Steadfast in the City — The Story
Everyone seems to get a little piece of what I do out here in Philadelphia. I wanted to take this chance to tell the story of the last year, an where we are going. Since Lutherans across the nation know the name of this city’s mayor, I think I know the picture people get the most. My media attention is also almost solely dedicated to my homeless relief work, but that is only a byproduct of where we are going. So, here’s the story. Not this Philadelphia story (video below), but this one (text below)…
(Boring history paragraph) Philadelphia Lutheran Ministries began about 15 years ago. Our past directors include Rev David Goodine and Rev Charles St-Onge; the current director is Rev Tom Engler and our new assistant director Rev Rob Kieselowsky (Rob took Jonathan Fisk’s spot). Historically, PLM existed to serve immigrant communities, and their largest and most successful project was the planting of Christ Assembly Lutheran Church, a congregation of about 300 Liberians and growing. We are also assisting a Korean congregation that was received into the LCMS in May, having colloquized their pastor late last year. They are also cultivating work with Indonesians, Ethiopians and possibly Albanians.
I came along after two congregations closed, sold their buildings, and donated a large amount of the proceeds to PLM for the purpose of revitalizing the Lutheran presence in Northeast Philadelphia. I was then called as mission developer for PLM. As I like to say, my job description was essentially: “There’s the city; do something.”
I consider church planting and mission work here much like the international mission field. Traditionally in the LCMS, a larger congregation would plant a daughter congregation, support it, and help see it on its way. We can’t do that here. We don’t have the larger parent congregation…anywhere. In this area, a church of 150 is considered a large church, and many are in serious crisis mode beyond the normal money concerns facing churches. So, PLM is that group–though not a congregation. They fund me and (this is important) with the intention to spin me off into my own self-sustaining organization as soon as possible. By the way, you’ll soon be seeing Shepherd of the City Lutheran Ministries and Shepherd of the City Lutheran Church.
So, back to the beginning, I was starting from scratch. I had no building, no office, no people, a few volunteers and enough money to pay me for a couple years. No one knew who I was. I had no idea how to start. The whole city was wide open. And I thought that was cool (I still do).
But let me be clear: I am here to plant churches. I am here to bring Lutheran altars and pulpits back into Philadelphia. I am here for the purpose of preaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments, while mercy work is to be an outgrowth of these new congregations.
So, to get that going, I needed a footprint. I needed to find the place where the first altar would go. I needed to buy a building with no money. I had to start a church with no people. So I put a dollar in my wallet and knew I would use that to pay in full the cost of my first set of buildings. And I hit the streets in my collar to put the flag out (Donnie Brasco, anyone?).
But something interesting started to happen. As I walked around, I would meet many homeless people; I would pray with them and hold small devotions. Then I met whole groups. Then they were inviting me to their camps with the words, “Tell them what you told me.” After my first month here (July 2011), the homeless work from downtown into the Northeast camps started to snowball out of control. I was paid by restricted funds to be in a different geographic area, but I knew where I was supposed to be. There was a tremendous need, and the homeless were now my people. I didn’t intend for things to happen this way, but they did.
By September, I had a problem. Even the little money I had was given by the two closed congregations to return to the Northeast. But I wasn’t there, except to be in homeless camps. And around October or November, most of my days were in abandoned factories, near the river, with the homeless. I was downtown and in tunnels. I wasn’t in middle class Northeast Philadelphia. The people to whom I am teaching the catechism aren’t your standard LCMS catechumen.
Then something interesting happened, again: an LCMS church in Northeast Philadelphia that survived by renting their property to multiple churches lost almost all their renters and was forced to close. PLM and I stepped in and they agreed to sell us their church building, two four bedroom houses and a vacant lot…for one dollar. So I set that in motion and returned to my homeless work with a plan to tie the two together. I wrote up a transitional housing model for using the two houses, and a plan for a community garden on the lot. This is to be the site of Shepherd of the City Lutheran Church, my first church plant.
But we hit snags. Lots of them. So many, in fact, that we are almost nine months from that point and are just now finishing the legal process. I continued to preach and catechize outside in the hopes that these people would all have a church. And soon, they will.
Then, you guessed it, more interesting things happened at the end of 2011. Occupy started to camp beside city hall, and hundreds of homeless started to camp with the Occupiers. So I was there too.
And then I was everywhere. I started to meet people from all over the city, those involved in many facets of care for the poor and the city. Opportunities started to open up nationally with the LCMS, and locally within the local nonprofits.
Servant trips began coming to work in Philly. Doors started opening. Then the mayor declared my work illegal and instituted a ban on feeding the homeless outside. Our goodwill generated from the last several months allowed us to move inside and partner with another group already serving the homeless, one with a fantastic reputation and a knowledge of cooperation in externals. And through all of this, we have had many volunteers who have came in contact with Lutheranism through working along side of us.
Fast forward to where we are today, and I have too many good problems. I don’t have enough staff to handle what we have been given here. Late September or early October, we will officially open our first church plant after a long battle. The first residents of our worker houses are already chosen and will move in. Then I am splitting my attention to a neighborhood nearer downtown that would but me at the epicenter of the poverty problem in this city. Though we are seeing the resources for projects, I am praying for more laborers into the harvest.
All through this last whirlwind year, I’ve just been responding to opportunities as they happened. Things changed, plans changed, but what didn’t change is my commitment to doing mercy work in proximity to where we have altars and pulpits. That’s what I came here to do. I’m blanketed across the city so that, though we might not be in the same building, we can do mercy work connected to our churches nearby. But since I’m starting from scratch, it will take time to solidify our presence here. Our first property, in the area where I was required to start, isn’t inaccessible, and my next step is already in stride to set up shop in another area nearer downtown.
And I believe these churches have something to say in our city. I see them as the hubs of revitalization, not just spiritually, but also physically. We should feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and care for all. I believe we, as the Body of Christ, are charged with this. I believe we are the only ones who can truly heal people. I believe we thrive in an intensely urban culture with all its troubles because we can answer them.
So that’s where I’ve been in the last year. I hope you get a sense of where we’re going compared to where we’ve been, even though I painted in really broad strokes. Part of it is an explanation of why things have moved so slow, while others have moved so fast. I encourage your continued prayers and support.