I’m participating in the “Pastoral Leadership Gathering” being hosted by the Arch Street Presbyterian Church and Broad Street Ministries in center city Philadelphia. More than a hundred pastors and presbytery leaders have come together to reflect on the changing context of ministry and how we engage communities with the message of the gospel.
We began our time by breaking into eight groups to experience eight very different community contexts all within easy walking distance of the square on which stands Philadelphia’s city hall.
The group that I was part of headed south to the William May Center. As displayed in a grand mural on the side of its building (one of several in the neighborhood), this area was the physical location of the LGBT community’s push for civil rights beginning in the late 1960s. It became known as the “Gayborhood”---and is still proudly called that by some today.
But things are changing. “Gentrification” is reaching this area. Young heterosexual families are moving in, as represented to me by the darling, roughly four-year-old girl who proclaimed to everyone passing on the street (or more likely just to herself and her mother) that she was going to swim at the “Kids on 12th” gym.
Literally next door to “Woody’s,” the first openly gay bar in Philadelphia with its row of rainbow flags, is a very family-friendly ice cream shop. Across the street, an upscale wedding gown boutique. Some merchants display signs promoting the rebranding of the “Gayborhood” as “Midtown Village.”
A couple of blocks away a colleague and I happened upon the Witherspoon Building. Yes, that Witherspoon. Carved into the elaborate stone work were words announcing the “Presbyterian Board of Publications and Sabbath School Work.” All around the entrance are carved seals of more than a dozen partner churches and agencies.
The Witherspoon Building is no longer related to the Presbyterian Church and hasn’t been for more than a decade (from what I can tell from some quick “Googling”). Beside the ornate entrance on one street, signs indicate it now houses a Wachovia branch; at the entrance on the other street a large sign announces, “Office Space for Lease.”
All living things---including “things” like communities and churches---change. What is different now is the rate of change. In the span of less than half a lifetime, a “Gayborhood” can be born and begin to pass out of existence. Not even memorializing murals or words and seals carved in stone can slow down change as it races forward.
And this is just one “land” within easy walking distance of the old town square at the heart of center city Philadelphia. Whatever ministry will be in the 21st century, it won’t be a single thing. It won’t be a stable or lasting thing---not a mural on a wall, certainly not words carved in stone. Ministry will be many things constantly chasing after the Spirit which “blows where it chooses,” and we strain to “hear the sound of it” so that together we might learn “where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8).