Sanctuary in a Concrete Jungle
Philadelphia church conquers vices, one step at a time
By John W. Kennedy
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It’s mid-afternoon Friday at the corner of Margaret and
Ditman streets in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. Pastor Richard A.
Smith is preparing for an open-air tent revival, the third night of an eight-night
revival to be held in the yard of Faith Assembly of God.
Across the street, on the stoop of a boarded-up mom-and-pop
grocery store, a sprawled-out figure catches Smith’s eye. A middle-aged white
man, shirtless on this 90-degree August day, has passed out. A near-empty
1.75-liter bottle of vodka sits beside him.
Smith, a pastor who has ministered in rough areas of
Philadelphia for a quarter-century, walks across the street and rouses the man.
“I want to die,” the hungover man tells Smith.
“God doesn’t want that,” replies the compassionate pastor.
Within a few moments, Smith, a young-looking 55, has
convinced the man not only to regain the will to live but to pour the rest of
the vodka in the gutter. Smith hollers at a parishioner to bring some beef
jerky from the church so that the inebriated neighbor gets some food in him.
Smith invites the man to services that evening and picks up the empty
“It will make a good object lesson for a sermon later,” he
Ministering to alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes and the
homeless is an everyday occurrence for Smith, whose own father left the family
before Richard reached grade school. The 190-strong congregation is full of
people who have turned their souls over to Jesus after forsaking one life-controlling
force or another.
People respond to Smith — who has no paid staff
— because he shows genuine concern for their needs. Faith Assembly of God
feeds, clothes and shelters the poor people in Frankford. Some obtain the
services and go their own way. Others stick around to learn more about what
motivates such loving-kindness.
Smith, who is also a nationally appointed U.S. missionary,
is compassionate, yet anything but bashful. He knows spiritual warfare keeps a
stranglehold on the finances and behavior of so many nearby residents. The
army-like camouflage fatigues he wears are emblazoned with the slogans “Freedom
in Jesus” on the front and “God Squad” on the back.
Faith AG’s annual tent crusade, held every August,
demonstrates that the church is a place where the hungry find food, the poor
get help to pay for utilities, and the addicted gain freedom from drugs. Smith
and his congregation offer repeated evidence that faith, diligence and
mentoring provide a way out of a cycle of poverty and despair.
It’s a ministry built on much more than sermons. Faith AG
provides holistic outreaches ranging from job referrals to parenting classes.
“We just want to win souls to Christ,” Smith explains. “We
want to bring church outside the four walls.”
A chain-link fence topped by three rows of barbed wire
envelops Faith Assembly of God. The church has been in this location, a former
warehouse, for five years.
The stifling afternoon sun has given way to a cool breeze by
the time today’s service gets under way.
After worship, the evening gathering incorporates a modified
version of a Jericho march. Instead of walls falling at the blast of trumpets,
Smith leads the congregation in praying outward for the neighborhood
surrounding the property. The pastor herds attendees onto the sidewalk in front
of the church and, through a megaphone, offers fervent prayers.
Smith is bold,
but not arrogant. He shouts to the football players practicing on a field east
of the church; to the row house residents hanging out on their porches to the
south; to the curious onlookers who have gathered to gawk on the west and the
Smith prays for students and teachers returning to classes;
for the homeless, drug addicts and alcoholics; for those bound by gambling and
prostitution; for people contemplating suicide in the Delaware River; for
federal politicians and local officeholders in the City of Brotherly Love.
In an environment where the opposition is mighty and the
results are slow, a pastor might be ripe for burnout. Yet Smith’s broad smile
and gregarious laugh belie the reality that the church has experienced outdoor
lighting vandalism, broken windows and a stolen sound system.
Smith’s church office contains unadorned furniture,
including a computer that has seen better days. Smith pauses to answer one call
after another, several from people looking for rides to tonight’s service.
The tug for the soul often begins via a grumbling stomach.
Before service, a free meal featuring grilled hamburgers is available. Those
who stick around until the end — and nearly everyone does — are
rewarded with a frozen Philadelphia dessert known as water ice.
In between is a revival meeting that runs 3½ hours.
The tent takes up much of the asphalt front yard of Faith AG. There are seats
of various colors, styles and sizes for 150 spectators. Casually dressed people
trickle into the tent, usually arriving on foot. Several young moms have babies
in tow. Free canned goods and used clothing are available on tables.
Smith’s mother, Mary, serves as assistant pastor. She
conducts a preservice intercessory prayer meeting. Mother Smith, as she is
affectionately known to the congregation, is 77 but looks closer to 50. The
sweet-spirited, affable woman says she answered God’s call to preach in 1971
— after being healed of grapefruit-sized tumors that caused doctors
to give her up for dead.
More than half a century ago, Mary’s husband walked out on
her when she was expecting their third son. She raised those sons in Detroit by
herself. Today, Ellis and Gerald Smith are Pentecostal ministers in the Motor
If residents driving or walking by somehow miss the erected
tent and banners advertising the crusade, Mary Smith’s clarion call is sure to
snag their attention. The normally soft-spoken woman prays energetically near
the sidewalk, loudly calling upon God to do battle in the area.
Richard Smith says he sensed a call to preach upon being
baptized in the Holy Spirit in a small storefront Church of God in Christ
congregation at age 14. He began ministering in Philadelphia in 1980 while
still a student at nearby Valley Forge Christian College, the Assemblies of God
school in Phoenixville.
Smith believes violence, illegal drugs and other vices can
be overcome if Christians live out the gospel. He says those who join the cause
are faithful in giving, as well as volunteering for church duties.
“It’s the joy of my life to see men and women be responsible
and be a resource for God,” Smith says.
CHANGING THE AREA
Smith met his wife, Rosilyn, in North Carolina, where he
preached in tent meetings before moving to Philadelphia. Rosilyn is a
psychiatrist whose income pays the family bills. Smith puts all of his small
monthly salary back into church causes.
The Smiths have one child, 28-year-old daughter Jeanne, a
registered nurse who is married to an accountant. In June she gave birth to the
Smiths’ granddaughter, Joslyn.
Richard and Rosilyn live in a modest house only a few blocks
from the church. They bought the home at an auction for $1,000. The Smiths also
purchased the residence next door with their life savings of $5,000. It
currently houses 13 homeless men trying to get their lives back on track.
“These aren’t a bunch of bums,” Smith says. “They’ve just
hit hard times.”
In the past decade, Faith AG has housed 30 destitute mothers
and 120 children. The church took over a former crack house after Smith
convinced the city to shut it down. But the three-story women’s home closed two
years ago due to lack of funds. The Smiths had invested $5,000 into the
residence to make it secure. Smith is hoping the house can be reopened.
Smith gives people ministry responsibilities as a way to
build their self-worth. Many haven’t worked a legitimate job in years. Regina
Johnson, one of the women helped, now donates time to the church’s food
ministry. The tall, slender woman initially came to the church in 2000 to find
food for her children.
“I had three kids, was pregnant and living in a shelter,”
she says. “The night before, the kids didn’t eat.”
Smith located a one-bedroom apartment for Johnson, who now
has a job, car and house. Johnson, 34, is project director at an agency group
A distraught Ray Perry wandered into Faith Assembly of God
22 years ago when he heard congregational singing. He’s been at Smith’s side
ever since as the church’s volunteer administrator. A white-haired, toothless
white man of 67, Perry figures he should have died three times. He’s survived a
grueling 10½-hour operation for rheumatoid arthritis, a potentially
fatal bout with meningitis and skin cancer surgery.
Doctors told Perry he needed the surgery for arthritis or he
would die — and even if he consented to the procedure, surgeons gave
him only a 40 percent chance of walking again. He had to give up his job as a
manager for a doughnut chain. Alcoholism resulted, in a daily pattern of
excessive gin and beer drinking as well as cigarette and cigar smoking.
Before the arthritis operation — which involved
inserting a steel rod in his back and cutting bone off his hip and pelvis
— Perry prayed to God for the first time in many years. That’s when he
found Faith AG.
“I’m still living, and I’m still walking,” he says.
Perry expresses great loyalty toward Smith.
“Pastor is a dynamic preacher, but also a phenomenal
teacher,” Perry says. “He took Greek long enough to read it, and he has great
The tent services are filled with a variety of music, all
amplified by massive speakers pointed in different directions. It’s American
Idol, So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Got Talent rolled into one. A
group of boys barely old enough to read are singing. Adult women get a turn,
followed by a men’s trio. Most of the regulars wear camouflaged “God Squad: On
Duty for Jesus” attire.
Each night those who are part of the congregation and have
been redeemed convey spellbinding testimonies.
Dorothy Whitfield, 42, recalled how she first attended Faith
AG because of the food ministry 19 years ago.
“I went from one crack house to another,” she says. “I would
buy cocaine instead of Pampers for my baby.”
That year’s tent crusade took place a couple of months after
she started attending church. Smith preached that people didn’t have to be
bound by drugs, and Whitfield says when the pastor prayed for her at the altar,
God immediately delivered her from the seven-year addiction.
“I stopped giving my welfare checks to the drug dealer,”
says Whitfield, who now manages a restaurant. “I want to let you know you can
live free from sin. You have a choice not to put that needle in your arm.”
Edward Bruno, 54, director of the Faith AG men’s home, tells
how God transformed his life through Smith.
“He didn’t see the crack head, he saw the soul who was
hurting,” Bruno says of the pastor. He recalls how Smith invited him to a hot
lunch at a time when Bruno hadn’t eaten for two days because he had wasted all
his money on drugs.
“God let me know I was worth more than crack,” Bruno says.
Smith has a heart for kids, who are drawn to him as a father
figure that many don’t have in their own homes.
“Some of the kids the church has helped out are in jail or
abusing drugs,” Perry says. “But when they are in trouble they come back. We’ve
had people come to the front door bleeding from gunshot wounds.”
Smith is always inviting people he sees on the street to the
revival. An unchurched boy who lives down the street agrees to come to the
Saturday night meeting. Smith calls Malcolm before the crowd at one point,
commends him for attending and prays for him. The pastor realizes the boy’s
destiny is in the balance.
Malcolm is a friendly, good-natured, slim 9-year-old living
with his mom and various siblings. He decides to return for the regular Sunday
“I’m so hungry I could eat dirt,” Malcolm tells the pastor
before the service begins. Smith finds some snack cakes to feed him.
As we sit on chairs awaiting the opening worship, Malcolm
has grown fidgety. He gazes across the street.
“Could you take me to the park to play football?” he asks.
Like many other little boys, Malcolm faces a choice growing
up in Frankford: whether to follow the tug of the Lord or succumb to the lure
of temptations elsewhere.
It’s Smith’s unending mission to keep Malcolm and
Frankford’s next generation responding to that divine tug.
JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.
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