On the second-floor of North Philadelphia’s, Deliverance Evangelistic Church, class is set to begin. The Center for Urban Theological Studies (CUTS), leases nine classrooms from the massive church, but typically only uses four. It’s just before 5:30, on this Thursday evening in early April, as men and women exit the floor’s lone elevator and retreat into their respective classes. Some come directly from work donning slacks and dress shirts, while others are casually dressed in blue jeans and hooded sweaters. Most are African-Americans in their 40s and 50s, and from Philadelphia. The classes about to start have no more than ten students in each. And seemingly each convenes the same way: with a prayer.
“Though most courses do deal with biblical education, they show you how biblical education can be tied into community involvement,” says Vanessa Hayes, a part-time student at CUTS, who is a full-time assistant director in the career services department at the Thompson Institute. “In tough times, like now, this is important because the church is playing a bigger role in the community.”
With a core theological curriculum rooted in the study of religious faith and practices, CUTS, strives to be more than an institution that bestows mere biblical rhetoric on its students. Instead, the center takes theology and attempts to make it prevalent to the urban community in which its students either work or reside. The phrase, “urban theology,” in the center’s title points at accomplishing this feat.
“The connection is critical,” adds Hayes. “You can’t just have the spiritual aspect when working in the community, it’s definitely important to also understand the non-spiritual needs of people and how the two coincide.”
The origins of CUTS date back to 1971. Pastors from the African-American community approached the city’s Westminster Theological Seminary in search of guidance. At that time, the Black Power Movement was at its peak in the city, and leaders of the movement challenged church ideals. As a result pastors found themselves unequipped theologically and academically to properly address these challenges.
Small weekend seminars were eventually held by Westminster for local African-American pastors, and soon those weekend seminars evolved and became a more formalized program of study. Thus, the Westminster Ministerial Institute came about, offering a three-year curriculum of studies focused on theology and how it can connect to the urban community.
In 1978, at the request of these same local pastors for a more advanced college-level of training, Geneva College, located in western Pennsylvania took heed to their request and turned the Westminster Ministerial Institute into CUTS. A year later Geneva made CUTS its Philadelphia branch that offered a bachelor’s degree in ministry. Today, CUTS, main location is its faculty, counseling, admissions offices and chapel in Hunting Park. It has evolved into an accredited institution that’s still in conjunction with Geneva and offers associate’s degrees in business administration and Biblical studies. While its bachelor’s degree programs are in Bible and ministry, human services, human resources and urban ministry leadership.
“I’m beginning to have a better understanding of the Bible and how it can be applied to the neighborhood,” says Josh Goodin, 22, one of the youngest students of the 130 who attend CUTS. “I’m not talking about going up to someone on the corner and preaching. But by knowing the Bible’s word, I can serve as a reference and a leader to anyone who is curious, and may want to change the life they’re living.”
Courses at CUTS attempt to give students multiple ways of viewing the urban community. Values and Ethical Decision Making is one course that does just that. Students evaluate their personal value systems, learn Christian ethics and are challenged to seek and find comparisons between the two. Students can take this knowledge and apply it to the urban community, without coming across as preaching to citizens. This also reigns true in the center’s Urban Ministry Leadership project that is required of all students in this major. Here students take the opportunity to go out to shelters and community group homes to work and interact with the community.
“With the separation of church and state, it’s frowned on to just push your views on others,” says Goodin, who is a third-year human resources major. “That’s not what I do, but with this education I’m able to be there for others with the wisdom of scripture even if I’m not preaching it. It helps me, to help them.”
It’s fitting that urban theology seeks to address issues that have stigmatized urban communities across this nation. In Hunting Park, the home of CUTS–drug abuse, violence and HIV/AIDS cases are all highly common. According to the year 2000 data reported by the Philadelphia Department of Health, over 13,000 people in Philadelphia have HIV/AIDS. Of those reported cases, between 400 and 800 of these individuals live in the 19140 area code where Hunting Park is located. Just last week, a student was shot twice in a confrontation after school outside of Edison High School in Hunting Park. All of these issues, educators at CUTS believe can be addresses by those who attend and have graduated from CUTS. Not to say that it can do better than other institutions, but it does has tools of a higher sort.
“Through some of our courses we try and bring an awareness and a fulfillment to students that spiritual education can guide them to serve and help the urban community,” says Pastor Kevin Aiken, a professor at CUTS, and the center’s director of admissions.
This is the case with some that have come through the doors of CUTS, and have moved on. As a 1994 graduate, Pastor Ernest McNear, began the Kingdom Care Re-Entry Network in 2004 to help ex-offenders successfully re-enter society and abstain from going back to prison. The program provides faith-based mentorship to the hundreds of local men and women being released from Pennsylvania prisons daily.
“CUTS laid the foundation for actually allowing me to learn theology and scripture,” says McNear, who is founder of the True Gospel Tabernacle in South Philadelphia. “Then the ability to go out and apply it the community.”
Currently, CUTS is a faith-based services mentor in the Hunting Park neighborhood for the Mayor’s Office for Re-entry program that mirrors Kingdom Care in its efforts. Though it hasn’t seen much turn out to the likes of chapel services and counseling, Aiken, attests that the center’s doors are always open and welcoming to anybody in need of guidance, help or just simple conversation.
As classes are about to resume after a short break on this evening at Deliverance, Goodin, seems exhausted after working a full day at his job as an image specialist. He talks about the youth growing up in the city, and what he wants to do once he has received his Human Resource degree from CUTS, as he exits the student lounge.
“To curb some of the negative views that serious issues like violence and drugs have created in the community, its starts with saving young people,” he says. “Maybe with spiritual guidance, or maybe without. Regardless I’ll have the skills to do both.”