At first glance, a visitor might see the rough edges around Kensington and miss the strengths and stories that co-pastors Rev. Rebecca Blake and Rev. Karen Rohrer work at to encourage and uplift. A historically industrial Philadelphia neighborhood with residents who still take great pride in working with their hands, Kensington has seen many factories, businesses and even churches that once thrived there become a thing of the past.
“Institutions have been leaving this neighborhood for a long time,” Blake said of the neighborhood that was once an industry center for textiles. “It was an industrial neighborhood that had a lot of pride and hard workers, and as the factories left, a lot of folks faced chronic unemployment and lingering injuries, and it spiraled into a lot of poverty and a lot of effects that go with that, including addiction, poor education and food insecurity.”
Despite the change in the landscape of Kensington, the Beacon Presbyterian Church held its ministry there for 140 years. However, attendance problems threatened the church to close its doors. That’s when the Presbytery of Philadelphia stepped in, fueled by the creativity of Broad Street Ministry, which sent in a pair of former interns with backgrounds in art and service to help revitalize the congregation.
Blake and Rohrer, fresh out of Princeton Theological Seminary, decided to try something different. The now ordained ministers changed the church’s name, moved the Sunday morning worship to Sunday evening and created three weekday afternoon workshops at the “Studio at Beacon” that are targeted for the youth in the Kensington area. It has kept the doors open and created a new excitement on East Cumberland Street in Philadelphia.
“There’s a reason that we’re on this block and open in this space,” Blake said. “If we weren’t I think a lot of folks – a lot of the kids especially – would just be hanging out on street corners and not aware that there are adults who are invested in them and their futures.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Blake and Rohrer don’t talk about religion during the three weekday workshops at Beacon, partly because of the secular funding that helps keep the art programs afloat. But that doesn’t mean the subject doesn’t come up.
“Even though we don’t talk about religion during the programs,” Blake said, “the kids know that Karen and I are pastors – in fact they call us their pastor even if they don’t attend worship here and will call this their church. … We get these questions of ‘Am I baptized? I don’t remember’ or ‘Do I need to be baptized again?’
“It’s definitely not an agenda but is an identity. They understand that we are both teachers and pastors, that we are both creative writing teachers and pastors, and they’re able to interact with us on whichever facet they need to.”
The 30-year-old Blake didn’t fully grasp her art ministry tools until her internship and eventual employment at Broad Street Ministry. That’s where she learned that anyone can enjoy and benefit from telling their story — and encountering sacred stories — through art.
“It is where I started to develop an art-integrated approach to worship and social services,” Blake said. “We found ways to encourage people to creatively express themselves and tell their stories in worship, (in other words) using art materials as part of the worship service. Each person would contribute a small piece and then I would rearrange some of those pieces into something bigger, with the theology being we each are important to God but together we make up the body of Christ that’s beautiful, varied and diverse but yet cohesive.”
It was that mindset that she and Rohrer, 28, brought to Kensington in 2011, the year Beacon Presbyterian Church was dissolved and simply “Beacon” was born. At the time of the switch, only 10-15 people attended the Sunday morning worship service. Blake and Rohrer have been able to double that number with their new evening service and also average between 30-40 youths, mostly between the ages of 5-12, with their three weekday afternoon workshops.
So all told, Beacon is now reaching close to 50 adults and children in a week’s time, which might not sound like a lot to some, but considering the Kensington building was nearing extinction, it is quite a success story.
“The weekly numbers may seem on the smaller side, but our reach into the neighborhood is fairly broad, and that’s something that we’re really excited about and grateful for,” Blake said. “It’s important to the PCUSA, to the Synod, to the Presbytery of Philadelphia that there is a faith community in this neighborhood, that the Gospel is being preached and lived here, regardless of how many people we have in the pew or how much or how little they are able to sacrifice financially.
“Quality is far more important than quantity.”
Beacon has a large property with a sizable patch of grass in the front, an area that used to house a sanctuary before it was destroyed by Hurricane Hazel in 1954. “It’s one of the few green spaces in the area,” Blake added. The building and space available were begging to be used for the right ministry.
“Over time we realized there were a lot of needs in the community,” Blake said of the predominately Irish Catholic neighborhood, “but we had the resources to meet two really important ones, which is community growth by building relationships across demographics and a worship service that creates a faith-based space for people who are coming from a broad variety of faith backgrounds or none at all.”
The week at Beacon starts with an open, approachable Sunday evening worship service that, once a month, includes a pot luck meal. Beacon grew its worship services from monthly to weekly, and morning to evening, to cultivate a culture of a wide welcome that allows for neighbors of all backgrounds to participate. “Regular attendance used to mean weekly attendance, and now ‘regular’ looks more like biweekly or even monthly,” Blake said. “That poses a challenge, but we have been able to build community among attendees despite that challenge.
“We thought it would be a good fit for a broad section of folks,” Blake explained. “What ended up happening is a lot of the parents of the kids who wanted to come to worship have really traditional values about entering a worship space. We found that they are often trying to get up and get the kid out the door scrubbed and sparkly and in a fancy dress. … A lot of the kids were saying they wanted to come but weren’t coming because they thought they had to be super dressed up. This perpetuated a culture of not being ‘good enough’ to enter worship and we wanted to change that.”
The rest of the week the Studio at Beacon is geared toward its art-centered programming for youth and occurs from 4-6 p.m. On Mondays, the Drop-In Studio is targeted at ages 11 and older. This centers on homework help, tutoring and art projects but also includes teaching the kids how to build fruitful relationships with peers and adults.
On Tuesdays, the Story Studio takes place. It’s a creative writing program that “gets at literacy from a round-about perspective.” Instead of diagramming sentences, Blake said, students are invited to write using a creative prompt, and the teachers help them with things like spelling and sentence structure as they go along.
The Art Studio on Wednesdays is the most popular of the three weekday programs. It centers on art education through creative projects, with the youth making their creations their own and telling their story visually.
So in a week’s time, the written word, spoken word and pictures are used by Beacon to help the youths express themselves. And it doesn’t come with any kind of religious undertones.
“It’s mostly because we want the parents of this neighborhood to know that we don’t have an agenda, that we’re not trying to convert their kids just because their kids might not have anywhere else to go,” Blake said. “Another part of that is to work on getting grants that are available for secular programs and faith-based programs who are intrigued and compelled by a faith-based organization that’s opening itself to folks of all backgrounds.”
Among the money Beacon has received is a $30,000 New Initiatives Grant from the Synod of the Trinity to help pilot a new program called the Mission Lab.
The Mission Lab would bring in churches and other non-profit organizations to do creative experimentation and visioning in regards to their own community engagement by interacting with the community surrounding Beacon. Blake says Beacon also hopes to implement a yard update in the next few years that would include maximizing the space in front of the church to create particular areas for such experimenting, as well as play, vegetable gardens and contemplative practices.
Art has many purposes as well, and those facets are being seen weekly at the Studio at Beacon in subtle ways that are bringing people back to Kensington.
“There’s a lot of research about how expressing one’s self with different media adds and enhances and enriches their overall education experience and definitely builds community between different demographics of folks,” Blake said.
“I found through experience and research that when you are sitting down next to someone and creating something next to them … there is something that happens between those two people just by being in the same vicinity making and creating something new. There’s a bond that happens, there’s conversations that happen that would never happen during an athletic game or at the water cooler, and that has been really beautiful to see.”
Note: Anyone who is interested in Mission Visioning is invited to bring their mission committee, session or leadership to Beacon for a day retreat, neighborhood exploration, service work, community prayers and/or visioning through art. Contact the Beacon for more information.