And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
— Matthew 8:20
Kensington is a neighborhood in Philadelphia known for high crime rates, drug hustle and use, and poverty. If you talk to many residents of Kensington, they will share their dreams of being able to move out of the neighborhood. This is the setting that the staff of the Urban Hope Training Center has committed to making their home and long-term investment for the Kingdom of God. I had the opportunity to return to the training center for my third consecutive Spring Break, second as the student leader of our team from Cedarville University. God used one week immersed in a drastically different environment to transform our hearts, worldview, and mission.
Urban Hope is on Tioga St. in West Kensington in an old church building donated to CE National after the previous congregation had to close its doors. Within a five-block radius from the church campus, there are over 8,500 people, primarily Puerto Rican and Dominican. The typical household is made up of 8–10 residents, mostly children; and the average age in Kensington is about 21 years old. It is because of these demographics that Urban Hope, from its inception, has targeted children, even before opening its doors for a Sunday morning service. This mission has blossomed into numerous ministries such as the Sunday afternoon Kingdom Kids class as well as the advanced Cornerstone after school program. Through their efforts to reach children holistically (meeting physical, educational, and spiritual needs), they have seen entire families come to know the Hope of the Gospel. Urban Hope’s staff is required to live within that five block radius, too, so it is very much an incarnational residential ministry, which I am learning is the most efficient to form and maintain deep relationships.
On Sunday, we had the opportunity to attend three very different church services. Sharon Baptist is a mostly African-American congregation in downtown Philadelphia. SBC stands out as being people who have extreme joy in the Hope of their Savior. They use very upbeat preaching and music in combination with an emphasis on community within the building (through such means as small group prayer during the service) to foster a spirit of worship and learning. We returned to Urban Hope to attend their Sunday Celebration Service. In the evening, we were able to attend one of the campuses of Circle of Hope, a much smaller congregation that is focused very much on the roots of the early church and community-minded service. All three peoples were so radically different from each other, no doubt, but all had the common thread of the core of the Gospel. I cannot wait until the Kingdom of God is fully realized and all followers of Christ are together in perfect unity despite their diversity.
We were able to assist with the Kingdom Kids program in the afternoon at U.H. This is the core children’s ministry, drawing in nearly 100 kids weekly out of a pool of about 700 total attendees in the local neighborhood. The staff does an excellent job at effectively teaching the kids at their level the truths of the Gospel. I was asked to role-play Peter during a skit demonstrating both his denial and later passionate support of Christ. The kids were so attentive and latched on to the lessons taught; they had such a great desire to continue returning to the loving arms of Christ at Urban Hope and bringing that joy back to their families.
Inner City Missions
On Monday evening, we had the opportunity to join another ministry in Kensington, Inner City Missions, led by Pastor Frank Vega. In short, Pastor Vega came out of a long life as a drug lord before the Christ Lord gripped His heart and turned his life around. Now, Pastor Frank Leads ICM in ministering to the very people whom he had used to profit himself for so many years. The corner of Kensington St. and Somerset Ave. is just a few blocks away from the ICM building, and is known as one of the top recreational drug corners in the nation. We were able to join up with another Spring Break team of students from Carnegie Mellon (one Swiss and the rest Asian) to pass out food and pray with over 150 people struggling with addiction over the course of two hours. So many people were without hope and in urgent need of a Savior. We had conversations with some, physically held up others from collapsing, and in general witnessed the light of the Gospel being poured out on a corner that is nearly completely controlled by the Prince of this World.
I am so thankful that God has blessed the Cedarville University teams to Urban Hope with top-notch students who have upheld our reputation with the staff very well in years past. Jason (the director) shared with us how much he looks forward to our team’s arrival each year, as well as the fact that we are the only team that he invites to join in on the house church meetings. On Wednesday night, the men were able to join Jason and some other people of the church for a house church meeting. A man named José dominated the night a.k.a. “Siete” sharing his testimony of redemption. I put God in a box far too often, and I am praying that God would vastly expand my view of His saving power.
On Friday evening, we were able to attend Rock. This program for middle and high school students gives them a place to gather, hear a brief lesson from the Bible, and be loved on by the staff and each other through recreational activities at the youth center. Only God could prompt so many teens to want to spend their Friday night at the church, learning the Gospel, in a community so darkened by sin.
Throughout the week, our team had many times to debrief and discuss together what God was teaching us. These were some of my favorite moments in Philly. Each member brought so much to the table, and it was a privilege to learn from each one. I pray that God would not allow that fire to fade now that we have returned to our everyday environment.
To any fellow Cedarville students that may read this, you must consider applying for one of these trips next year. If you have any further questions about how these trips work, Urban Hope specifically, etc., let me know. Though I cannot state dogmatically, I am convinced that this is one of the best ways you could spend your week off from school, and I wish more of my peers would take advantage of the trips. Time is short. The Kingdom of Heaven is near.
These thoughts reflect such a small sample of some of the opportunities we had this week. As I continue to digest and think about what God taught me, I may post some more specific thoughts. In conclusion, I would say that the greatest lesson that I am coming away with is just increasing my love for people as a reflection of my love for Christ. I can honestly say that I have been frank, well, fearful of talking to unknown people. If they reject me, Praise God; if people are receptive, Praise God; but all people are just that, people, and are in need of the Savior that I have met and known. Every time I neglect talking to someone so that I can make an extra buck or save a minute of time is an opportunity wasted and a dagger to the Heart of God. In the words of Lecrae, “Lord kill me if I don’t preach the Gospel, I’m still in my twenties, but I’ll die if I gotst to.” Please keep me in prayer and hold me accountable, and I hope that my testimony would both encourage and challenge you as well. To God be the Glory.