For volunteers at Rhawnhurst Turning Point in Philadelphia, ministry doesn’t happen in the pews, it happens by the book — school books, that is.
Rhawnhurst is a homework center aimed at giving middle and high school students from Philadelphia’s Rhawnhurst neighborhood a place to study with a helping hand. But those who volunteer and lead there hope it will become much more.
Caring and supporting the young people is what this “word and service” ministry strives to do.
According to Cheryl Esposito, who leads the center, youth sixth grade and up are invited to come as they are, serve and be served, learn, grow and have a good time. Cheryl also is a youth minister at Redemption Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Philadelphia.
The idea for the ministry started three years ago between two ELCA members and a Presbyterian — Cheryl, Mary Konopka, pastor of Redemption, and Keith McClain, a Presbyterian pastor. The ELCA and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are full communion partners.
All three had something in common. Each wanted a place for youth and young adults in their community to hang out, do homework and, most importantly, be safe.
“The whole vision is that we can create a place where kids are welcomed and accepted,” Cheryl says. “They’re not bad kids. They’re just bored out of their minds.”
Since 2009, Rhawnhurst has been financially supported by the ELCA, the ELCA Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod and a variety of local partners.
Listening to the needs of the community
Cheryl, Mary and Keith formed an ecumenical prayer group and spent a year praying and listening to the needs of the community before building out their vision.
“It’s been a very slow process,” Cheryl adds. “This kind of built up from the bottom.”
The group took neighborhood prayer walks and met with residents to make sure they were going in the right direction.
“We’ve known from the beginning that we want to be very ecumenical,” says Cheryl, and to keep it about the community. And that focus has first yielded positive responses from the residents.
“When the community sees that you’re not about your own agenda but about their need, it makes them more receptive,” says Cheryl. It’s about meeting the needs of the city.
The first step has been developing a homework help center, but Cheryl and others hope it will become much more.
The group hopes to purchase space to develop art and music programs, and possibly a skate park.
“It’s been a small start, but it’s been a good one,” Cheryl says. “There are many other needs to address in our neighborhood.”
It’s also “about us all ministering together,” she says. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. We want to do what God is calling us to do, and we think this is it.”
Carrie Draeger is a journalist who attends Celebration Lutheran Church in East Wenatchee, Wash.