For the past 41 years, the University Lutheran Church of the Incarnation, or UniLu for short, has stood on the corner of 37th and Chestnut streets. A member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, UniLu’s congregation of 150 members focuses their efforts on growing their relationship with God and the community.
According to the church’s Social Ministry page, “at the conclusion of each time we worship together as a community, we are sent out to do God’s work with our hands.” The church has always had a history of supporting those in desperate need, including sponsoring families who were seeking refuge from other violent parts of the world.
UniLu is also actively involved in philanthropy and is one of the founding members of the University City Hospitality Coalition, which has been providing assistance and support to the poor and homeless for the past 26 years. The church now runs its own program, Feast Incarnate, which provides food for those afflicted with HIV/AIDS and has been in operation since 1988, a time where they were not allowed in some restaurants in the area. UniLu has also joined efforts with other Lutheran churches in Philadelphia and collects non-perishable food items and periodically raises funds for the Lutheran World Hunger Appeal.
In addition, the church feeds between 80 and 120 people every Tuesday night. “I hope it makes them feel welcome here and safe and know that they have somewhere to eat on Tuesday nights in some place where they won’t be judged, and can hopefully connect them to other services as well,” said Colleen Montgomery, a member of the UniLu Congregation who is currently studying to be a pastor.
Feast Incarnate is not a typical “soup kitchen” setting, but rather an environment of welcoming and a place where anyone is free and encouraged to share their stories. “They start to form relationships, a few of them have the set tables that they sit at and get to know each other,” Montgomery said.
The congregation of the church is relatively young, with roughly a third coming from surrounding schools such has Penn, Drexel, Temple and University of the Sciences. A majority of the congregation consists of young adults or middle-aged men and women, but retains a sizable amount of senior citizens comprised of retired pastors and professors. UniLu offers students the opportunity to be a part of the Lutheran Campus Ministry, where they meet every Thursday to socialize and host bible studies, game nights, movie nights and participate in community service.
Jay Wisener, the pastor of the UniLu, praised the congregation for its efforts. “It’s a congregation that has been very peace and justice-oriented, it’s also been worship oriented and centered. It’s a congregation where every single person tha walks through these doors is very colorful.”
While the church is finding success in its many programs aimed at benefiting the community, Wisener is concerned with the public perception of Christianity. “The church, the big church, the ‘Big C’ church is really struggling right now, and part of it is because of its own PR, if you will, the way that it has presented itself outside of itself. There are many people now that think church is a bad thing.” He also mentioned the need to connect the young adult community with the church community, and claims that the church “has lost two or three generations already, and we’re not doing any better.”
Wisener, who moved to Philadelphia from Minnesota, says that social services in the city are less developed than those in other areas. “Here there are very few services that I can even help out with. There are a lot of people who struggle with chronic mental illness in this area, in Minneapolis it’s handled in a very different way, here there are not as many services.”
Wisener described UniLu itself as “very odd” with its young congregation, strong focus on the community and the fact that the church has not had a funeral since he became Pastor. “This is a very driven congregation. Some visitors come in and say ‘I have never been part of a community like this before, this is the most amazing church I have ever seen.’’’