Over the five years I lived in and around Germantown, I was intrigued by the way race and class affected the manner in which decisions got made in and about the neighborhood. I realized that if Germantown – the Northwest Philadelphia community where American democracy truly came to life over 300 years ago – couldn’t make democracy real for all who lived there, there was little hope for democracy in America as a whole.
From its earliest beginnings, Germantown-based faith groups have been motivated by their spiritual beliefs to engage in advocacy and direct services benefitting a wide cross-section of residents and stakeholders. One strong example of this is Faith Chapel – a small congregation in East Germantown whose work touches the lives of thousands of Germantown residents. From those struggling with hunger, homelessness, poverty and addiction, to those struggling to keep their homes and maintain a decent quality of life for themselves and their families.
Over the course of two days, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Reverend John H. Graves, pastor of Faith Chapel, along with other leaders of this small congregation. By chance, on one of those days, Faith Chapel celebrated its 53rd anniversary. I used the opportunity to listen, observe, and document how the congregation blends faith and social activism to achieve measurable impact in East Germantown and beyond.
The Legacy of Faith Chapel
Over the past 53 years, Faith Chapel has been a small congregation that’s found a way to do big things in Germantown and beyond. The founder of Faith Chapel, the late Bishop Eugene H. Graves, led both the church and the Faith Community Development Corporation (FCDC) for 48 years to “address the spiritual and physical needs of the [Germantown] community.” The son of Bishop Graves and current Pastor, Reverend John H. Graves, said that Bishop Graves was, for him, “one of the greatest examples of a social activist and pastor outside of Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Faith Chapel under the strong and steadfast leadership of Graves the father and now, Graves the son, continues to make an impact both inside and outside the walls of the church. Members are inspired to go above and beyond the weekly allotment of food that they receive from the SHARE and Philabundance programs to ensure that tens of thousands of people and families across Philadelphia receive food assistance. Also, FCDC has conducted clothing drives to benefit local families as well as families in Africa. And, as a Registered Community Organization (RCO), Faith Community Development Corporation weighs in on important matters affecting the changing face of Germantown. It is vitally important to show the community that it cares not just by being physically located in the neighborhood and holding worship services on Sunday, but being a part of the community Monday through Saturday, 50 weeks a year.
Pastor John Graves told me that the legacy of Faith Chapel is grounded in a steadfast “faith (that) gives us endless possibilities,” and “the fuel to go after things that they wouldn’t otherwise attempt.” Faith is not just part of the name of this congregation, but a guiding principle in everything they do. Faith guides the congregation’s spiritual mission to spread the Christian gospel through its example of social action that uplifts the downtrodden and activates in others a spirit of collaboration and openness. Faith guides the keepers of a legacy to boldly envision an expansion of its current footprint in East Germantown, a footprint anchored by a modest but beautiful brick building on East Price Street. Faith and love are in each and every smiling face that warmly greeted me one Sunday morning in April. The legacy of Faith Chapel is one that recognizes that faith, service and social activism, will appeal to “people,” according to Pastor Graves, “(who will) want to be a part of what we do; (that, even if) people may not believe like us, they will believe in us.”
The Future of Faith Chapel and Germantown
Many of those who receive food assistance from Faith Chapel are single women with children, senior citizens, and single men. There is no one face that represents this program; people of all races, ethnicities and religious affiliations are represented. All are welcome at Faith Chapel. And because of its warm and welcoming atmosphere, people, like Mother Love, who were once recipients of support, are moved to join Faith Chapel so that they can give back, share and help others. That is what community building is all about.
The future of Germantown needs the voices, energy, participation and leadership of women and children. Women are the ones who traditionally do the work and are often the ones who convince others to come to the table to get involved and serve. Children’s voices are also vitally important because they have been the ones most affected by heavy losses in the neighborhood – Germantown High School and Fulton Elementary School closures in 2013 are two of the most visible, and painful, reminders. They, along with senior citizens and single men, often times isolated and disconnected from their immediate or extended families because of distance, health issues, unemployment, and addiction, are our community’s most vulnerable and overlooked resources. We must hold safe and nonthreatening spaces for them to share their experiences, lead community-wide change efforts when the opportunities arise to do so, and invest in their capacity.
Community building efforts in Germantown must focus on stabilizing families and strengthening capacity of those grassroots organizations and faith groups working on the front lines to tackle tough issues like hunger and food insecurity. Faith Chapel, through its Faith Community Development Corporation, is an important element of the equation. With its strong track record of meeting neighbors where they are, and a bold, comprehensive community-driven vision to ensure sustainability and growth, they are making sure that they will be around another 53 years in service to the Germantown community.