MLK Day is ‘not just a day off from work’ for volunteers at First Presbyterian

From his position at the pulpit, Reverend Kevin Porter reminds the congregation that any worthwhile accomplishment is the end result of many individual contributions.

“As you get tired with the task before you,” he encourages them, invoking Dr. King, “see that pew before you as symbolic of the challenge of getting our children to the promised land.”

Restoring the meaning of the holiday

Congregants, community members and student volunteers from across the region gathered at The First Presbyterian Church on Monday – Martin Luther King Day – to participate in the third annual “Day of Service” at the church.

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While a “Day of Service” can manifest itself in innumerable ways, at First Presbyterian, it took the form of cleaning and improvements to the Church’s physical plant.

Located at the intersection of Germantown and Chelten Avenues, the First Presbyterian’s building dates to 1872 – “when there was still a dirt road on Chelten Ave.,” noted Reverend Nancy Muth.

Rev. Muth, Minister at First Presbyterian, explained that this is one of the few times a year when the church can take a respite, however brief, from its many community ministries for routine upkeep.

In addition to its worship services, First Presbyterian maintains a food cupboard for those in need, along with a crisis ministry that assists in mitigating financial crises. Further offerings include teen counseling and drill and basketball teams.

“This building is a community space,” she said, and noted that the restorations were “as much for the community as us.”

Apropos to the holiday, she said, the Day of Service gives congregants a place to participate in the memory of Dr. King, and restores the meaning of the holiday.

For First Presbyterians, she observed, “It’s not just a day off from work.”

Crisis Ministry lends a helping hand 

Occupying two rooms in the church’s sprawling basement is the Germantown Avenue Crisis Ministry.

The Crisis Ministry, as described by Rev. Muth, is open Monday through Wednesday and gives community members means to address short-term financial difficulties. 

In addition, assistance is also provided for dealing with rental problems and issues with heating bills and other utilities.

“We put them in touch with resources,” said Muth.

The space is shared by the Crisis Ministry’s Food Cupboard, which provides needy families with both canned goods and, thanks to upgraded refrigeration and freezer units, perishable food items.

Overseeing the young girls sorting and stacking the food reserves is Eileen Jones, Director of Urban Ministries at First Presbyterian.

“We try to serve clients with a sense of dignity,” she says, explaining the Food Cupboard’s mission.

Open on Thursdays, she and her staff of 17 volunteers distribute food to 70 or 80 individuals and families a week.

“The need for food right now is crazy,” she remarks, noting that donations tend to drop off dramatically after the holidays.

Giving back to the community 

In the western end of the basement is the church’s indoor basketball court, where Pete Smith and Ernie Freeman are applying a fresh coat of white paint to a basketball backboard.

In the corner is Deshaye Carter, who carefully negotiates the drill team’s collection of costumes and drum equipment as she carries items out of the team’s storage closet.

The drill team – “Germantown’s Exclusive” – is “starting off fresh” this year, according to Carter.

“It’s a recruiting season,” she says, and hopes to increase the numbers of her 15 to 20 member squad for summer parades and school-year exhibitions.

In the meantime, she’s throwing away the remnants of the previous season’s revels, as well as materials damaged in a recent basement flood at the church.

Carter is being assisted by Marta Peters and Kathryn Saltzman, student volunteers from Springside-Chestnut Hill Academy (SCH) in Chestnut Hill.

Peters, a sophomore at SCH, explains that it’s a tradition at her school to participate in service activities on MLK Day.

“We believe it’s good to give back to the community,” notes Peters in declamatory fashion as she removes hats from the shelves, adding, ‘it’s good to do service.”

‘Service changes us’ 

In yet another nook of the basement is Chris Scott, coach of the church’s basketball squad – The Disciples – and team member Justice Jones.

They’re installing a security window on the door to the church’s Drop-In Center, and learning the intricacies of cutting straight lines with an electric saw.

Observing is Christian Heyer-Rivera, Director of Christian Education at First Presbyterian.

He’s taking pride in the fact that people are gathering at First Presbyterian to remember a man – Dr. King – through service.

“Service changes us,” says Rivera, as “it makes us more aware of ourselves, and gives us a greater sense of purpose in our lives.”

He runs the Drop-In Center, where teens can come on Friday afternoons to play games, sports, and socialize or, as Rivera terms it, “get out (their) energy.”

In addition, informal counseling and support groups are available to local teens to encourage them to make life-affirming decisions and participate in the community dialogue.

“It’s relationship-building with teens,” he explains, adding, “kids can come and hang out with adults who care.”

It is through this relationship-building that Rivera continues his service to the greater community, thereby living out Dr. King’s vision.

“King was quoted as saying,” Rivera recalls, “‘that everyone can be great, because everyone can serve’.”

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