Philadelphia church start ministers in and among a struggling community
By Blake Tommey
With a name like Strawberry Mansion, it would be easy to assume one of Philadelphia’s most notorious neighborhoods is full of lavish abodes and Lamborghinis. But Wayne Weathers, CBF church starter and pastor of Vision of Hope Baptist Church, will tell you the opposite is true.
In a community that is home to one of the country’s most dangerous schools and a crime rate 96 percent higher than the national average, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and newly planted Vision of Hope Baptist Church are partnering to renew God’s world in Philadelphia. After a year of work and discernment with CBF’s New Church Starts Initiative, Wayne Weathers will be the Fellowship’s first commissioned African-American church starter at this summer’s General Assembly in Greensboro.
Yet, Weathers didn’t wait for commissioning or even a worship space before he and his core group launched Vision of Hope in 2014. Following a departure from his Philadelphia pastorate of 10 years, Weathers said prayer and fasting revealed a deep desire in him to start anew and reveal God’s hope to a hurting community. Since then, the church’s motto, “It’s not just a name; it’s a Christ-centered lifestyle,” has propelled a group of nearly 50 people into the life of the Strawberry Mansion community where they worship and are establishing relationships.
“We’re not just a church that meets or a church that is concerned only with how many members are sitting in the seats. We’re a church that wants to embody God’s transformative power,” Weathers said.
“Our calling is to illustrate God’s hope in a community dealing with disparities, economic challenges, violence, illegal drugs and the common problems people face in everyday life. So when you become a part of Vision of Hope, you’re going to be trained in how to be a servant and how to go out and disciple the community, especially those living in despair.”
From the beginning, partnership has been the lifeblood of Vision of Hope’s mission to renew the Strawberry Mansion community, from the fellowship hall in which they worship — given by Prince of Peace Baptist Church — to the local pastors who volunteer their time to lead music and even serve on the visioning team. Vision of Hope’s newest and most pivotal partnership, however, has come through forming together with CBF’s New Church Starts Initiative.
Weathers became acquainted with CBF during his time at Duke Divinity School’s Baptist House of Studies, and shortly after he and his core group launched Vision of Hope, he reached out for a relationship. Following Weathers’ completion of the eight-week online cohort, Andy Hale, CBF church starts specialist, invited Weathers into the exploratory conference in Decatur, Ga., where church starters engage in leadership assessment, budgeting, fundraising training and networking. Ultimately, Hale said, it was Weathers’ desire for lasting partnership rather than momentary resources that made him a leading candidate for commissioning.
“We’re building a strong reputation for what missional, innovative ministry looks like and word is getting out about how we approach church starting,” Hale said.
“The days are long gone when denominations parachute church starters into given areas and pile in the money. For the most part, CBF commissions church starters who are already living in a location and are working in a given context they understand. Our role is to walk alongside them in their journey as a catalyst and support, and to facilitate opportunities for discernment, growth and coaching. That really hits home for a lot of people.”
In the last year, Hale added, CBF has ramped up what it means to partner and be commissioned as a church starter. Where in previous years the Fellowship would contribute $12,000, a year of free coaching and a basic support network, the CBF New Church Starts Initiative now contributes $15,000, three years of coaching, two site visits, leadership training with the church’s core group and even retreats on the second and third year of the start.
While CBF intentionally has very few prerequisites to partnering with a church start, Hale said, perhaps the biggest requirement is an ability to see a surrounding context and connect to a community in authentic, missional ways — an attribute that quickly emerged from Weathers and Vision of Hope.
“Jesus is saying ‘I’m accessible, I’m available’ to those living in a community where few other things are accessible and available,” Weathers said of the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood.
“When you’re facing challenges, your focus is really not on Christ, it’s on crisis. When you’re in survival mode just trying to get from day to day, you can often set yourself up to sink deeper. But Jesus is saying that there’s hope in a hopeless situation, that there’s an alternative to the current state we may be living in. That is where we’re called to be.”
For Vision of Hope, identifying opportunities to be missional in the community wasn’t exactly a difficult task, associate minister Benita Weathers said. In the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, average school test scores are 56 percent lower than the national average and a student is three times more likely than other Philadelphia students to drop out of high school. Because of this, 42 percent of households live below the poverty level.
Benita Weathers explained that in a neighborhood like Strawberry Mansion, the bulk of ministry simply cannot take place within four walls. Through building partnerships with residents, local churches, housing networks, food providers and other resourcing organizations, Vision of Hope is beginning to discover their role in bringing renewal. Consequently, Benita said, Vision of Hope is also challenging people’s notions of what church looks like, which, in her mind, is one of the best gifts of church starting.
“It’s dangerous when the church gets too comfortable with the status quo,” Weathers said, “The church should never get too comfortable. It should always be challenged to grow, to move beyond tradition and actually go out and touch people from all kinds of different backgrounds.”
Moving forward in partnership, CBF and Vision of Hope Baptist Church will continue to resource and empower each other. CBF’s leadership training and site visiting, not to mention pairing Weathers with a ministry coach, has helped move Vision of Hope forward in pivotal ways, Weathers said.
In addition, the CBF New Church Starts Initiative will begin to reinvest in their church starters by creating an in-house coaching network comprised of experienced church starters for new church starters. This and other expressions of an ongoing relationship with church starters, Hale noted, will not only empower bolder and more innovative churches across the country, but create countless opportunities to partner in renewing God’s world in years to come.