One night during his 19-month stay at Holmesburg Prison more than 20 years ago Frank Vega had a dream. In it, Vega saw four buildings with people going in and coming out of them. He said he believes it was a vision from God.
“I saw broken people go inside these buildings and come out restored,” Vega said. “I wanted to get out, come home and reconnect with the church.”
Seven years later, in 1994, Vega, with the help of four others, started Inner City Missions. It is a non-profit organization based on faith established to help the believed-to-be unreachable members of North Philadelphia and its surrounding neighborhoods.
“I came home to full-time ministry,” said Vega, 58, who is now a bishop and executive director of Inner City Missions. “It started with me feeding people out of the back of my car. Mostly drug addicts and prostitutes, but it wasn’t getting them off the streets.”
By 1997, through local support and donations, Vega had raised enough funds to lease four connecting buildings on Kensington Ave., with the main office located at 2439 Kensington Ave., turning his dream into a reality.
“We built this organization on faith,” Vega said. “Sixteen years ago we found a place to call home, and in 2007 we purchased the buildings outright.”
Made possible by church and local donations, Inner City Missions has a number of programs that attempt to reach those that need a helping hand.
Recovering alcoholic Dorothy Garcia has been going to Inner City Mission’s Cora Women’s Center for nearly a year. She said the group offers her support.
“I make a lot of friends here,” Garcia said.
There is also an outreach program, substance abuse and recovery counseling and church planning, which takes Vega out of the country two or three times a year.
“I am involved in church planning in Italy, Spain, London and Liberia, but it is places that suffer with poverty. Brixton, for example, is like the Kensington of London,” Vega said. “I help plan out the churches and raise support. We also work with anti-drug and violence programs here in Philadelphia, but it’s important to be out on the streets.”
Vega, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Philadelphia at the age of 2, knows firsthand what life on the streets can lead to. By the age of 12, Vega was a member of a Philadelphia-based gang called the Zulu Nation, and on his way to becoming a prominent neighborhood corner drug dealer. Before his 19-month drug sentence at Holmesburg, Vega spent two and a half years in a Korean jail in 1972 while serving in the army. He joined the army when he was 17 to try to escape the living nightmare that was his hometown of Kensington, but got sucked back into the world of drugs.
“I was arrested for attempted murder,” Vega said. “It was the most horrifying experience of my life.”
Vega, along with two other soldiers, were selling drugs when an altercation led to one of his friends killing a man. Vega said he spent three consecutive months in a four-by-four-foot cell, only being permitted to walk around every 10 days. It wasn’t until a Presidential pardon that Vega was released and brought home.
“We have plenty of success stories, and I’m just one of them,” Vega said. “Recommitting my life to the Lord didn’t solve all my problems, but I knew God was putting me where He wanted me.”
Another staff member, Harry Winans, has been Inner City Missions’ outreach coordinator for two years, and his story is not unlike that of Vega’s. It wasn’t until the two met that Winans was able to get his own life back on track.
“I was looking for work and it was hard because people aren’t quick to hire someone followed around by words like felony,” said Winans, 29, who was born in Fishtown but raised in Kensington. “I did nine years when I was 18, but luckily I found Christ. I was put in a halfway house that allowed me to connect with the church, which is where I met the bishop.”
Growing up surrounded by violence and abuse, Winans jumped around schools and said he joined a gang just to have something he could call a family.
“My mother was an addict and my father was a dealer,” Winans said. “I was an alcoholic at 15 and got involved with gangs. I was just looking for the love, acceptance and approval I never got from my family.”
Now, Winans works with Inner City Missions to get addicts and drug dealers off the corners and make the area a better place for children. Groups of outreach members, called mission teams, do prayer walks, community work projects and team up with local playgrounds to work with kids who need positive role models in their lives.
“We go to Nelson Playground, on Third and Cumberland Street, and Franklin Playground to help them with homework, do arts and crafts, perform skits and just spread God’s love,” Winans said. “We do outreach every night, where we go to the worst corners in Philadelphia with food and drinks to offer help. Basically, we go where the problems are.”
Vega said Kensington is not an area short of problems, which is why he is working towards expanding to include a new building.
“We are still working on a name, but we’re launching a new church in March,” Vega said. “We want to be able to have room for those seeking shelter from the streets and who want to be on the path towards recovery.”
It hasn’t been easy though, Vega said, with the state of the economy and disasters happening all over the world, financial support for Inner City Missions has dwindled.
“We have probably lost about 80 percent of our support, which means we have had to adjust our budget,” Vega said. “We are committed to the community, and while we need people to see that, we also need help. We are living by faith again, like when we first started.”
Inner City Missions can be reached by phone at 215-634-6635.