GOOD NEIGHBORS: Pastor Jonny Rashid says the church's goal is to be a good presence in the neighborhood.
A little over a year ago, a new church opened in a place that has gotten used to vanishing houses of worship and dwindling congregants: North Philadelphia. Nestled in a former PECO office near Broad and Dauphin streets, it doesn’t look much like a traditional church, and its occupants — young, trendy and mostly white — don’t look much like traditional churchgoers, particularly in an area where surrounding census tracts are 45 to 94 percent black.
But the new worshipers say they are here to stay: Some have even bought homes and started families on the gap-toothed blocks north of Temple University.
“They” are part of the newest offshoot of Circle of Hope, a Christian organization that opened its first church in Center City 18 years ago and now has four congregations in two states. The group has gained local recognition for a series of successful businesses affiliated with the church or its members, most notably the chain of Circle Thrift consignment shops and Pizza Brain, a popular artisanal pizzeria. But the church could be equally noteworthy as one of few religious entities to succeed in attracting notoriously secular young urban transplants.
For much of the Circle of Hope’s history, its congregants — totaling 650 as of this year — and their associated businesses have followed the trajectory of most trendy twentysomethings in Philadelphia, clustering around Center City and hipsterfying areas like Fishtown. Leapfrogging to the middle of North Philly is a break from that pattern and a change for some of the new congregants.
“My wife and I were part of the original group of 50 of us who had been sent off from the Fishtown congregation,” said social worker and Dauphin Street congregant Matthew Tice, 30, who bought a house on 17th Street, near the new church. “We had been on board with this mission for a long time and really excited about it, When we were looking for a house we were intentionally focused on North Philly as a place where we knew we were going to be doing this: living, working and meeting people.”
Tice is one of about 20 of Dauphin Street’s 100 congregants who bought or rented homes in the neighborhood in anticipation of the new church, which combined members from Fishtown with several existing “cells” (home-based prayer groups of about 10 people) scattered around Brewerytown, Francisville and elsewhere in North Philly. The “mission” he mentions draws from the social-justice philosophies the church preaches that are in line with Christ’s dictum to love others “as I have loved you”: breaking down racial segregation, investing in local businesses and lobbying for more social spending and affordable housing.
“We thought it would be good to be ‘stayers’ in North Philadelphia when it’s often been made up of people who are leaving,” said Pastor Jonny Rashid, an Egyptian-American from central Pennsylvania who helped found the Dauphin Street congregation, noting the area’s historic middle-class flight and the “tension” caused by the transitory student population.
Of course, for some neighbors, it can be a fine distinction between the students and the Circle of Hope members. Tice purchased a former student rental for his home, and five others rent what one congregant referred to as a “kinda sucky” house that had been aimed at Temple undergrads.
“Everyone does think we’re students, and now I am back in grad school so now I am a student again,” said member Sara Semborski. “There’s not a hostility, but it’s more of a non-acknowledgement because they assume you’re just passing through.”
Other new residents associated with the church, many of whom relocated from more privileged suburban or rural locales, are forced to deal with the realities of living in one of the most neglected, historically segregated and crime-plagued neighborhoods in the state. (Last month, there were two homicides within a three-block radius of the church.)
“My car has gotten broken into several times on my block. … It’s a rough neighborhood. They’re people who need things and that’s the only way they can get it,” said member Jennifer Danforth, who is white and originally from Ohio. “It’s been really challenging for me to be in a neighborhood and to be a minority on my block. Learning how to be myself, but also learning how to relate to my neighbors is a challenging thing for me. It stretches me, but I’ve enjoyed it.”
There is also the question of how effective a church can be at combating rising property values in its new home when it has, unusually, become tied to gentrification through its popular businesses. In acknowledging this apparent contradiction, Rashid stressed the nascence of his congregation’s presence in the neighborhood.
“Our force isn’t that big and we don’t have a lot of influence. The thing we’re doing is so incremental, it’s hard to calculate in that sense [of impacting property values], but we realize our presence in any neighborhood is going to increase property values,” he said.
So what do longtime residents of the neighborhood think about these newcomers? Several people recounted positive interactions with congregants: Debbie Smith, of the 2700 block of 17th Street, fondly remembered Tice praying for her granddaughter, who suffers from chronic seizures. But Smith and other residents generally expressed a lack of understanding about the church and its mission in their neighborhood.
Karen Sisco, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years and owns the Picky Pet Supply Store near 17th and Diamond streets, has attended a few of Circle of Hope’s Sunday meetings, and praised the church’s “open-door policy.”
“All walks of life are invited in, which I really love. I’ve seen Chinese people, black people, white people, mixed couples. And that’s what it should be in any church, but they make it more welcoming,” said Sisco, who is black and an associate minister at a church in South Philadelphia.
However, Sisco said that, while she hoped to visit again, she found the meeting too “casual” and “relaxing” for “a traditional church person” like herself, saying it seemed better suited to “college students.”
On a recent Sunday evening, Rashid, who is a Temple grad himself, was leading another meeting, steering a conversation that touched on drone strikes in the Middle East, the latest Anthony Weiner scandal and global economics.
“We need to think about how economic liberty can perpetuate poverty,” he said, narrating a PowerPoint presentation while framed by the grey carpet and drop ceiling of the former utility office. The crowd volunteered reactions to the pastor’s words over the occasional roar of the Broad Street Subway. There were occasional bare feet, a mass of bicycles piled in a corner and new mothers with children clustered around a snack table that featured organic heirloom tomatoes. The meeting closed with an upbeat hymn accompanied by an accordion.
The church’s quirky vibe and political activism — Rashid says the church joined protests over school-funding cuts and regularly lobbies politicians to build more affordable housing and create a land bank to utilize North Philly’s numerous vacant lots — are big parts of what has made it attractive to young Christians turned off by more formal, traditional churches. But have those unorthodox qualities made it harder for the North Philadelphia congregation to appeal to older black residents, like Sisco?
“I don’t think [Circle of Hope] has the power to draw a lot of black people,” she said. “They don’t want to just sit back and be that relaxed.”
However, Sisco also observed that even the area’s traditional churches have struggled to attract new congregants. She was more skeptical of Circle of Hope’s ability to draw neighborhood folks that had strayed from religion altogether.
“The gentleness of that church doesn’t draw the wicked sinner who needs to realize that they really need this peace. You really need a church that’s going to tell you ‘Hell is real,’” said Sisco.
The group’s pastor said he was wary of targeted “evangelism.”
“The one thing I don’t want to do is create a diverse congregation for the purpose of curbing white guilt. I don’t want to tokenize anybody, because I’ve been tokenized before,” said Rashid. “The goal of the church isn’t just to get people in the neighborhood to it, but to be a good presence in the neighborhood that is smart and sensitive and compassionate. If they want to do that with us they can, if they want to keep doing their thing and have a positive relationship with us, that’s good, too.”
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