It’s an unlikely scene just half a block from the Kensington and Somerset stop under the Market-Frankford line. Amid the shadows of “the El” and barely past the illicit activities of the intersection, there is a building that’s easy to miss. It doesn’t help that at one time it was vacant for 15 years. Marked with a humble sign, and now affectionately called “The Rock,” this place has become an oasis for local boys.
Rock Ministries at 2755 Kensington Ave. and has become one of the most active youth boxing gyms in the city. It is simple, nondescript and yet so much more.
For founders Buddy Osborne and Paul Orr, it all started in prisons. The two met 13 years ago on an outreach trip to prison camps in Russia. Osborne, a lifelong Kensington resident, had been incarcerated himself and both strongly believe in the power of the Bible and the Gospel to change lives.
They founded Rock Ministries upon returning to Philadelphia as an effort to reach out to male juvenile offenders in surrounding prisons.
“After seeing these kids on the prison block facing horrendous crimes, it was always a goal of ours to reach kids on the street block not the prison block,” said Osborne.
Using Osborne’s boxing background and Orr’s knowledge of weightlifting, the two have created an environment to reach the young men of Philadelphia. A testament to the need for such a place in Kensington is the fact the pair barely needed to publicize their program. “We basically opened the doors and they came in. The word of mouth in the hood is faster than the Internet,” said Orr.
It’s been a magnet for young men, a place they can receive mentoring, Bible study and an organized sports program, all free of charge. The ministry moved to its current location in 2004. “It wasn’t fit for a ghetto rat to live in,” said Osborne of the previous location.
Through generous work of volunteers the ministry has consistently grown. It expanded into an adjacent building last year. “Ninety-nine percent of what you see is volunteer labor,” said Orr.
In the new building the ministry aims to house official church services, outreach to the public, and computer and art classes. And The Rock has begun offering kickboxing for girls.
“I never in a million years thought we’d reach girls. That right there is history,” said Osborne.
On a Thursday evening the inside is teeming with energy throughout the night as young men of various ages, sizes and races run on treadmills, spar, shadow box, lift weights, grapple, play drums, do homework and quietly read their Bible. An average night will see 60 to 70 young men come through the door. They laugh, act silly and genuinely seem at ease.
One rule: no cursing.
“You curse, you do push-ups,” said Osborne. In such a tough neighborhood it seems like it would be a difficult rule to enforce, and yet barely anyone ever has to do the push-ups. They simply don’t curse.
“They come in rough around the edges but in order to function here you have to take instructions and listen,” said Orr.
The only thing the men ask is that the kids give half an hour of their time to Bible study. It’s known as “Word Up Time,” mostly singing, reciting verses and praying.
Osborne adds, “You have to understand when you grow up in the hood, with violence, there’s an exterior a kid has to show to his peers who are slinging drugs or in gangs.”
“There was a time in my life where I was facing 165 years in prison. I know how it is. When I was 10, we used to laugh at the guys who came around for Bible study,” he says.“We aren’t raising choirboys. We’re raising men in the hood and giving them godly principles.”
Their efforts are paying off. Rock Ministries has developed a reputation as a powerhouse within Philadelphia youth boxing. Emanuel Folly, 17, boxes out of Rock Ministries. He is a Golden Gloves bronze medalist and will be attending a Junior Olympics qualifier.
“Ideally, one day you’ll see that Kensington and Somerset will be cleaned up. Drugs, heroin, prostitution…that’s what comes to people’s mind about this area and I’d love to see that all change,” Orr said, continuing after a pause. “Also, to see young men who have given their lives to Christ become contributing members to society.”
“Finally, to see The Rock open seven days a week and every room in the building being used.”
For the founders of Rock Ministries, the successes of their athletes are welcome but the truly satisfying work is the differences Osborne and Orr see in the young men’s lives, their attitudes and the surrounding community.