Daily gifts of mercy and love touch hearts unconditionally
by Julia Watkins | Special to Presbyterian News Service
PHILADELPHIA – “YOU BELONG HERE NO MATTER WHAT,” reads the sign outside Broad Street Ministry, located in the heart of Philadelphia—a city where deep poverty and rapid gentrification exist side by side. The sign’s bright green lettering is one of the first things people notice when walking by the church’s arched façade. It’s not a vague, blanket invitation, but one to welcome each person specifically and unconditionally, if not somewhat pointedly.
Having grown up in the South, where nuanced laws of etiquette shape even the smallest interactions, I never expected to learn about hospitality in this proud underdog city, which is as unabashedly honest as it is loving. Nevertheless, seeking an opportunity to discern God’s call to me in an urban entrepreneurial context, I was drawn to a 1001 New Worshiping Communities apprenticeship as a pastoral associate with Broad Street Ministry. I’ve learned this ministry practices radical hospitality by providing an expansive range of social services throughout the week to some of the city’s most vulnerable people. Guests arrive daily to share a restaurant-quality meal at a linen-lined table, obtain clothes and personal care items, participate in the therapeutic arts program and access many other stabilizing services.
Whether from homelessness, violence or abuse, each guest is experiencing some form of trauma, which calls for thoughtful care over efficient treatment. With attention to the whole person, Broad Street strives not only to meet guests’ basic needs, but also to develop a sense of community, hope and self-empowerment. No matter how many people pass through the doors, Broad Street commits to serving each person, never running out of food or compassion. Although the outside world may meet guests with scarcity and disgust, at Broad Street, each person receives assurance there is always enough—enough food, enough time and enough care.
These same assurances of sufficiency, which volunteers and staff offer guests throughout the week, extend from the communion table, where Broad Street’s worshiping community gathers every Sunday. There is always enough bread, enough juice and enough grace for everyone, no matter what. Servers extend fresh loaves to shuffling kids, to artists and social workers, to people who grew up in the church and to those who haven’t been to church in years. Each tears off a generous handful, too much to enjoy in one bite, and dunks it in the juice. These ordinary elements of bread and juice are signs of God’s deep love and abundant forgiveness, reasons to hope against all odds.
From the seven meals Broad Street serves to guests throughout the week to the one shared in worship, the message is the same: “You belong here. No matter what.” The invitation to belonging is one we never extend alone, but offer through Jesus, who has already prepared a place for each person. Because Jesus, who experienced suffering as well as joy, graciously invites us to the table, we are empowered to welcome one another. Trusting that Jesus is already at work in the world around us, we are free to participate in it without fear of failure or resistance to change.
Since September, Philadelphia and its people have expanded my understanding of invitation and welcome, as they have encouraged me to attend to God’s presence in this city and the world. I am grateful for an apprenticeship experience, which has offered me so much more than I could have hoped. It has instilled in me a sense of profound belonging within the church, which God is constantly making new. Trusting that we’ve been welcomed to tables lined with linen or covered in crumbs, may we all recognize Christ’s invitation to pursue our various callings with imagination, kindness and courage—no matter what.
Broad Street Ministry will welcome Michael J. Dahl as its new executive director, effective June 13. Dahl brings with him 15 years of experience with the Pew Charitable Trusts, most recently as senior vice president of the Philadelphia Program, Technology and Planning.
Julia Watkins, pastoral associate at Broad Street Ministry and 1001 New Worshiping Communities apprentice, grew up in Atlanta and graduated from Davidson College, in North Carolina, before beginning theological studies at Columbia Theological Seminary. When her apprenticeship ends this fall, she will transfer to Princeton Seminary to complete her Master of Divinity degree.
You may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.