The 2400 block of Kensington Ave., beneath the swell of late June’s humidity and amid the clamor of ongoing traffic and the El, is awash in crosses, both literal and figurative. A statue of Mary observes the intersection of Kensington Ave. and Hagert St. behind a chain link fence while another of Jesus watches over a garden behind the S.K.A. coffee shop.
This heavy religious presence can be seen as a result of the many outreach institutions that have claimed this block since the 1970s. “We all kind of work together. We all have the same goal and that is to try to bring a little bit of God’s love to a place that desperately needs it,” said Br. Fred Dilger, OFM.
Dilger, a friar working with St. Francis Inn, a soup kitchen that serves almost 400 meals every day, is one of many spiritual leaders who have taken up residence on this block, ten blocks below where Philadelphia Weekly once called the worst drug corner in Philadelphia.
The initiative behind this group of religious organizations, which includes St. Francis, Inner City Missions, Cast Your Cares, Cora Women’s Center and S.K.A. coffee shop is to counter the neighborhood’s presence of drugs and homelessness, utilizing spirituality as a driving force.
In a neighborhood with a 23.3% poverty rate, according to Pew’s 2013 State of the City report (although potentially higher, as the report groups Kensington’s statistics with neighboring Fishtown’s) and the fifth highest violent crime rate in the city, Dilger finds a religious presence to be greatly beneficial to those who are homeless, recovering from addiction or otherwise in need of assistance.
“[The block] has a really good Christian feel to it,” said Amy VanTuyl, a volunteer from Buffalo, New York who has been working with St. Francis Inn and living in Kensington since last August.
“Kensington, after a lot of the factories have closed and the businesses moved out, it’s been going downhill. There aren’t many jobs here in industry. So what happens is when the jobs move out, people have to resort to whatever they’re doing to provide their money. Usually, most of the time, it’s selling drugs,” said Chris Marshall, who helps manage the Last Stop Clubhouse, a narcotics and alcoholics anonymous center across the street from St. Francis Inn.
Like many NA/AA centers and those who manage them, Marshall, himself a former addict who sought treatment from Last Stop two and a half years ago, finds religious devotion to be a key factor towards recovery.
The Last Stop Clubhouse fully integrates the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions programs in their operations, both of which ingrain spirituality and faith as crucial in recovering from addiction.
While the block’s aesthetic maybe appear to be Judeo-Christian, with words like “Mission” and Christ imagery spread throughout the block’s many murals and displays both indoors and outdoors, many of these groups stress that they are not heavily pushing any specific religious agenda.
“We also develop a relationship with the god of our understanding,” Marshall said, insisting that addiction treatment does not come from one predetermined, organized religion.
“Whatever god that might be, as long as you have a relationship with him he can help you out through [your addiction].”
VanTuyl supports Marshall’s non-denominational direction. “I don’t think anywhere is particularly overzealous in trying to push religion, which is nice, but it’s an option that’s available to anyone that wants to seek further religious ideology.”
But for a number of St. Francis Inn’s more senior members, like Br. Xavier De La Huerta, OFM, who began living and serving in Kensington in 1982. Like many young people, he said, Huerta devoted his life to his religion and to service after an early-adulthood period of feeling unsure about what he wishes to accomplish in his life.
“I was looking for meaning,” he said, before determining that his decision to take his vows and move to Kensington as “a calling to be of service through God and to be involved with a particular group in need.
Huerta detailed a conversation he had with his pastor as a young man. “’Well look at it this way, if you’re not cut out for that life, you would know it yourself or they would tell you that you have a different calling and to follow it,’” he said. Nearly 30 years later, it would appear that Huerta has found his calling, as he refers to the neighboring residents as his brothers and sisters.
Regardless of devotion to particular religious organization, it is clear that the work done by those who occupy the 2400 block of Kensington Ave. has been greatly inspired and fueled by faith, clearly defined or not. While the neighboring area still suffers from adversity, the organizations that have claimed this small part of Kensington as an area of safety and good will.
Or, as Marshall summed it up in a wide grin: “We’re very poor financially but we’re rich in spirit.”