Ministry Among the Ruins

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I made my way up from the subway, walked a few blocks down the street. As I stepped into the lobby of the Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia, a young woman, whom I later learned is a seminary student, welcomed me and pointed me toward the sanctuary. The wooden stairs are well worn. As you enter the worship space, your eyes are drawn upward to the soaring ceiling above you.  Suspended there are windmills and flocks of peace cranes. Paint peels from the clerestory windows. The pews and the pulpit are gone, replaced with an assortment of chairs, many whimsically painted.  A large table set with huge loaves of challah is in the center. A band, complete with drums and electric guitar, whose members are of different ages, gender and ethnicity grace us with music. The congregation is as varied as the band. Many are young, some are old. They are black and white, gay and straight. Some are homeless. Others, like me, have come into the city from the suburbs to hear the preacher for the evening, Jeff Chu,  author of Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America.

We sing together. Chu preaches a moving sermon on Luke’s gospel. People crowd around to receive communion from the two women who preside at the table. The seminary student shares a prayer affirming those who are LGBTQ.  After worship, during a Q&A time with Jeff Chu, a member of the congregation talks about her homelessness, her struggle with addiction, her grief over the people she has lost to death. Another member of the congregation moves to sit next to her and embraces her.

In addition to Sunday worship,  the Broad Street Ministry serves lunch Monday through Friday for 200 to 400 people in this sanctuary. The ground floor is home to health, dental and mental health care, as well as clothing and benefits counseling. Thousands of homeless individuals use the Ministry as a mailing address. There is a group that gardens to provide fresh local food.

I have long wondered what the future of the church will look like. As I sat there that evening, I believe, no I hope, I may have glimpsed it. What I saw was ministry that matters, camped out in the ruins of a church that is passing away.

The Broad Street Ministry. Source: Rev. Beth Lyon personal collection

The Broad Street Ministry is housed in the former Chambers-Wylie Memorial Presbyterian Church, a gothic revival building completed in 1901 with a design based on Ripon Cathedral in Yorkshire England. The sanctuary sat 800. The neighborhood has undergone a lot of changes through the years. It now sits across the street from the Kimmel Center, a large performing arts venue.  But before that renaissance began, the church’s final pastor died in 1999, leaving a congregation of 100 members. The Presbytery closed the church in 2001. But, in 2005, in what some have called a miracle, a Presbyterian minister named Bill Golderer, with the help of six area Presbyterian congregations reopened the church as the Broad Street Ministry and it has only grown.

It’s no secret that churches of many denominations are struggling. As congregations continue to shrink in membership, we are often left with huge edifices, such as Chambers-Wylie Presbyterian, to maintain. According to the 2018 UCC Statistical Profile found here, 68.8% of UCC congregations were organized before 1900. and another 12.4% between 1930 and 1939. That doesn’t tell us about the age of their current buildings, but I’m sure if you look around, no matter where you live, you’ll see plenty of aging church buildings. Four in ten congregations report a membership of 100 or fewer. Resources to maintain those buildings are hard to find.

And yet, here is this vibrant ministry, rising from the ruins of a church that used to be. If this is what God’s future looks like, I find plenty of joy in it. My prayer that all of us would put the legacy we’ve been given to such inspired use.

Beth LyonRev. Beth Lyon is Pastor of Glenside United Church of Christ in Glenside, Pennsylvania. She has been an Ordained Minister since 1986, serving congregations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

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One thought on “Ministry Among the Ruins

  1. A wonderful article about keeping Progressive Christian Ministry alive in an urban setting. I wish I could feel as much hope here in remote northern Minnesota where subways don’t run. Yes many would say this is “Trump Country”, yet many folk here voted for Obama and Bernie Sanders. I work with many LGBTQ folk that live in the area and I believe I could do a same sex marriage in any of the three congregations I serve. After prayers in one church I noticed a first nation man, struggling with chemical dependency, still bowed in a posture of deep prayer. In another church I watched a mixed race preschooler fetal-alcohol boy coloring during the service. I remember a disgruntled member of one congregation coming into my office to see if I, the new pastor realized how important that church is to the community as the main progressive voice, speaking out for justice and peace. When I led worship in a recent community Lenten service a community leader from another church came up and thanked me for making the connection between biblically based morality and environmental concerns. At 70 years of age I look to the future and wonder who will be willing to drive 140 miles each week to continue to speak out on these issues for the people hungry for the alternative to the conservative church. Members wonder who will continue to speak out to the high school students with a message contrary to local literal minded fundamentalist? Is there clergy with a “missionary attitude” willing to take this ministry on?

    The story of The Broad Street Ministry is indeed hopeful and inspiring for the future of the urban church. BUT what about the ministry of the progressive church across rural America? Does anyone in the UCC really care?

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