In 1995, the tension between West Philadelphia gangs “The Underworld” and “The L.A. Boys” had reached a breaking point. A brutal turf war had started between the gangs after the mother of an L.A. Boys member was shot at by an Underworld member. The gangs’ territory was divided by 36th street, with the L.A. Boys operating in the blocks east of the street and the Underworld operating on the west side. The Davis Brothers’ Grace Church Philly sits directly on top of the old dividing line. John and Steve Davis are looking to breathe life back into a once war-torn neighborhood.
In August of 2010, John Davis saw an opportunity to bring his ministry to West Philadelphia. Originally meeting in a rented space in the basement of the Church of St. Andrew and St. Monica on 36th and Baring streets, Grace Church Philly in University City started with 20 members. After three years, Davis started looking to expand the congregation with more members and especially more families.
Davis ran into a stumbling block. With Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania within walking distance of Powelton Village, many students rent houses in the historic neighborhood to attend both of these colleges. Only about 15 percent of residents in the Village own their homes. With such a transient student population living in Powelton Village currently, Davis decided in November of 2013 to move his congregation into Mantua.
“Our vision for starting a church is that the church reflects the community and its diversity,” Davis said. “It’s a really good mix in this neighborhood. There’s students who have just moved in for college, there’s young families who haven’t been here that long and there’s people who have been here all their lives.”
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The Philadelphia native Davis brothers admit they have had their flaws in the past, but believe the home they have built in Grace Lutheran Church will continue to benefit the changing community.
“We did a lot of bad in the city,” said Steve Davis hinting at his and his brothers involvement with drug-related crimes. “Now we are able to come back and God has made us different men. We want to see good in the city. We want to see peace for the city.”
Although the Davis brothers had plenty of good to say about their congregation, their congregation also had a
lot of good to say about the community they serve. Gary Travis has lived in West Philadelphia since 1975. He started attending Grace Church Philly’s services back when they were still holding service in the Poweltown Village. Moving into Mantua in 1987, Travis said that Grace Church has had an effect on reducing the amount of crime in the neighborhood.
“These guys have really done a great job in helping clean up the streets around here,” said Travis. “I’ve helped John work on getting out into the community and letting people know we’re here. Not only as a place that they can come to worship but we are willing to help them with what they need. We’re mainly focused on fulfilling spiritual needs but anyone is welcome and the meals after service are always great.”
Serving as lead pastor for the last 30 years, John, accompanied by his wife Dawn and her five-piece instrumental ensemble serves the Grace Church community with captivating music ministry and dynamic spiritual hymns. Also present is a large projector that displays lyrics to the songs being played so that parishioners may participate and sing along.
The church itself is quite the step up from the original rented space. On the inside of the building’s glass doors sits a rather magnificent shrine to the Virgin Mary, which leads to the large room where services are held where you can find the warmest of welcomes from the Davis’.
Grace Church is not the only endeavor for Pastor John. He has also helped plant two churches in Buckingham, PA and Queens, NY respectively and serves in two other churches in Roslyn, PA and Brooklyn, NY. Both John and his brother Steve also serve as chaplains for the Philadelphia Police Department’s 16th district. Although Steve works full time, he is a certified addiction counselor.
Steve Davis summed up his congregation with a succinct manner. “We celebrate with everyone here. We have Ph.D. students singing the the pews next to patients in recovery. It’s just what we do, accept everyone no matter where they are in their lives and their spiritual development.”
– Story, Photos and Video by Patrick McPeak