Center City: ‘Come as You are’ at Broad Street Ministry

Congregants wait for Broad Street Ministry to open on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015, as part of the church's hospitality collaborative.

When Broad Street Ministry opened in 2005, the staff realized quickly the church had to be different.

“We knew right away this needed to be a church for this zip code,” said Rev. Andy Greenhow, minister of stewardship, congregational partnership and belonging. “That has to incorporate three blocks from City Hall. That has to incorporate, too, the fact that we’re right on the edge of the Gayborhood.”

Located in the heart of Center City, Broad Street Ministry stands across from the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, a short walk from the recently opened flagship Wawa and a few blocks from a world of vitality in almost every direction.

There is a boom going on in the city. This past summer, The New York Times listed Philadelphia as the No. 3 place to go in 2015, citing Dilworth Park and Spruce Street Harbor Park as a couple of reasons why.

The city was recently named the No. 1 music city in North America by Vivid Seats, a website that sells tickets to concerts, sporting events and theater.

But as it continues to grow in popularity, Philadelphia still has an overall poverty rate of 26.7 percent and has one of the highest deep poverty rates in the United States, according to the 2014 U.S. Census American Community Survey.

“At a certain point,” Greenhow said, “it’s only as good as how it is for the least among us. One of the things we would really like to see is that Philadelphia’s development and growth is still for everybody.” w=577 h=333]

As a way to combat poverty in the city, BSM has a hospitality collaborative, where it offers six meals per week – breakfast Mondays, dinner Tuesday and Wednesday and lunch Thursday, Friday and Saturday – to the homeless.

Greenhow said BSM would rather be out of business than have to offer meals but it can’t ignore the poverty-stricken in the city. Another service BSM provides is offering a mailing address to the homeless, many of whom are veterans.

The mail service helps homeless veterans get IDs so they can get the benefits they’re entitled to from serving their country, according to Greenhow, and others to avoid missing failure to appear notices in civil court cases.

“We want to extend a meaningful invitation every Sunday,” Greenhow said, “and that invitation is not conditional on your behavior or identity. That is an invitation, period. You are invited. Period.”

He continued, “If you’re drunk, if you’re high, just come. It’s better for you to be here than for you to be somewhere else. We’ll never have a metal detector, never have a sobriety checkpoint. Come as you are.”

While there are some things BSM would like to change in its community, gender identity and sexual orientation are not among them, Greenhow said.

Broad Street Ministry is home to the first openly gay ordained Presbyterian pastor in Philadelphia in Rev. David Norse, who is the church’s minister of pastoral care in LGBTQ belonging.

Norse and Greenhow were neighbors at the Princeton Theology Seminary and graduated together. The two discovered BSM one day when a car full of seminarians drove an hour from Princeton to Philadelphia.

For BSM, Norse provides pastoral counseling and runs the church’s LGBTQ Fellowship, which meets once a month.

He continued, “What he brings to the table is a strong understanding of his own identity and about the identity of many in our community that says, ‘You want to be a Christian. You want to be LGBTQ. We can do this together.’ He does that really well.”

The LGBTQ Fellowship offers the community a place to meet and talk with a religious leader about their standing in religion, as well as attend different events and activities at the William Way LGBT Community Center and around the city.

“Because I’m ordained and because I’m a pastor,” Norse said, “I have the ability to welcome people to communion, which is essential to the worship and there’s something about being able to invite people to that table.”

“For them to know that I’m gay and that I’m engaged,” he continued, “that I’m the one who is saying come whoever you are, come to this table because Christ invites you to this table. It means something when it is someone who you could see yourself in.”

What’s unique about Broad Street Ministry to R. Eric Thomas, program director at the William Way Center and Norse’s fiancé, is that it provides a space for those who don’t feel like they fit into traditional churches.

“That’s people of all sexual orientations and all races,” Thomas said. “It’s a space for everyone. That encourages people to bring their doubts. It serves as a really unique space in the city.”

BSM is a resident-worshipping community with about 90 members every Sunday, according to Greenhow, and as an alternative church, it has members on the cusp of leaving religion.

“These are people who have had really, really bad experiences with organized religion,” he said. “So very often we are either the last stop on the way out the door completely of organized religion or this is the first step back in for people who have left.”

— Text, video and images by Tom Dougherty.

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