PHILADELPHIA (BRN) – Southern Baptist Churches across the nation, including Pennsylvania and South Jersey, stepped out of their buildings and onto the streets of Philadelphia, Sept. 15-16, to serve alongside Send Relief and the Baptist Resource Network (BRN) for Serve Tour Philadelphia.
Serve Tour is a “missional experience” launched by the North American Mission Board’s (NAMB) compassion ministry arm, Send Relief. As part of this effort, Send Relief has identified cities across the United States where it can partner with SBC churches and serve their communities through compassion projects.
For Serve Tour Philadelphia, more than 450 volunteers from 46 churches and 10 different states served 4,489 people. Through these efforts, 696 gospel conversations occurred, and 74 salvations were reported.
Primarily set in the South Philly region, BRN churches Ezekiel Baptist, Redemption City Church and Bedrock Church Fishtown operated as hubs for volunteers and project sites. Project sites ranged from beautification/landscaping efforts and block parties to food distributions and washing the feet of the homeless. Locations extended from the riverfronts of Camden, New Jersey, to the drug-stricken streets of Kensington, Philadelphia.
Foot washing in the ‘worst neighborhood in America’
Along Kensington Ave., it’s typical to see people slumped over, arms dangling and knuckles ever so slightly grazing the concrete below. It’s not rare to watch your step or gently push a needle to the side with your shoe. It’s common to smell the tinge of urine mixed with body odor. And it’s nearly impossible to walk the streets without witnessing someone yielding to another hit, another dose, or another needle in the arm.
Dubbed as the “worst neighborhood in America” by major news outlets, Kensington is home to the largest open-air drug market in the U.S. Within a 2.5 square-mile radius of the neighborhood, there are 200 drug corners and an annual drug trade worth $1 billion.
“If you’ve never seen it, I can’t describe it,” said Craig Cerrito, associate pastor of The Rock Ministries. “I wish there was a better way – but the way to visualize it is if you’ve ever seen a zombie movie. The nature of the drugs that are being sold on the streets now eat people alive.”
The drug crisis in Kensington has reached epidemic proportions. So much so, that reversing drug overdoses has become a constant part of The Rock’s service to the community.
The Rock Ministries, located along Kensington Avenue, started as a small boxing program for at risk boys in the inner city. The ministry began in an abandoned building with a Bible and five young men. It has since grown to be a full-service, inner city community ministry and, as of 10 years ago, a launching pad for a church – Calvary Chapel of Kensington.
“God grew it beyond anything anyone intended it to be,” said Cerrito from his desk in The Rock’s social services drop-in center. Here, anyone with a social need can stop by and receive immediate help from one of the ministry’s chaplains.
“Our chaplains will triage you and get you the appropriate resource. Because of our neighborhood, 99% of it is drug and alcohol related. So, we have a system where we take down all the barriers for treatment,” explained Cerrito.
This system gets the individual clearance from any medical, insurance or licensing obstacles, even warrants they may have, and straight into a detox program.
“We get hundreds and hundreds of people into treatment. And then we get to give them the gospel along the way,” said Cerrito. The Rock also has street teams that serve those who are addicted or homeless and a food pantry.
Along with meeting social needs, The Rock has stuck to its roots of pouring into the next generation.
“We maintain a very large youth sports program. We’ve seen many, many, many thousands of kids through our sports program. We’ve added an after-school program for young kids and everyone obviously gets an age-appropriate Bible study,” said Cerrito.
In the near future, The Rock will be adding a 7,500 square-foot youth center to their repertoire of ministry as well as a pregnancy center.
“We’re gonna outfit it (the youth center) with a rock wall and a half-court basketball, and every single thing that we’re not offering now for kids,” said Cerrito, pausing to catch his words as tears slowly welled up. “We truly believe we can reach the rest of Kensington’s kids…God has been unbelievably, sort of ridiculously, faithful.”
Over the course of the two-day Serve Tour, volunteers from Watershed Church, Bedrock Church Fishtown, One Hope Church, First Baptist Church of Clarion, college students from BASIC/NewLife of Clarion, Send Relief and the BRN team partnered with The Rock to provide showers, personal hygiene care, food, detox resources, wound care and prayer for the community of Kensington.
Volunteers cleaned shower units, bent down to wash feet and fit them with new shoes and spent hours sharing the gospel as they cleansed the hair of those in need.
“Being able to have them sit forward in a chair, and you serving them in that moment, allowed you to connect on a different level,” said Lori Zeppuhar, Serve Tour volunteer and BRN team member. Throughout the day, Lori helped wash hair and pray with community members.
“It didn’t matter skin, race, where you were, what you were doing, the lifestyle you led – all that mattered was the person in front of you.”
Another Serve Tour volunteer, Erik Issel from Watershed Church, stood along Kensington Avenue and offered free showers to those passing by.
“This is a broken area; this is a broken city. The people here need hope. They need to know that they’re loved. They need to know that God made them, and that God loves them and that God wants to heal them,” said Issel.
Serving at the intersection of tragedy and hope
Just six miles north of Kensington, in the Germantown area, was another opportunity for healing and blessing at the intersection of Chew and Chelten Avenues.
Prior to Serve Tour coming to Philadelphia, Dan Towner, Serve Tour project manager and member of Watershed Church, felt drawn to this area.
“I would come here often and just sit in my car and pray. I prayer walked [and] I’ve gone all up and down this intersection,” said Towner.
Eventually, his path crossed that of Dougles Rucker, a worker for the Chew and Chelten Community Development Corporation (CDC). This connection led to Towner getting more involved in the community, especially following the tragic death of a 12-year-old boy.
Laron “L.J.” Williams Jr. was shot and killed on his birthday as he was going to the convenience store on the corner of Chew and Chelten. Rucker, who has been working to put an end to gun violence in his hometown, set forth to secure a community center and name it after Williams.
With Serve Tour coming to the city, Towner ceased the opportunity as a way to bless and bring hope to the Chew and Chelten community.
“Today, we wanted to just lift up L.J. Williams. We wanted to try and create an environment where we can celebrate his life, give hope to the community [and] give hope to people because there’s a real stronghold here on gun violence. And just giving the family hope in Jesus and something to look forward to,” said Towner.
During the second day of Serve Tour, volunteers from Watershed Church, Anastasis Fellowship Church, Harambe Baptist Church and Freedom City Bike served residents of the Chew and Chelten community by offering prayer, a meal and free bikes and bike repairs by Freedom City Bike, a bike ministry based out of Pleasantville, New Jersey.
“I’m just here with the love of God. I’m here doing what I love to do – I love building bikes, I love talking to people, I love spreading the love of God. This is like the perfect setting that anyone could be in! You know, you’re out in a community where it needs passion, it needs love, it needs support, it needs good energy and I’m giving all of mine today,” said James Bussey of Freedom City Bike.
Over the course of two days, Freedom City Bike gave away 60 bikes at various project site locations. Giving away 30 on Friday at First Haitian Metanoia Baptist Church and another 30 before noon at Chew and Chelten.
A brief memorial service was also held at Chew and Chelten to remember the young life lost and to honor his family. Gerald Waters, Serve Tour Philly project manager and pastor of Proclamation Community Church, offered a word of encouragement during the street-side service and shared the gospel. Towner and Rucker recognized the grieving family, prayed with them and presented them with a certificate for the new youth center, affectionately named after Laron “L.J.” Williams.
“You don’t always see the feet to your prayer,” said Towner, reflecting on the Chew and Chelten project site and the prayers he had previously said for the neighborhood. He went on to describe the day as “confirmation” from the Lord and a product of God’s providence.
“Send Relief had Philadelphia set as one of their cities before I was even in the neighborhood, which that’s pretty remarkable. That just shows you the timing of God; that He works out all things for His good.”
Across the bridge and back
Conveniently positioned just across the bridge in Camden, New Jersey, Wholesome Riches stretched Serve Tour Philadelphia across state lines. Volunteers from Red Land Baptist Church and Hillcrest Baptist Church aided in food distribution.
“It is a comfortable place for us because we do food distribution frequently, and we also have a ministry within our church that does some distribution. So, this was a place we felt very familiar with,” said Theresa Krieg, member of Red Land Baptist Church and PA/SJ WMU executive director.
Krieg and other volunteers also manned a children’s table, offering local kids an opportunity to make a bracelet and hear the gospel while their parents waited in the distribution line. It was a fitting addition as Sept. 16 was also Children’s Mission Day.
In observance of the day, children across PA/SJ were asked to make cards for the homeless. Krieg noted that roughly 150 cards were made and delivered to homeless individuals in Philadelphia.
“We believe that God is working in the lives of children every day and we need to be educating children about missions. And if we’re not, then they may not have that opportunity to know how important it is in their life,” said Krieg.
Back across the bridge, other Serve Tour volunteers took over south Philly, putting on block parties for area schools, landscaping local churches and schools, blessing first responders, teaching elderly community members how to use tech devices, helping college students move in at Drexel University, feeding countless neighborhoods with a mobile grill and taking every opportunity to share the love of Christ.
Waters, who traveled to the various project sites, recalled seeing a “joy on everybody’s face.”
“Nobody looked disgruntled. Nobody looked tired. Everybody’s energized and excited. I saw people ready and willing to serve and I haven’t seen those types of faces in a very long time.”
There was a kindred joy, even for the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) and BRN PA/SJ Disaster Relief volunteers who stayed behind to prep meals for those who were serving.
“[Our] role at Serve Tour Philly has been the meals. The volunteer teams need lunches on both Friday and Saturday and so we prepared bagged lunches – that’s not our normal thing, but we were very happy to do it,” said Kenton Hunt, PA/SJ director of Disaster Relief (DR).
A group of 16-18 DR trained volunteers prepared more than 400 sandwiches for each day of work. These hard-at-work hands also prepped, cooked and served dinner for the Serve Tour rally. A meal made possible by these volunteers, Ezekiel Baptist Church and the BRN’s DR rapid response kitchen.
After dinner, all of the Serve Tour volunteers converged in the sanctuary of Ezekiel Baptist Church for a closing rally. The rally highlighted stories from the tour and included a sermon of encouragement from Dr. Larry Anderson, BRN director of church health and evangelism.
Next steps across PA/SJ
Serve Tour volunteers spent two days outside of the walls of their respective churches – but it wasn’t enough.
“I really sense something special about the BRN and what God is doing here in this region,” said Sammy Simmons, national Serve Tour director.
For the local church, Serve Tour loosened the ground and motivated the workers.
“I personally feel it was a catalyst for our church going to the next level [and] doing ministry outside the walls. I’m appreciative for what the Lord has done, not only this weekend but also what he is preparing us for,” said Dr. Brian King Sr., senior pastor of Ezekiel Baptist Church and president of the BRN Executive Board.
On the Sunday following Serve Tour, Sept. 17, Dr. King celebrated 30 years of ministry at Ezekiel Baptist. For his anniversary, he asked his congregation to go out and serve their community.
“Seeing the excitement, the joy, and also the tiredness, of putting in so much and pouring in so much. Hearing how they’re appreciative to other churches that have come in and supported the ministry. For me, personally, seeing that growth in them, and that excitement really has been a lifting experience for me,” said King.
From the very first meetings for Serve Tour, Buff McNickle, BRN Compassion Ministries Director, has been praying that this opportunity would be a starting point for many BRN churches.
“My prayer all along was that it would be like lighting a fuse in their hearts; that God would ignite that fire and fan that flame [and] that God had a mission, not just for them individually but for their church,” said McNickle.
“As they served, [I hoped] they would catch a vision and a passion to not just let it end there but let that be the beginning. Let that be the catalyst to helping them look and see ways that they can connect, serve and engage their communities.”
BRN Executive Director Dr. Barry Whitworth echoed this sentiment, saying, “I was blown away of the love, the care, the passion, the genuineness of people as they just served in Jesus’ name in the city and in very hard places,” said Whitworth. “My hope is that what we did in Philly will transpire across the BRN and other places in the years to come.”
In some regions of PA/SJ, this is already happening. Service projects are being planned, hearts are churning for a chance to share the gospel and next steps are being decided.
At First Baptist Church of Clarion, the church is working towards teaming up again with a local college ministry group to serve its community. A church in South Jersey is planning their next trip to Kensington Ave. to serve with The Rock. In the McNickle household, Serve Tour has pressed upon a young heart, so much so that it has been deemed as “the best day” of his (McNickle’s son) life.
When the church steps outside the building, people get served, lives are changed and next steps are taken. So, why stay in the building? It could end up being “the best day” of your life.
View more photos from Serve Tour Philadelphia here.