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A little church with a big heart for mission

Bethel Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia addresses all three Matthew 25 focuses

by Gail Strange | Presbyterian News Service

With about 45 members on its rolls, Bethel Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia is addressing all three Matthew 25 focus areas. (Photo courtesy of Presbyterian Historical Society)

LOUISVILLE — Bethel Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia is an African American congregation of about 45 members that’s doing the work of a congregation 10 times its size. Bethel is described as a little church with a big heart for mission.  The congregation accepted the Matthew 25 invitation in 2019, but it was already doing the work the gospel requires.

Grace Marable, who leads the Matthew 25 effort at Bethel, says initially the congregation’s focus was just going to be the poverty, “but it sort of all worked together,” she said. “We’re doing the Bible Study.  It’s helping us with the vitality of the church members.” She says conversations and interactions with other people and congregations led Bethel to start addressing systemic racism. “So, I think we’re doing a little bit of all three.”

Matthew 25 has three focuses:

  • Building congregational vitality by challenging people and congregations to deepen their faith and get actively and joyfully engaged with their community and the world.
  • Dismantling structural racism by advocating and acting to break down the systems, practices and thinking that underlie discrimination, bias, prejudice and oppression of people of color.
  • Eradicating systemic poverty by working to change laws, policies, plans and structures in our society that perpetuate economic exploitation of people who are poor.

Marable says that the Bible Study is helping members of their congregation to see and better understand what the Bible says about the times we’re in. “You can tell younger people what’s going on now is all in the Bible,” she said. “This has happened before … so, as we go through and we study the Scriptures and apply them with different things going on now, it helps to deepen our understanding, open up our minds.”

Every week members of Bethel provide meals for the community around the church in the North Philly neighborhood. According to Marable, the area has a high poverty rate, a large number of people with addictions, a high unemployment rate and many individuals with mental health problems. Bethel members and friends feed about 300 individuals every month.

“We have a weekly feeding program,” said Marable.  “Every Thursday, we do food bags for the community and every other Saturday we do a community meal where we feed anyone who wants a meal.  We prepare a nutritional meal because some of the people can’t get the food on Thursday since they don’t have access to a house to take it to. They don’t have anywhere to cook the food because some of them are homeless. On Saturday they get a chance to come and get a nutritional meal, a full-course meal.”

Members also make sure seniors who are homebound are taken care of as well. “We deliver meals to seniors who can’t get out and we deliver a monthly food box to them as well,” said Marable, who’s led the program for a decade. “We were working on the hunger program before we became a Matthew 25 church.”

The devastation of the pandemic did not stop Bethel from feeding those in need. When asked how they managed to provide meals with the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, Marable said, “Everything we did inside the church we brought it outside. The food bags and the meals, we gave out clothing to the community, we even put out racks of clothes on the pavement that people could come and go through. We did the coat drive outside. People had everything outside.

“So it was no excuse. Because the building was closed there was no reason we couldn’t continue to do mission.”

Another aspect of meeting the community’s need was Bethel’s prayer box.  The congregation would put the prayer box outside on a table every week. When individuals came for their food, volunteers would ask if they had a prayer request.

“People put their names on it mostly, but they put whatever was in their heart,” Marable said. “When we go to prayer service on Thursday night, someone goes through that box, and we lift up their prayers. This is saying to them, ‘The door is locked, but God is still listening. He’s sending us here to help you.’ So that’s been awesome.”

While Bethel is a small congregation and several of the members are elderly, Marable says people in the community have come alongside the group to work with them. “We try to make a change in the community. We try to let people know that God is listening, God hears you and to surrender yourself to God,” she said. “We want them to know that just because you don’t have a lot of things that you think you should have doesn’t mean that God’s not going to help you. We hear so many different stories. People just don’t seem to have hope. I want to build hope in people. That’s my magic word right there, hope.”

Marable recalls one gentleman who came to the food site who wanted to sit down and just cry. “We gave him a chair and a bottle of water and just let him go for it,” she said. “It’s about connecting with people, showing them God’s love. One thing that I am most passionate about is looking past the outside and seeing the person that God has inside. Sometimes people come to you and they’re so rough and they’re evil because they’re upset because they’re hurt, something happened in their lives, but still, that’s God’s person. You have to try to reach in there and make that connection.”

As Bethel attends to the three Matthew 25 focuses, Marable says that addressing racism starts with a conversation. “Sometimes you won’t like what you hear, but it has to be said,” she said.

“You can help us in this journey by praying for us, supporting us and following us,” said Marable. “Get on the ground and get involved. Our focus is on hearing God clearly and understanding what God wants us to do and how he wants us to help people. So, if that took coming outside, we’re all for it.”

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