Broad Street Ministry, a Philadelphia nonprofit that provides a wide range of social services to homeless and financially challenged people, will no longer hold Sunday church services as it focuses on increasing direct ministry .
Laura Biron, who has worked for the nonprofit since 2019 and became CEO last year, said the difficult decision came after the ministry saw a nearly 30% increase in the number of people who reached out to him for social services during the pandemic. Over the past two years, the ministry has served over 800,000 meals across the city.
“That care which increased during the time of the pandemic included a need for spiritual and emotional care,” she said, adding that spiritual care was only available to guests occasionally through the pastor of the congregation.
Broad Street Ministry has never asked guests to participate in spiritual offerings in order to access programs such as rehabilitation services for those released from prison, case management or clothing mending. But with more guests requesting spiritual services, Biron said it made sense to hire a chaplain who would attend to their religious needs while they are already there for other programs. Ultimately, the guests will determine the direction of the religious offerings.
The decision came as a surprise and devastated the “alternative church community,” which took over what was once known as Chambers-Wylie Memorial Presbyterian Church in 2005. A group of 50 to 100 members attended. gathered for Sunday services for 16 years. The social services that are the mainstays of Broad Street ministry today grew out of the non-denominational congregation’s Sunday afternoon services, members say. They held their last service on Sunday.
John Francis O’Mara, a founding member of the church fellowship and later an Episcopalian priest, said the space was unlike most spiritual environments. Church pews were ripped out, stained glass windows shattered – meaning birds were often present during services – and the congregation sang a medley of Beyonce, Bruce Springstein and the Grateful Dead.
Attendees included members of the LGBT+ community, atheists, and people seeking respite from the cold.
In its early years, Sunday services were followed by a meal where people in financial difficulty were welcome whether or not they attended the service.
“I learned pretty quickly at Broad Street Ministry that we weren’t a feeding program because feeding is what you do to cattle,” said O’Mara, who now lives in Wisconsin. “We were serving our guests, as individuals and citizens of our city…and so real plates with real China and ‘how are you tonight sir, can I sit you at your table?'”
The faithful called this approach “radical hospitality,” which allowed members to live the tenets of their faith.
“They didn’t just preach the word, they acted it out,” said Brooke Stello, a church member of 12 years. “We’re not going to let people go hungry because that’s not what we’re supposed to do.”
As the meal service grew and Broad Street Ministry added to its programming, “the church” as members knew it became entwined with their volunteer work.
“The religious community and social services were all part of the same body,” said Kirsten King, who has been attending Sunday services since the congregation was founded. “These were synonymous with each other.”
The nonprofit now has about 25 staff members and is governed by a board of directors.
King and others learned they would no longer be able to hold Sunday services at the church through an email sent in September. Biron and Chairman of the Board Kevin Cafferky sent the email, which cited an emphasis on providing spiritual care to guests, but offered few details on what that meant.
Biron said staffing Sunday services for the congregation requires a full-time pastor, two pastoral supporters, at least one worship leader, musicians and a video editor for services conducted virtually during the pandemic. While the part-time and contract positions weren’t a financial burden, according to Biron, they required coordination that the nonprofit could no longer sustain if its goal was to provide pastoral care to guests.
For Cara Blouin, a stalwart for more than a decade, it’s unclear what losing access to Broad Street Ministry will mean for the band.
“You’ve never seen such a bunch of weirdos, and we identified ourselves that way,” she said. “I think the thing that united everyone was the feeling that most places won’t get me, but this one did.”
Some devotees are looking for a new space in order to continue their spiritual journey. Without an institution, members fear that the community they have built on service will lose the glue that has held it together.
Commemorating Sunday’s final service, Blouin drafted a poster that was pasted on the front door.
“Atheists and punks and the worst saints and the best sinners sang together here,” it read. “We argued over the placement of breadbaskets and the unclogging of toilets as the great moral issues of the time. … We were a mess. … We were here.”