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Philadelphia: 2 days in the inner city

By Isaac Olivarez

Editor’s 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 America’s first novel was published in 1744. Two years later, America’s first stock exchange opened. Less than a decade after that, America’s 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 Christ’s message of hope and love to Philadelphia’s 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 perspective
Friday, 6:54 p.m.

I dash from the car to the church’s 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 city’s influx of European immigrants, have become rigidly divided pockets of ethnic diversity. In the heart of the neighborhood is DiPietro’s 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 church’s 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, each week.

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 can’t describe the feeling when I come to church," Sharlena, 17, says. "I’ve 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 You’re 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 father’s 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 don’t candy-coat anything," LaCourt says. "Drug dealers are real, and we have to be real, too."

Hungry: The Breakfast Club
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?"

I’ve joined the group at Lighthouse Family Center in West Kensington (Abe Oliver, senior pastor).

"Welcome to Lighthouse Family Center’s ‘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 that’s the point — this is a place of refuge.

"I love being here every day of the week because this is where I feel safe," Alphonso, 15, says.

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 that’s 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 Sunday’s sermon to their lives. Others, with childlike curiosity, drill Winton with questions about the Bible. It’s encouraging that here in the inner city teens are hungry to know Christ better.

"They’re all regulars, but who knows what will happen this week?"

Winton says of the teens. "Life past 20 in the inner city — it’s hard to think that far ahead because they see people getting shot all the time."

Vision: From the outside in
12:03 p.m.

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 volunteers.

"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 ministry
5:47 p.m.

The sun sneaks behind Philadelphia’s skyline as I drive back into the city. I pass abandoned houses and enter Frankford, one of Philadelphia’s toughest neighborhoods, to reach Faith Assembly of God.

In perfect contrast to the dilapidated surroundings, the sound of children’s 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 we’ve met. Smith leads the children in prayer. Nearly 30 children stand in a circle, hand in hand, as Smith pleads God’s protection over them. After the prayer, Smith’s 20-year-old daughter, Jeannie, directs the choir.

Besides offering good music, this church has thrived by meeting people’s physical and spiritual needs. The church’s food pantry serves more than 350 families a month. Twice a week, hot meals are served. The church also runs men’s and women’s homes which offer housing and discipleship. Because of the myriad of ministries at the church, many lives are being touched for eternity.

"Everything changed," Devon Gibson, 16, says of the day he accepted Christ as his Savior. "Now I don’t talk the way I used to talk, and I don’t do the things I used to do."

The key to the church’s success has been to minister on all fronts. "We call it wholistic ministry," Smith says. "You can’t just minister to the body and not minister to the soul and mind. It’s all connected."

Meeting needs: A deaf ministry
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 Church’s Sunday worship service begins.

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 teens.

"There is a spiritual hunger in the deaf community," Robb, 38, says. "They just need a church that is willing to meet them where they’re 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 couldn’t do that in a hearing church," 58-year-old Grace Bishop tells me through Robb’s interpretation. "His messages teach us how to have a personal relationship with God."

Beautiful: Place of refuge
11:13 a.m.

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 church’s storefront window.

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 Velazquez’s vigorous preaching.

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 God’s love."

The power of God’s love, supplemented with intense Bible study, has been the cornerstone of Oasis Tabernacle’s continued growth and stability in the neighborhood.

"I started applying the teachings I learned here to my life," Michael Eddy, 30, says as his wife, Merari, nods in agreement. "That’s 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 and happiness.

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 God’s timing."


Isaac Olivarez is a staff writer for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel. E-mail the author at pe@ag.org.

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