REACH: Through Their Eyes
Sharing Jesus through cultivating community
When Jesus walked the earth, crowds gathered around Him. In Christ these people saw hope. Hope for new lives free from oppression, hope for healing from their illnesses, and hope for better lives for them and their community. When Jesus and His disciples arrived, the change they made was visible.
That’s the type of change one church plant is making in the West Oak Lane Community of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Philadelphia is the fifth-largest city in the U.S., with more than 1.5 million residents. Although there are nine Adventist churches scattered around the city, there are still many areas of the city where there is no Adventist presence. One young adult Bible study group decided to change that.
The group decided to start a church plant in an area of Philadelphia where they could make a difference. Led by Tara VinCross, then senior pastor of the Chestnut Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church in Philadelphia, 20 members organized as a small group under the name REACH—which stands for Restoration, Empowerment, Action, Community, and Hope—in 2011. The group started their ministry with a community assessment.
The 20 members spent four months doing hundreds of door-to-door surveys and interviewing community leaders. After the neighborhood spoke, the top needs were discovered: (1) the need to empower young people; (2) the need for greater academic achievement among school-age children; (3) the need to reduce the unemployment rate; and (4) the need to reduce crime.
The members gathered together as a church and prayed about how they could respond to those needs.
In order to make a visible difference, REACH started a program in which interns live on-site and work as community leaders. REACH employs four interns and two associate pastors who use their unique skill sets to run programs designed to meet the defined needs.
REACH is working on crime reduction with community development, a combination of outreach and service projects designed to bring people together. “A community that knows each other is much safer than one that doesn’t,” said Tiffany Brown, associate pastor of community development and evangelism.
After organizing as a church plant, REACH introduced themselves to the community through the Adopt-a-Block program. Every REACH member went door to door on their assigned block on Sabbath morning, meeting their neighbors, praying with them, and inviting them to church.
Over the past years, REACH has held several block parties, bread giveaways, and caroling events. REACH has partnered with local organizations to hold food and book drives. They also attend other community events, such as Jazz in the Park and an Earth Day cleanup party, to help support their common goals.
Crime Scenes Into Gardens
There are more than 40,000 vacant lots in Philadelphia, said Jane Takahashi, urban agriculture ministry intern for REACH. Neglected, these lots become overgrown, collect trash, and are convenient locations for crime.
Takahashi runs the REACH Community Agriculture Program, which is turning these crime scenes into gardens. She teaches organic gardening and helps others start their own gardens at a weekly garden club. She also works on forming partnerships with community leaders and organizations who want to make Philadelphia a greener place, maintains REACH’s two garden lots, and pushes the paperwork to get more lots and grants to support the program.
The goal is to grow produce to sell, and transform many lots into gardens maintained by community members. Takahashi said that many want to learn how to grow their own food and help make the neighborhood beautiful. “People really have pride in growing their own food and creating a positive place, not just a place where people just hang out and drink,” Takahashi said.
For Takahashi, who has a degree in horticulture from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and has been working in agriculture since 2010, gardening is a way to spread the gospel.
“I’d just be working in the front yard and people would say ‘Wow! You are growing vegetables in your front yard? That is really cool!’ ” said Takahashi.
Interactions like these give her opportunities to share the health message—and to share Jesus.
Building Community With Boot Camp
Angel Smith, health and wellness ministry intern, came to REACH knowing that group accountability programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous have longer-lasting results than personal programs. While working on her master’s in interdisciplinary health, she theorized that a community-focused fitness program would also have a lasting positive impact.
To test her theory, Smith created the REACH Community Fitness Program as a way to empower community members to meet their fitness goals.
“People wanted to lead a healthier lifestyle, but the motivational factor just wasn’t there,” Smith said. “The point is to motivate people to commit to whatever fitness goals they have, and to do that through a group.”
Smith teaches a twice-weekly hourlong exercise class. She uses exercises that can be done at home without equipment, so members can continue exercising throughout the week. Once the fitness class is large enough, she plans to turn it into several small community-led clubs.
“It’s a Christian workout,” said Smith. “We listen to Christian music and discuss Scripture and devotional thoughts,” Smith said. “We have actually had people become interested in the church and sign up for Bible studies because of the fitness classes.”
Programs for the youth were considered one of the core needs of the community. When Smith started working for REACH, she witnessed firsthand a need for more kid-friendly activities. “There were kids just sitting on corners and getting into things that they shouldn’t have been involved in,” Smith said. “I noticed many who were just sitting on a porch or out on a sidewalk.”
To provide a better alternative, Smith started the REACH Kids Club, a biweekly after-school program where children can have fun and learn about Jesus. Each club meeting has a theme—these range from “Walking by Faith” to “Recycling”—and there is always a story and a Christian moral to be learned. Smith also tries to have something the children can take home with them so they can share what they have learned with their parents.
“We’re just giving the kids something to do that will help them grow and learn about Jesus,” Smith said. “I remember this one guy who [before] would just sit there every day and throw a tennis ball against the wall.”
Now that child is a member of Kids Club and constantly shares how much he loves Jesus and reading his Bible.
And the interaction with the youth goes even further through REACH’s community tutoring program. To specifically address the need for greater academic achievement, REACH provides one-on-one tutoring in reading and mathematics twice a week for grades K-8. Through one of their grants, REACH outfitted the program with new materials, including four touchscreen computers and four tablets.
“I really enjoy interacting with the parents, and I love seeing the bridge from tutoring to other ministries we have. Sometimes the parents are interested in our REACH fitness classes or Bible studies,” said Brown, who runs the tutoring program.
Empowering the Young
REACH starts their Sabbath service at 1:30 p.m. with potluck lunch, followed by small-group Bible studies, and a worship service that ends around 5:00 p.m. William Bonilla, associate pastor of administration and discipleship, said REACH doesn’t have a youth or young adult ministry, because the young people are running the entire program.
“It’s the members who lead out in the service,” Bonilla said. “There is no member who just sits—everyone is involved in some way.”
The average age of the congregation is 26 years old.
REACH has a traditional Bible worker program run by intern Lee Givhan, who teaches other church members how to give Bible studies. “My favorite part about the internship is that it gives [the young people] an opportunity to really have responsibility and grow,” Givhan said. “I chose to focus on Bible work, but if I had wanted to do something else, [the pastoral staff] would have worked with me on that.”
The combination of young, creative minds keeps turning out new ways to make an impact and have fun. Smith, who was heavily involved in REACH church leadership before becoming an intern, said youth leadership is empowering.
“I just really appreciate the fact that I can be trusted to do these things,” she said. “I have this huge motivation to share the gospel, and I don’t feel held back.”
Needing More Space
When REACH first started meeting for Sabbath services in a recreation center in 2011, their community focus shared Jesus with their landlord.
“When we rented the facility, we shared that we were a church of the community and that anyone could come and be a part of it,” VinCross said.
Every Saturday the group invited anyone outside the church or on the playground next door to join them for lunch. When it came time to pay the second month’s rent, the landlord said he didn’t want to accept any more money. He’d seen how invested REACH was in being a community resource.
When VinCross reiterated that making a difference was what they were here to do, the landlord responded, “No church really means that, but you guys do.”
REACH operated out of the recreation center for 11 months rent-free before moving from one storefront to another and running their community programs out of the Ministry House, a building donated by church elders. It was clear that with all the work REACH was doing, they needed their own building.
We Bought a Bar
REACH members had been praying and searching for a ministry home when they discovered an abandoned nightclub for sale in the West Oak Lane Community of Philadelphia. REACH purchased the 50-year-old bar in March 2014 and began remodeling it into their new mission center.
The center will serve as base camp for all of the REACH outreach programs as well as provide a place to worship and a café that will be a place to hang out—and a venue for spreading the health message.
As part of their mission to teach young adults to be leaders for Christ, the Columbia Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists is starting the REACH Columbia Union Urban Evangelism School, set to launch in September 2015. VinCross has accepted the position to serve as the director of the urban evangelism school, and will continue as lead pastor of the REACH Philadelphia Seventh-day Adventist Church. The new REACH Mission Center will house the urban evangelism school on the second floor, and dormitories for students and interns will be on the third floor.
Living the Ministry
Whether it is gardening, exercising, or just attending Jazz in the Park, the interns and members of the REACH Philadelphia church plant live in ministry to their community.
“Ministry and our daily lives are combined,” Bonilla said. “By being present in the neighborhood every single day, every connection that we make we can use toward sharing the love of Christ with people in some way.”
REACH has grown in number and was voted to officially become a church in the beginning of 2014, but the church plant is waiting for the new mission center building to be complete so that they can combine becoming a church with their grand opening.
REACH plans to paint a mural on the side of the building illustrating their mission to Philadelphia, said Joshua Garcia, ministry intern and volunteer coordinator for the REACH building project. Everyone who passes by will be able to see where the church plant is and what they are here to do—bring restoration, empowerment, action, and hope to their community.
“Church doesn’t stop at the door; it starts at the door when you go out,” Garcia said. “[REACH doesn’t] seek just the good of their members, but also the good of others outside the church.”
When Jesus walked the earth, the difference He made in communities was visible. The REACH Philadelphia Seventh-day Adventist Church has made it their mission to reflect this and make a positive difference in their community. They’re there to help spread the message of God’s love to the world.