Part two of a three-part series“If I had to describe Arch Street’s mission in one word, it would be community,” said Kristi Painter, a Global Mission Fellow on the US-2 track serving in Philadelphia. She spoke as one of three missionaries serving on a panel for a workshop offered at the April 2019 Bicentennial Conference, sponsored by Global Ministries and Candler School of Theology. The presenters focused on the topic of “New Mission Work in Contemporary Methodism,” with the Rev. Andrew Lee describing his work in Cambodia and Katherine Parker her work in Nepal. For Painter’s part, her ministry in Philadelphia is all about community.
Using Acts 2:42-47 as a biblical model for Christian community, she described her work with Arch Street United Methodist Church and how the congregation embraces new ways to be the church and build community in mission. “We believe community is the way God calls us to be in mission and the way God calls the church to be in mission,” she said. Her missionary journey engages her in needs, dreams, and solutions devised by the local community. The historic center city Arch Street UMC, with its tall spire, predates Philadelphia’s city hall. The church has a second site, called Serenity House, in North Philadelphia. In both places, “building relationships is an important aspect of my work,” Painter noted, “so that I can best discern how to support the talents and passions in the community.”
The United Methodist US-2 program, established 70 years ago, incorporates social justice and personal growth in young adult missionary service. Today, the US-2 track is part of the Global Mission Fellows program, which has expanded to include 118 fellows serving in 42 countries. All Global Mission Fellows, no matter where they serve, are encouraged to engage with local communities, connect the church in mission and grow in personal and social holiness. Painter began her assignment after earning a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a Master of Divinity degree from Candler School of Theology, Emory University, both in Atlanta.
Ministries of relationship
“Acts tells us early church members committed to a radical new faith and a way to be in community together,” Painter continued. “Jesus’ ministry is more about relationship and less about power. He preferred to break bread with outcasts and grow his community of wanderers little by little with each new conversation. That’s the example we try to follow at Arch Street.”
Arch Street UMC builds community through worship, breaking bread, countering the injustices in its community and challenging the status quo about whose voices are heard and whose leadership is valued. The four major ways the congregation engages in mission are through Grace Café, POWER, Serenity House and participation in the sanctuary movement.
Grace Café is open every Sunday night for 10 months of the year. Painter coordinates worship with this gathering, which also offers referrals for health care, case management and legal help. The church invites everyone and anyone to this open table to share a meal; Arch Street members believe food is a basic right. Visitors and volunteers come from various places and social and financial strata for worship, conversation and sharing their talents.
Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild (POWER) is a coalition of more than 40 faith communities working together on just policies, health care, and economic equity in Philadelphia. Painter took part in a recent voter-engagement campaign and other congregation members worked with the economic dignity team, which was instrumental in convincing the city to pass a $15-an-hour minimum wage. POWER engages city council members on decisions important to religious communities.
Arch Street UMC developed Serenity House a decade ago. Several churches had closed in predominantly black communities of the city. The site once served as the parsonage for Cookman United Methodist Church, and later as a home for youth and then for ex-offenders transitioning back into the neighborhood. Arch Street obtained the parsonage to create a presence of “serenity” on this corner for a new community.
Currently, Serenity House is home to a community center and an intentional community. Serenity House Community Center offers a meeting space for community groups, case management services and interfaith programming. Some programs include Bible studies, cooking and nutrition classes, and craft groups. The community center is also the organizing space for a community-led garden nearby, called The People’s Garden. Serenity House Intentional Community provides housing for young adult organizers and activists working in the city. Painter and a second Global Mission Fellow, Carmen Francesco, live in the intentional community. They both organize programming at the community center and Francesco, from Beach Lake, Pa., coordinates The People’s Garden. “At Serenity House, we build community over tea and cookies – we get down with our hands in the dirt and live and work together,” Painter said.
Arch Street UMC is a sanctuary church that welcomes immigrants and their families. On occasion, it has also become a safe sanctuary site for immigrants living under deportation orders. The church provided sanctuary and advocated for Javier Flores, who, after living in the church basement for a year, successfully fought his deportation order and received a visa to remain in the U.S. More recently, Painter represented Arch Street in a campaign advocating for Carmela Hernandez and her four children, an effort led primarily by women of color. Through their work, Painter says she learned about building a movement and persevering through disappointment.
“Community is built through bold action, questioning the status quo and believing in the impossible,” Painter concluded. She suggested that the church transition from doing mission to building community in mission, living and working as partners in relationship with those it seeks to reach.
House is the senior writer/editor for Global Ministries, Mission Engagement.