2 days in the inner city
Editors Note: Isaac
Olivarez, staff writer, recently traveled to Philadelphia where
he explored various Assemblies of God ministries in the inner city.
Following is an on-site report from the City of Brotherly Love.
Philadelphia is a city
of firsts. Here Americas first novel was published in 1744.
Two years later, Americas first stock exchange opened. Less
than a decade after that, Americas first hospital was established.
In 1776, Philadelphia became the first capital of the United States.
In recent decades, Philadelphia,
the city that steered America through adolescence, has been mired
in violence, drugs and spiritual darkness in many sections of the
city. Over the years, middle-class neighborhoods once defined by
hardworking, blue-collar families have become havens for drug lords,
prostitutes and gang members.
Despite the perils of
the inner city, Assemblies of God pastors and nationally appointed
home missionaries are working to bring Christs message of
hope and love to Philadelphias oldest and toughest neighborhoods.
In doing so, they are believing that a spiritual awakening will
pervade the city and eventually spread across the nation. After
all, they say, Philadelphia is a city of firsts, and what starts
here has been known to spread across the nation.
The city: A different
Friday, 6:54 p.m.
I dash from the car to the churchs door, leaving the bitterly
cold air. Inside, I meet David DiPietro, senior pastor of Kensington
Assembly. From his office window I look out on the Harrogate community,
located in an area of Philadelphia known as Kensington. Here, cramped
row houses stand like sentries looking over thin streets.
"In the inner city, nothing
comes easy," DiPietro, 39, says. "You have to be willing to stay
a while." DiPietro and his wife, Marcia, have ministered in the
area for more than 10 years. The homes in this community, built
in the 18th century to accommodate the citys influx of European
immigrants, have become rigidly divided pockets of ethnic diversity.
In the heart of the neighborhood is DiPietros church, known
to neighbors as Open Door Ministry.
"This is a city of beginnings,"
DiPietro tells me. "If revival starts here, it could be the beginning
of a national revival."
As we tour the church,
DiPietro tells me of the churchs remarkable transformation
and growth. The building used to be a meat processing plant, he
says, as he shows me the library. But in 1995, DiPietro and church
workers rolled up their sleeves and renovated the building that
now serves more than 100 people, representing 15 nationalities,
As we talk, we cut through
a short hallway and DiPietro pushes open a door which unleashes
a chest-pounding wave of Christian R&B music. A sturdy, jovial
man with a shaved head bounds across the room toward us.
"Welcome to Crossover
youth service," Bobby LaCourt, the 31-year-old youth pastor, says
with a thick Philadelphia accent. A quick survey of the room reveals
more than 30 African-American and Puerto Rican teens dashing here
and there, others standing coolly engaged in conversation and some
setting up chairs or playing arcade games. In a gymnasium, once
a meat locker, teens play basketball.
"I cant describe
the feeling when I come to church," Sharlena, 17, says. "Ive
got the Holy Spirit all over me."
An hour into the evening
"Shout to the Lord" begins pouring from the speakers. The teens
abandon their games and make their way to the youth sanctuary.
"Thank You for what Youre
doing in this neighborhood, Lord," LaCourt prays, jump-starting
the high-energy youth service. "Continue to change hearts out there.
If anyone came defeated, I pray they would leave with victory."
Minutes later, a teen
shares his testimony. He tells how his mother used to leave him
for days while she got high on drugs. His story is typical of many
teens here who, despite tough family situations, have embraced Christ
as Savior. The teen goes on to tell how he went to live with his
father, his fathers girlfriend and her kids.
"My dad ignored me,"
the young man stammers. "I tried committing suicide, but then I
came to this church and started praying."
The kids respond with
applause and praise as he tearfully finds his way back to his seat.
An hour later, teens are crying out to God, asking Him not only
to touch their lives, but their friends lives too. LaCourt
says the Friday night services will continue to be a place where
lives are transformed.
"We dont candy-coat
anything," LaCourt says. "Drug dealers are real, and we have to
be real, too."
Hungry: The Breakfast
Saturday, 8:47 a.m.
Eight sleepy teens wolf down Lucky Charms, pancakes and eggs
a scene not unusual for hungry high schoolers. But also before them
are Bibles, which the group busily scours for answers to questions
such as, "What is dissension?" and "What are the fruit of the Spirit?"
Ive joined the
group at Lighthouse Family Center in West Kensington (Abe Oliver,
"Welcome to Lighthouse
Family Centers Breakfast Club, " says Dennis Winton,
youth pastor, as I pull up a seat and pour myself a bowl of cereal.
We seem far removed from the tough inner-city streets that are right
outside the doors, but thats the point this is a place
"I love being here every
day of the week because this is where I feel safe," Alphonso, 15,
Because of their apparel,
teens here might be labeled by some as delinquents, but I quickly
discover that baggy jeans and bandannas can be misleading. Behind
the urban wear are believers thankful for their salvation and serious
about growing in their faith. Their eyes light up and they smile
as they tell how God has transformed their lives. But being a Christian
in the inner city is not always easy.
"One of my friends says
all Christians do is talk to a God thats not real," Pierre,
18, says. "I tell my friend he needs to experience salvation himself
because it will change his life forever like it changed mine."
As the teens eat, they
wonder aloud how they can apply last Sundays sermon to their
lives. Others, with childlike curiosity, drill Winton with questions
about the Bible. Its encouraging that here in the inner city
teens are hungry to know Christ better.
"Theyre all regulars,
but who knows what will happen this week?"
Winton says of the teens.
"Life past 20 in the inner city its hard to think that
far ahead because they see people getting shot all the time."
Vision: From the outside
At Philadelphia Christian Center, in Bensalem, more than 200 pastors
and laypeople are gathered to receive church ministry training.
Here I learn of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Church Planting Initiative,
an innovative plan to reach inner-city residents with the gospel.
According to Phillip
Menditto, pastor at PCC and a presbyter, volunteers from A/G churches
work together to plant a new church in the suburbs. The day the
church opens, it is complete with nursery workers, ushers, greeters,
office staff and a pastor. Once the new church becomes sovereign,
it begins supporting inner-city church plants with finances and
"If we can get stronger
churches in the suburbs to support inner-city churches, there will
be many reached for Christ in the inner city," Menditto says.
Endurance: Key to
The sun sneaks behind Philadelphias skyline as I drive back
into the city. I pass abandoned houses and enter Frankford, one
of Philadelphias toughest neighborhoods, to reach Faith Assembly
In perfect contrast to
the dilapidated surroundings, the sound of childrens voices
carries out of the church and into the neighborhood. In the sanctuary,
Richard Smith, senior pastor, greets me like an old friend although
this is the first time weve met. Smith leads the children
in prayer. Nearly 30 children stand in a circle, hand in hand, as
Smith pleads Gods protection over them. After the prayer,
Smiths 20-year-old daughter, Jeannie, directs the choir.
Besides offering good
music, this church has thrived by meeting peoples physical
and spiritual needs. The churchs food pantry serves more than
350 families a month. Twice a week, hot meals are served. The church
also runs mens and womens homes which offer housing
and discipleship. Because of the myriad of ministries at the church,
many lives are being touched for eternity.
Devon Gibson, 16, says of the day he accepted Christ as his Savior.
"Now I dont talk the way I used to talk, and I dont
do the things I used to do."
The key to the churchs
success has been to minister on all fronts. "We call it wholistic
ministry," Smith says. "You cant just minister to the body
and not minister to the soul and mind. Its all connected."
Meeting needs: A deaf
Sunday, 9:31 a.m.
Fingers move rapidly as frequent, quiet vocalizations accompany
a barrage of facial expressions. Though the basement here at Full
Gospel Assembly in Brookhaven, another Philadelphia suburb, is almost
completely silent, a wealth of communication flows freely in the
moments before Deaf Christian Churchs Sunday worship service
A black cloth draped
over two large speaker stands divides the room. On one side, David
Robb, senior pastor, teaches Sunday school to more than 20 adults;
on the other side, Michael Feil, youth pastor, teaches three deaf
"There is a spiritual
hunger in the deaf community," Robb, 38, says. "They just need a
church that is willing to meet them where theyre at."
Ten years ago, Robb and
his wife, Barbara, moved to Philadelphia to familiarize themselves
with the deaf community and make contacts. In 1995, they started
DCC with a handful of people who learned of the church through others.
Today, DCC is one of only three evangelical deaf churches in the
greater Philadelphia area.
"I came here because
I was able to talk to the pastor directly. I couldnt do that
in a hearing church," 58-year-old Grace Bishop tells me through
Robbs interpretation. "His messages teach us how to have a
personal relationship with God."
Beautiful: Place of
Oasis Tabernacle Assembly of God, pastored by Alex Velazquez, seems
completely out of place in Olney, a neighborhood marked by graffiti
and swirling trash. Like its name, the church shines in the community
as a bountiful source of life. A beautifully finished sign hangs
above a neatly kept sidewalk in front of the churchs storefront
I step into the church
and into a rhythmic, Spanish-style praise and worship service. During
the service a woman shouts, "Gloria a Dios!" in worship to the Lord.
The upbeat tempo of the music is seamlessly meshed with Velazquezs
Velazquez and his wife,
Amelia, planted the church in 1999 after graduating from Valley
Forge Christian College in nearby Phoenixville. Today, the church
serves a vibrant congregation of more than 100 English- and Spanish-speaking
people. But Velazquez realizes that not all who enter the church
doors are spiritually healthy.
"This church is a place
of refuge for hurting people," Velazquez says. "We are here to show
them the power of Gods love."
The power of Gods
love, supplemented with intense Bible study, has been the cornerstone
of Oasis Tabernacles continued growth and stability in the
"I started applying the
teachings I learned here to my life," Michael Eddy, 30, says as
his wife, Merari, nods in agreement. "Thats when I got saved."
Since planting Oasis
Tabernacle, Velazquez has remained fervent in teaching the fundamentals:
prayer and Scripture. A sincere value for the truth, he says, is
what people need and are looking for.
A few blocks from Oasis
Tabernacle a man beckons from a street median for people to buy
his newspapers. In much the same way, A/G inner-city ministers and
home missionaries are calling for people to accept the truth of
Jesus Christ, who can transform their lives and give them peace
As I leave the city,
the words of DiPietro ring loud in my mind. "Philadelphia will be
a model of renewal, reconciliation and revival for other cities,"
he said. "It is the prime city for that kind of thing to happen,
and we believe it will in Gods timing."
Olivarez is a staff writer for Todays Pentecostal Evangel.
E-mail the author at email@example.com.