The small and diverse congregation of the Wyoming Avenue Baptist Church listened to Pastor Luis Centeno with rapt attention. During the songs, all the members stood up and immersed themselves in the music. They closed their eyes and held their heads up. Although only about 35 people attended the service last Sunday, the Wyoming Avenue Baptist Church has proven to be an integral part of the Feltonville community.
“The community has a lot of history for me and because it’s a really desperately needy community. We want to try to continue to provide a kind of hope,” Centeno said.
The church was chartered in 1891 when Feltonville was just a suburb consisting mainly of farms and mansions. It started out as a small mission but became a full-fledged church in 1900. The pews in the church would be packed with people coming to attend services. Although the attendance went down through the years, many members are hopeful that it will swing up.
“People moved away and things change. But it is starting to come back,” said Nancy Danbach, a longtime member. “I have a good feeling with this church.”
The attendance may have declined, but the church continues its high level of community outreach.
“We believe we need to earn the right to be heard, so it’s not just coming here and shoving it down people’s throats,” Centeno said. “We believe we need to speak into peoples hearts.”
The church holds dinners every Wednesday in addition to its Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. The church has a food pantry and an emergency food cover that help people struggling to pay for their groceries. Throughout the year, there are various retreats for men, women, children and couples. There are after-school programs for kids where they can do crafts and fun activities. Every summer the church sponsors a vacation bible school. They are just starting a rehabilitation and job training program for women with children. Every May the church holds a Police Appreciation day and every October the Family Fall Festival.
“We had this whole street blocked off,” said Debra Crockett, the director of Children’s Ministries, when talking about the Family Fall Festival.
The Family Fall Festival is a major event that is open to the entire community. The church rents out inflatable bouncing houses for the kids to play in. Participants receive free food, drinks, prizes and candy as well as bags of groceries.
“We touch our community in a lot of ways,” Crockett said.
Feltonville is one of the poorer neighborhoods in Philadelphia with 36 percent of the population existing below the poverty line. Theft, robberies and assaults are common. Centeno and his team continue to fight the violence that occurs in the neighborhood. They hold open-air meetings where they stand against violence and hold counseling sessions for victims of violence. The staff also counsels people suffering from addictions or those having problems with their marriage.
“They have very tough lives in this neighborhood and they need hope that something is going on that will restore their world,” said Glenna Deem, a church member. “That [hope] will enable them and will give them the power and courage to allow them to deal with what they are dealing with.”
Glenna Deem and her husband David are in the process of moving from Phoenixville to Feltonville so that they can be closer to the church and its community.
“Culturally we don’t do a very good job of blending in with this neighborhood,” David Deem said. “We look radically different. But nonetheless we have a real sense of that God wants us in here.”
The original church members were well-to-do whites, but the growing diversity of Feltonville is reflected in the church population.
“You can see it on Sunday mornings when you come here to the church. You will sit down, and it won’t be one particular race. It will be a mixture of all kinds,” said Jason Martinez, a church deacon.
The church membership is made up of Latinos, Asians, Africans, African Americans and whites. Different flags are hung up around the church walls, showing off its diversity. At the beginning of every service, Centeno has the audience stand up and greet each other. Everyone smiles and shakes hands with each other. Race does not matter.
“Variety is always best because it opens you up because you can’t say that one thing is better than the other,” said Erika Drayton, a church member.
Along with race, age is another diversifying factor at the Wyoming Avenue Baptist Church. Many members have attended church there for their entire lives.
Danbach and her twin sister Shirley Parcell were dedicated as infants in the church in 1931 and they still attend weekly services. They helped with the church nursery school for many years and even had a double wedding in the church almost 59 years ago. Even though many people decided to leave and attend church elsewhere, Danbach and Parcell never left.
“Our roots are still here. I still feel like this is our church,” Danbach said.
“This is home,” Parcell added.