In May, 1916, the members of Union Baptist Church assembled at 711 South 12th Street and proudly marched seven blocks to their new sanctuary. The historic congregation had outgrown its first real church — a building constructed purposefully for worship that sat 900 — and was moving to a larger purpose-built house of worship at 1910 Fitzwater – an early mega-church that could accommodate 2500.
Today, members of the 185-year-old congregation number 100.
The story of Union Baptist Church is a familiar one. Many South Philly congregations are dwindling, and as neighborhoods such as Graduate Hospital see dramatic demographic shifts and church members move away, historic sanctuaries often wind up sold and demolished. Survival is a struggle for these churches and finding ways to remain relevant to new neighbors — whose newly refurbished rowhomes do not come with a built-in bond to the the nearby fellowship forged over generations — can be a challenge.
Converting church property into communal space is one way to get people interested and involved. So, with the help of local artist Meei Ling Ng, Union Baptist Church is currently transforming its garden plot into a community garden called the UBC Garden of Eden.
“They’ve been slowly aging out, so that’s why they brought me in,” says Ng, a multimedia installation artist and urban farmer who has lived in Graduate Hospital for 18 years. “Hopefully more people, younger generations, and more neighbors will come in to help.”
Community engagement is a core component of Ng’s past projects, which include a farm in the parking lot of the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, a shelter in the Callowhill area that feeds and provides services to the homeless.
And so under Ng’s guidance, neighborhood volunteers of all ages (many of whom have been curious about the fenced-in garden at the southwest corner of 19th and Fitzwater Streets) have been gathering at the garden every Saturday since June. Using materials salvaged from the demolition of nearby community structures – such as pews from New Light Beulah Baptist Church at 17th and Bainbridge, and bricks from the Royal Theater on South Street – Ng and the volunteers lined the sanctuary’s exterior with raised beds, which now teem with fresh produce.
The heirloom black tomatoes, cauliflower, squash, garlic, and carrots harvested from these beds are supplementing the food used by the church for its 20-year-old soup kitchen program, one of the ways that UBC has tried to reach out to the community.
Additional plans for the garden include a weekly story time with the librarian from Queen Memorial Library, a farmer’s market, movie nights, and educational programming.
“We’ve been looking for a way to connect with this community,” says Loretta Lewis, a longtime church member and current trustee who grew up at 20th and Catharine Streets, but now commutes to UBC from her home in Overbrook. “We’ve been here forever, and it seems like people were not interested in coming in. So we needed a hook to get them interested in us, as we have always been interested in the community.”
Lisa Delgado Iannozzi, who has lived opposite the church’s garden for a decade, recalls some of the church’s earlier outreach attempts. There have been block parties, open house events, and members have gone door-to-door and mailed fliers. “I think [they] are ready to try and reach out to the community once again,” says Iannozzi, who is herself a Saturday volunteer.
“The only way to have a vibrant community in our neighborhood is to volunteer, get to know all your neighbors, be outside, clean blocks,” Iannozzi continues. “This is how a community thrives with projects like this garden project.”
In addition to receiving volunteer support and some fundraising from neighbors, UBC Garden of Eden has been granted funding from the South of South Neighborhood Association. This has allowed them to pay for the overdue and expensive removal of a large, dead tree on the lot. Once it is removed, the Philadelphia Orchard Project will help plant fruit trees in the newly cleared space, which will support the needs of the church’s soup kitchen.
“It’s a collaboration – this is what [Ng] loves to do, and what we are called to do as Christians,” Lewis says. “To reach out to our community. And that’s what we’re doing.”
A banner currently attached to the fence of UBC Garden of Eden announces that the congregation is celebrating its 185th anniversary this month – and everyone is invited. Much has changed over the past two centuries and, in Graduate Hospital, over the past decade. But finding some common ground, at the corner of 19th and Fitzwater, may signal the church’s future.