10:30 a.m. for baptisms that begin by 10:45 a.m. By no later than 11:15 a.m. the baptisms are completed and the worship service begins.
“We know that young people don’t like to come to church week after week for classes,” Simmons said. “We give then everything that they will need to get baptized in four hours on a Saturday. After they get everything they need, they are baptized and are extended the right hand of fellowship. After the baptism we have a brunch. This way they are quickly acclimated to the church as members, and we ensure that they will be back.”
Many of the young families have school-age children. These youngsters are not only involved in the church’s Sunday school, but many also attend a charter public school that the church runs. This is because First Paschall now includes the old St. Clement Catholic School and campus.
When the congregation purchased this site in 2006 it acquired a 1,200-seat sanctuary and two other buildings in addition to the education campus. The church then began an $800,000 construction project that converted the property into a new church facility, the Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School. It educates more than 500 students, a residential home for boys and a mentoring program for young men and women.
“What makes us unique is that offer an alternative education,” said Simmons, whose wife of 15 years, Tiffany, coordinates the youth and women’s ministries at First Paschall. “I use alternative in the sense that we are providing education to everyone. We know all the things that are going on with the Philadelphia School District, so we are offering an alternative to that.
“We stress that education is important, but we are not a Christian school. We acquired the school when we purchased the property where we are located in 2006. It was a $4 million investment that now includes the charter school building. As a young church we do have parents who send their children to our school, and we are growing,” he said.
The church also provides many other services for its growing membership. A boys’ residential facility serves youngsters in the surrounding Southwest Philadelphia community. With many families faced with welfare cuts, unemployment and underemployment, the church also is addressing these needs by providing various social services, according to the senior pastor.
Simmons is quick to point out that former Mayor W. Wilson Goode now serves as the church’s administrative pastor. There are five other pastors who bring their liturgical or administrative gifts to First Baptist. “We are blessed to have the Rev. Dr. Goode handling our finances and taking care of the administration of the church, and we also have other experiences among our executive pastors,” Simmons said.
Since its expansion, the church has been featured on the broadcast airwaves, including TBN specials and on local radio. It has attracted national evangelists, including Jamal Bryant, Dorinda Clark Cole and Clifton Davis.
On a typical Sunday one will not find Simmons wearing a pastoral robe or a tailored suit and tie. He explained that his more casual attire resonates with his young adult congregation. Sometimes he will even include props like a basketball in hand while wearing athletic gear to get a point across.
Recently, congregants came into the church to find their sanctuary converted into a jail. Simmons then emerged wearing the type of attire a Roman prisoner would be dressed in. “On that Sunday, I illustrated what Paul went through by producing a theatrical image. Young people today are very visual, so they can get the message better if they can see it,” Simmons said.
Simmons added that using his vocal prowess has also blessed his church. Since becoming senior pastor more than eight years ago, he has recorded a debut album, “Freedom” on Flow Records. Under the labels started by Juanita Bynum and currently owned by Myron Williams, he has had recordings on the national gospel Billboard charts. His debut single, “Lord, I Thank You” was among the Top 40 and led him to perform at the Crystal Cathedral Church in California and on the Radio One Love Gospel Cruise during the promotional tour.
He regularly performs his recent hit single, “My Heart Belongs to You” on the same stage as many top gospel recording artists. He recently performed at the “Praise in the Park” events. While in Atlanta he performed with Isaac Caree, Jessica Reedy, Darlene McCoy and Earnest Pugh. He also performed on the same stage with Lonnie Hunter and Mary Mary in Raleigh.
“I didn’t start out singing Gospel,” admitted Simmons, who began studying piano and voice at the age of 5 at the Northeast Boys and Girls Club. “I used to be an R&B singer. I had left music for many years. I just recorded my first gospel album in 2011. So, this is really something new for me.
“I am glad to be able to use the gift God gave me. I am a singer, songwriter and musician. Now my album is available on iTunes, as well as at Walmart, Target and Best Buy stores. The church is supportive of me and I encourage them to be creative as well,” Simmons said.
Simmons has strong Philadelphia roots. He was baptized at the Second Baptist Church of Frankford at the age of 8. He was licensed to preach by the Rev.Alyn E. Waller at Enon in 1998. His employment history ranges from being an activities coordinator for Genesis Elder Care and program director for the Manor Health Care’s Alzheimer’s unit to being a social worker for the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.
He is also continuing his education. He is studying for his doctorate in Biblical counseling at the Trinity Theological Seminary. He previously did graduate studies at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Philadelphia Biblical University. He has a B.S. in urban ministry leadership and an A.A. in Bible and ministry from Geneva College.
“I didn’t get a new suit for Resurrection Sunday,” Simmons said. “Those who came saw me in a traditional robe that was not new. My challenge for them on Resurrection Sunday was not to buy a new Easter outfit, but to bring someone new to church. Jesus called us to bring our gifts and others to church. That’s why he said he is the resurrection and the life.”
The First Baptist Church of Paschall is at 7100 Woodland Ave., 2240 S. 71st St. An 11 a.m. worship service is held every Sunday.