Ummmm hmmmm…Philadelphia is the real deal. I deeply enjoyed my time in The City of Brotherly Love and was encouraged by the ministry groups that I spent time with there. Philadelphia has over 1.4 million citizens, making it the 6th most populous city in the United States. The city is one of the most historic places in the country. It was the first capital for the United States in the 1790’s and served as one of the chief centers for political and social change in the young U.S. There are loads of historic monuments and sites that are scattered across the city, including: the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall (where the Declaration of Independence was signed), and the homes of Edgar Allan Poe and Betsy Ross. Philadelphia is also one of the major art centers in the country. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of the largest art museums in the country (it is also the spot of the Rocky steps) and the city is covered with over 2,700 murals and mosaics, making it the mural capital of the United States. The city has also been a place for much creativity and innovation. There have been several “firsts” that started in Philly – the first university, the first hospital, the first post office, and the first zoo. This was one of the coolest cities that I got to spend time in.

I stayed in Germantown, which is about 5-7 miles north of downtown Philadelphia. One of the greatest parts of traveling in the northeast is getting to use the incredible public transportation systems. I got really used to taking the bus, train, or subway to get around the city. Philadelphia is a pretty large city, but it has a smaller feeling to it. The city is very easy to navigate and to get around in. One of the big problems that the city is dealing with right now is violence and murders. The murder rate has sky-rocketed in Philadelphia during the past 3-4 years. There are several groups that are seeking to be proactive in this area and to help bring peace to the city.

SHALOM HOUSE

Shalom House is one of the ministries that has evolved from Circle of Hope (I’ll talk more about this church later in this reflection). There are currently 6 people practicing intentional-living in Shalom House. This vision for this ministry has been around for several years but it started to take root about 2 years ago when a few individuals began to meet and discuss what it might practically look like for a group of people from Circle of Hope to live together with a mission of non-violence & peace. Shortly after these discussions, applications for the Shalom House began to be passed around and the original team was formed. The vision for Shalom House is to live in balanced & intentional community, to serve their immediate neighborhood, and to promote peacemaking through non-violent resistance.

I was blown away by this group of people. Most of them are about my age and have already lived extraordinary lives. My religious background did not include being a person of peace as part of being a disciple of Jesus. As these new friends shared their experiences & passions with me, I began to sense that being a person who radically pursues peace is absolutely part of what it means to follow Jesus.

Shalom House is committed to taking Jesus seriously when he tells his disciples to follow him in the way of peace, shalom, & reconciliation. I was deeply challenged by this group of people & their heart to see lives, communities, & families restored that have been torn apart by violence, war, & dysfunction.

The Shalom House crew that I got to hang out with…Mimi Copp, who is passionate about non-violent resistance & helped me when my weak stomach couldn’t handle the Philly bus system…Adam Malliet, a gentle computer master & grower of the greatest beard in the United States…Brian S., a pursuer of radical peace & owner of the most disturbed cat I have ever encountered…and Brian B., who introduced me to the hippies-for-Jesus crew at Circle of Hope East.

Check out their site to learn more about this group.

CIRCLE of HOPE

Circle of Hope is a network of cell groups meeting across the greater Philadelphia area. This church was started in the mid-90’s by Rod & Gwen White. There are now 2 main locations for Circle of Hope – one in downtown Philly and the other in east Philly. The primary vision for this church is for their cell groups (small groups of 4-10 people) to bring healing & reconciliation in the Philadelphia area through the relationships that are formed in the groups. There is a very strong emphasis placed upon Jesus, the Kingdom of God, and seeing discipleship as a journey where people are transformed by the reconciliation that occurs in community.

I have never encountered something quite like Circle of Hope. This group is incredibly diverse, they place a strong emphasis on keeping their churches small in numbers, and they are Mennonite. Both of the Circle of Hope sites have Public Meetings on Sunday nights at 5 & 7 pm. The Public Meeting is a time to hang out, sing, pray, hear a message, & give feedback to the message. The Public Meeting is very loose in the way that it functions.

The cell groups really are the key to Circle of Hope and its vision. The vision is for each cell group to eventually multiply…for the group to become too big for its own good, so 2 groups form out of the large group. This multiplication process continues to happen until there are enough people to start a larger congregation. In fact, Circle of Hope is about to plant a church in Camden, NJ (about 7 miles from downtown Philly) because there are several cell groups in the Camden area and the congregation in downtown Philadelphia is becoming too large. This is one of the most unique aspects to Circle of Hope. The leadership decided early on that each congregation could be become larger than 250 people. When a group becomes much bigger than 250 then intimacy, relationship, & connection is largely lost amongst the people. The downtown Circle of Hope congregation is growing to almost 300 people, so the congregation has decided to plant another church in Camden.

I love the vision of being intentionally small. I also appreciate Circle of Hope’s commitment to organic growth. It is easy to get a lot of people to come to a gathering, but Circle of Hope is seeking to bring deep change in individuals and in Philadelphia. This comes when people are willing to go through the long, painful, organic process of reconciliation & growth.

One last thought on Circle of Hope (please look at their site…there’s just too much to say here). This church is passionate about making decisions as a group, but it’s not done in a typical way. In many churches, the congregation makes decisions together, but it is usually through some kind of voting process. It is very democratic. The process of making decisions for Circle of Hope is very different. Circle of Hope practices the discipline of communal discernment. This discipline can and does take on many forms depending on the decision or the issue needing to be discerned. People from the church are asked to set aside time to pray, think, and discern about the future of Circle of Hope. Then there are specific gathering times where these people meet to discuss, discern, and pray together. Sometimes decisions are made quickly and sometimes decisions are made months after the discernment process begins. But a decision will not be made unless the group senses that the Spirit is leading them in a particular direction. It is truly a unique and beautiful discipline to engage in.

I got to spend a tremendous amount of time with people from Circle of Hope. The Shalom House folk that I mentioned earlier, Rod White, Jeremiah Alexander, Nate Hulfish & his Camden crew, & Scott Sorentino. These are some incredible people.

BROAD STREET MINISTRIES

Broad Street Ministries was started around 2002 by Bill Goldener. Bill had previously been a part of starting a similar ministry in Washington, D.C. Broad Street Ministries is seeking to bring justice, peace, & reconciliation through the love of Jesus & a message of hope to the downtrodden around Philadelphia. The headquarters are located in an old church building on Broad Street (one of the coolest and most beautiful buildings I saw in Philly). It is a few blocks from the center of downtown. Fancy hotels and restaurants surround the area. Businessmen and lawyers walk past the building everyday talking on their Blackberry’s. Homeless people lay on the steps of the church during the day, probably because it is one of the safest places to be in Philadelphia if you are homeless.

Philadelphia is notorious for being cruel to the poor and homeless. Broad Street Ministries offers hope not just through the typical hot meal or warm blanket that is distributed, but by offering all people – businessmen & homeless women alike – the opportunity to be a part of a community of people that find hope in the love of Jesus.

I was blown away by the Wednesday night Bible studies at Broad Street Ministries. When I went there were just a few people there, maybe 10-12. But the make-up of the group was incredible. There were a few homeless guys, a Princeton seminary student, a businessman, a married woman, and a few other people from the community. Everyone came to the table equal, everyone’s opinion on the topic was valid and significant, and everyone was included. It was incredible.

The thing that separates Broad Street Ministries from other groups and churches that are impacting the poor and oppressed is that their community is not formed by just homeless people. There are businesspeople, a few families, and college people who are part of the church as well. It is truly diverse…race, gender, socio-economic background, and all the other barriers that often divide people are not significant in this community.

Bill Goldener was very generous with his time & thoughts and I was thankful for him allowing me to be a part of his community for a short time.

URBAN PROMISE

Camden, NJ is about 7 miles away from Philadelphia…just across the NJ/Pennsylvania border. Urban Promise is a ministry that was started about 20 years ago by Tony Campolo and some other individuals that were seeking to empower the youth of Camden. In the 40’s & 50’s, Camden was an industrial giant in the United States. Jobs were plentiful and families lived well. In the 60’s & 70’s many of the large industrial plants in Camden closed, jobs were lost, and Camden became a poverty-stricken area. In fact, for the past several years, Camden has been ranked in the top 5 most dangerous cities in the United States & the highest poverty rate in the U.S. This city needs a lot of vision, healing, & transformation.

Urban Promise is seeking to impact the Camden youth by providing after-school programs all across the city. I got to spend the better part of an afternoon with Joshua Brady, the after-school program director, going to different elementary schools around the city and seeing the programs. I was impressed by this ministries effort to have holistic relationships with the kids that they were seeking to impact. All of the people who are working for Urban Promise, volunteering, or the interns…they all live in the neighborhood that these schools are in. So they do not just interact with the kids during school or in the after-school programs. They see them in the neighborhood, they go to church together, they hang out at the park, they go to sports events together, etc. This is a beautiful way to impact a city.

Urban Promise has also started 2 elementary schools in Camden. This group is making great strides to change the culture of failure, violence, & dysfunction that has plagued Camden for many years. I was deeply encouraged by this ministry and their passion to bring change to their city.

Lots of thanks to Joshua Brady for spending his day driving me around Camden, answering my questions, & being very hospitable.

Urban Promise also has bases in other parts of North America. Check out their website to learn more about this ministry and what they are up to around North America.

A few key things that I learned & sensed during my time in Philadelphia…

· Communities that discern together are healthy and organic. Circle of Hope may have the best model for this that I’ve yet seen…I’m sure it could be deeper and more focused, but it’s very healthy from what I’ve seen. Our faith communities need to be waiting, listening, and seeking the Spirit together. This should something that distinguishes us from the world…we depend on the Spirit and on community. We don’t just make decisions without guidance.

· Being proactive for peace and non-violence. Shalom House is doing this along with other people in Circle of Hope. How can Christians not understand this as a central aspect of what it means to be a follower of Jesus? The way of the cross is at the heart of what Jesus is doing…constantly denying the way of the sword, violence, and division and pursuing reconciliation, healing, and peace.

· The beauty of barriers being broken down at the table of Jesus. Broad Street Ministries is building a new society and a new humanity. The church should be a community of people who are diverse. When the social status’ of people in our churches are all very similar, then something is lost.

· The church is a community of people who are called to bring hope to places and communities that have been destroyed by hopelessness and pain. Urban Promise is reconstructing the framework of Camden by investing deeply in the lives of the youth. May we give ourselves away to the next generation.

One of the things that challenged and stirred me deeply about the people I spent time with in Philadelphia was their passion for peace. The Old Testament offers a vision of wholeness and peace. Here is a passage from Micah 4 that speaks of this prophetic vision.

…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war anymore;

but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree,

and no one shall make them afraid,

for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.

May it be so…peace be with you…


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