This article ran in the September issue of The Mennonite magazine. To read more features on church planting and church revitalization, read our current issue online or subscribe today. Photos by Jennifer Strickland.
The Kingdom Builder’s Anabaptist Network of Greater Philadelphia is a community that brings together Anabaptist congregations and leaders to explore the question, What can urban Anabaptists in Philadelphia do together in the name of Christ that they cannot do alone? The Network brings together almost 50 diverse churches and nonprofit organizations, where English, Spanish, Indonesian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Haitian Creole and many other languages are spoken.
Juan Marrero serves as chairman of the Kingdom Builder’s Network and is pastor at Christ Centered Church in Philadelphia, a congregation connected to the Koinonia Fellowship of Churches, a network of 24 Anabaptist congregations. Aldo Siahaan is pastor of Philadelphia Praise Center, a congregation of Franconia Mennonite Conference. He also serves as a LEADership minister for the conference.
We invited both pastors to reflect on their congregation’s history, ministry and dreams for the future. Parts of their story, shared in conversation with Hannah Heinzekehr, are transcribed here.
Juan Marrero, Christ Centered Church
There’s a place called Crossroads Community Center. This center began in 1963 through a ministry of Eastern District Conference, which was then part of the General Conference Mennonite Church.
A Puerto Rican pastor named Raul Mora had a concern. He saw that the neighborhood was changing in North Philly. There were African-Americans moving in and other people of color coming up to work, and he wanted an orientation center for the Puerto Rican community.
At the same time, Ray Linberger, who was serving as pastor of Second Mennonite Church in Philadelphia, saw there was a lot of gang violence in that area of the city. He had a burden for the youth caught in this gang culture but realized the church was not really motivated to reach out to the community. He left the pulpit of Second Mennonite and connected with Crossroads and built a ministry for at-risk teenagers.
These two ministries combined to form Crossroads. My family was heavily involved with this work from the beginning as members of Second Mennonite. Eventually I became a youth worker and then the executive director. I was the first indigenous director of the center. And later, Ron Muse [Marerro’s co-pastor at Christ Centered Church] joined the staff as a prison chaplain. It has really been a fruitful ministry in North Philly.
I love my home church, Second Mennonite, but it still had a traditional flavor to it. These returning citizens we were working with didn’t know the Doxology or “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.” They were looking for a place to connect with Ron or for a message that fit them.
In 2011, Ron and I and my wife just felt this burden. If my home church wasn’t going to make these adjustments, we should do something different. Second Mennonite did bless us to start Christ Centered Church. We leased space at Teen Haven [a community youth organization in Philadelphia]. The first day we met was a Christmas Sunday, and we had 75-80 people. It was God telling us we were doing the right thing.
Eventually, we moved closer to where Crossroads is located. We now meet in a formerly abandoned storefront that was pretty much a drug house. We began to renovate it and redeem that space for the kingdom.
Our congregation is made up of about 75 percent returning citizens and their families. It’s really not that big of a deal. In our community, in the Badlands or North Philly, it’s common for somebody to go to prison. For us, it’s all in the flow of the context. This seems to be a big deal for people outside to see what we’ve got going on but it’s not as big a deal in our setting. We’re just a group of families and people on fire for the Lord.
To help create jobs, a construction company started called Kingdom Builders Construction [see March, page 18] that also partners with Mennonite Central Committee, Kingdom Builders Network and Crossroads Center. We supply pretty much all the staff from our congregation, and I’ve been on the board since day one. And our youth worker was a returning citizen. His name was James Muldor, and he worked half-time at the center and half-time at the construction company. That was very important.
At the same time, we have a prison guard who attends our church with his family. We’ve had police officers attend our church. We’re really getting into the kingdom mindset when you have returning citizens worshiping with prison guards.
These are people that have the motivation. We empower people and we want people to be transformed through the power of Christ. That’s our mission statement.
People need to be empowered. I know Mennonites believe in this “more-with-less” idea, but we’ve been living on less for years. People need an empowerment message that helps them see they can rise above some of the poverty in their community and can lead productive lives. They can have a house, access to transportation and be able to feed their families. That’s a real contextual gospel message here in North Philly.
In Matthew 25, Jesus said, “I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” We live by those Scriptures and we try to live them out.
Each Sunday, we’ll start off with about three songs. I preach with passion and offer an inspiring exhortation and a gospel message. And Ron comes to worship, and he’s a teacher. So even though I preach, he’s still going to come and speak. Think about having Sunday school, but right in the middle of the worship service. He’ll go through Scriptures and people can raise their hand and ask questions and participate.
We have a lot of guys that just came out of prison and also some people that have been out for five years. [Marrero reports that only 5 percent of returning offenders in the congregation have returned to prison, a number well below the citywide average of 60 percent of individuals returning to prison within three years following their release.]They enjoy the teaching time because you can ask questions in church. It’s enthusiastic and high-paced and energetic.
To plant a church, you have to understand and exegete your community. You need to understand what the people are like and what the needs are. If churches are not raising up indigenous leadership, then they are missing the mark. I’m all for people coming in and wanting to help but not if you aren’t training up local leaders. Paul went on mission trips and raised up local leaders from the places he visited.
Aldo Siahaan, Philadelphia Praise Center
Philly Praise Center started with just a few of us, me and a couple of friends. We went to another church together, but we saw that in South Philadelphia there are many immigrants, not only Indonesian people. It was our desire to reach out to people of other nationalities, and the pastor in our previous church had no desire to do that. He wanted to serve only the Indonesian community.
That’s why we had an idea to start a new community and a new church, and that’s Philadelphia Praise Center. It started in 2005 because of the desire of a few people wanting to serve others in the community.
Right now in our church, we have an Indonesian group, an English-language group, a Hispanic group and a Burmese group. We worship at different times, but once in a while we have a combined service.
God calls us to reach out to all people and to serve and disciple nations. He asks us to go into the world. Sometimes we don’t need to go to another country to do this, because those people are already in our neighborhood, and that’s really important.
South Philly is very diverse and it’s growing. It’s like a small United Nations here, because there are so many people coming from different parts of the world: Indonesian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Hispanic folks from different countries, including Guatemala, Mexico, Venezuela and Peru. And more recently, there are immigrants who are Laotian, Nepalese and Burmese.
Being church together is so hard. We come from different cultures, and some people don’t speak English, so sometimes language and culture are tricky. We also often have different approaches to problems. We have to humble ourselves to learn other people’s cultures and ways of doing things.
We are committed to being a people of peace and being people who are the light and the salt for all people. We want to help people be a person of peace in their own context and pay attention to the issues in their own communities.
One example is that here in South Philly, we experience a lot of gun violence. So sometimes we come to the mayor or councilperson’s office to ask them to help stop gun violence.
Our church is also constituted by 90-something percent immigrants, and I can say that roughly 60 percent from that group are undocumented. Immigration plays a big role in our church, and our ministry is about helping immigrants in Philadelphia.
I am an immigrant from Indonesia, so I know the feeling. I was an undocumented person for six years before I got my permanent residency. Even today at 1 p.m., I had a meeting with Councilman [Kenyatta] Johnson, who is responsible for South Philadelphia. I went with a group from New Sanctuary Movement, a community organization our church is part of, and we met with the councilperson to share the need for his office to support and help immigrants in South Philadelphia.
We’ve built relationships with the Indonesian Muslim community in Philadelphia over the last 10 years. In 2007, we opened our church space so that Muslims could have worship there. At the time, they didn’t have a place to worship and meet, and since then our relationship has grown. We try to see the commonality between us, not the differences. There is a tension right now between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia. We are trying to be a witness to the world that Muslim and Christian Indonesians can get along.
As a church planter, one thing I learned is that you need to stay in one place and try to learn about the community itself. You cannot just think you know an area. You need to humble yourself and literally stay and be part of the community. You will get to know the needs of that community; that’s one of the keys.
Where I see God at work is here in South Philadelphia and also in our church is that there are so many people whose souls have been saved. There are so many new souls coming to the Lord. And then we see how God gives them strength in critical situations. Like right now with people facing uncertain immigration laws, many people still have hope. They still go to work and try to support their families, regardless of having legal papers or not. They are still coming to church every Sunday and being a part of small groups and are supporting the church. I see God really working in individual’s lives and in families and in our church.
There is one member of the church who worked with a Muslim man. He never preached the gospel to this man, but his life is very open. He invited the man to his house, and they worked together. Five years after seeing the consistency of our church member, the Muslim man came to my friend and said, “Hey, I want to become a Christian. I want to become like you.” And my friend said, “Why?” The man responded, “I see God in your life, and for me that is powerful.”
Since then (that was four years ago), he’s attended our church. He got baptized and now he’s a faithful member. And he knows the risks of being a convert. The risk is that when he goes back to Indonesia, if his family finds out, he can be disowned or even killed because he converted to Christianity.
We just want to be the instrument of God in this area, and we love building relationships with other people and groups.
 Individuals who have served time in prison.