Olney: A Church in Change
The marquee of the Solid Rock United Methodist Church proudly reads, “the Oldest Church in Olney.” Originally named for St. James by German immigrants in 1910, the impressive stone structure has been standing strong for 100 years.
Over the century, the neighborhood surrounding Solid Rock has greatly transformed from its original community of European immigrants to one of the most diverse in Philadelphia. However, according to current pastor, Margaret Powell,
the obvious change happening outside the church was slow to be reflected within its doors. In this, the church’s centennial
year, it is Pastor Powell’s goal to celebrate the long-standing history of Saint James while introducing the new, more welcoming ambitions of Solid Rock.
Powell’s arrival at Solid Rock six years ago has been a long time coming. Attesting that God had called on her for the first time at age 16, the pastor originally began her career in nursing.
“I knew I had a calling, but I wanted to keep doing nursing because I was healing people,” she said. “For me, the idea of being called by God made no sense.”
After a move to Mount Vernon, N.Y., Powell decided to answer that calling and became the first woman preacher at her local Baptist church. Eleven years later, she moved on to the Poconos, where she and her husband started a church in their own home while assisting with services at another.
Powell became affiliated with what was once St. James during her final relocation to Philadelphia. Upon looking at the history of the congregation, however, the pastor found a few things that troubled her.
“It was clear that something had happened in maybe a 20- or 30-year period,” Powell said, “where the church was no longer a church. It was cliques and social clubs. It was like they said ‘We’ll do something for those poor black folk, but they’re not going to be part of us.’”
In her research, Powell found that many bishops, pastors and community leaders had once come out of Solid Rock and that the neighborhood had at one time boasted a community of 70 different nations of people. She found herself asking why the current congregation could no longer claim this kind of diversity. What she found was an unwelcoming connotation that came with the name of St. James.
“Even as we would evangelize and knock on doors,” Powell recalled, “people [in the neighborhood] would say, ‘What church? No, no, I’ve been over there and they don’t want us in there.’ I started relaying these stories back to [the church]. They’re saying you don’t want them, so how can you be a church on this corner, in such a mixed neighborhood? Something is wrong.”
To remedy the situation, Powell decided that not only was a new style of ministry necessary, but also a complete name change.
“We tried to change just the worship first,” said the pastor, “and leave the name the same, but that didn’t work. Everything had to be different. Last year, we went buck wild. We painted the door purple, we changed the name of the church. We just went crazy to say that this is a new church. Everybody is welcome.”
The crusade of change initiated by Powell started with the modification of the Happiness School, a nursery school attached to Solid Rock. During her first year at the church, Powell said the demographic of the children in the school was about 50 percent black, 30 percent Asian and 20 percent Caucasian.
“I would listen to [the teachers] screaming, and I mean literally screaming at the black children… I started looking into what this Happiness School was about. They established it as a nursery school clearly so that the women, the wives of the leaders of the church, would have something to do.”
Open only three days a week for three hours in the morning, the school was almost irrelevant. Powell decided to start change at Solid Rock in the school: first by closing down the nursery, then by establishing it as a preschool and daycare center with multicultural teachers, not just white teachers and black students.
The families in the community have played a big part in the evolution of Solid Rock over the past few years. Powell has been developing an idea for opening a space where the church will not only nurture children, but also their families. Starting in two weeks, the church is hosting a family night, which they have dubbed Solid Rock Café. At this creative arts event, they will ask families the Martin Luther King inspired question, “What do you dream?”
“We’re going to try to get kids dreaming about their future, and parents dreaming with them,” said Powell. “We’re trying to get people in a space where they can voice who they are and possibly see where I can go with who I am. I don’t have to be somebody else. We’re going to try to instill that, not just in the children, but in the minds of the adults.”