PHILADELPHIA—Many churches try to do what Tenth Presbyterian Church in center city Philadelphia does through its mercy ministry, Active Compassion Through Service (ACTS). Volunteers hold Bible studies in the city’s prisons and nursing homes, and with the staff at a public library. Church members host a weekly meal for homeless men and a weekly worship service with patients at an AIDS hospice. The church has spun off a crisis pregnancy center and Harvest USA, now a national ministry to those with sexual struggles.
David Apple, ACTS’ director these last 25 years, recalls that when the church tried to get its mercy ministry off the ground in the 1980s, people would get up and move to other pews if a homeless person came in: “I had to pray that God would do the changing.” Now, Tenth’s worship services themselves have become a picture of a less divided city: Rich and poor pack together in the church’s historic wooden pews.
Vivian Dow, a member of the church who was part of the homeless ministry from its beginning in 1984, became famous with the first meal she cooked: spaghetti. The day I visited she had made jambalaya, to rave reviews. Her food became so popular that she would get covered in kisses and hugs to the point that she jokingly told her late husband Lawrence to do something about it. The church had to begin capping the number of guests at 120.
The Dows lived on the street for a week in the 1980s to get some sense of what it’s like materially. She gradually took over the organization of the weekly meals at the church, and went through the trash after meals to see what wasn’t eaten. She and others interviewed those in the program about what food they didn’t like (pork and beef were unpopular) and why—most often it had something to do with their background.
Vivian Dow even wrote a masters thesis about developing the ministry to make it enjoyable to the guests: The thesis included new menus and atmospheric standards like tablecloths and floral centerpieces on round tables for easier friend-making. I asked, “More like a restaurant?” She replied, “Not a restaurant! Home. Home. Our whole purpose practically is to get them back home. It’s—‘Hey, don’t you miss your grandmom, your mom? Don’t you think you should talk to your wife? When was the last time you saw your children?’”
In addition to a Bible study time before the Sunday meals, ACTS has classes during the week for the homeless on healthy eating and family issues. Its prison ministries include a Bible study with the staff of a juvenile jail, and classes for prisoners there on everything from sexual abuse to relationships to anger management. ACTS also hosts Bible studies for the inmates at the federal prison in center city: One prisoner who became a Christian through the studies was transferred to spend 23 years in a prison in western Pennsylvania, and he has started his own ministry in that jail.
One Sunday after church, seven ACTS volunteers walked a few blocks to a nursing home, where they held a worship service in a room filled with chairs, five wheelchairs, and two walkers. When one volunteer read chapter 8 of Romans aloud and came to “The body is dead because of sin but the Spirit is life because of righteousness,” one of the wheelchair-bound ladies gave a loud “Amen!” A loudspeaker announcing emergencies sporadically dueled with congregational singing.
• 2012 contributions: $24,454
• 2012 expenses: $19,613
• Executive director David Apple’s salary: $70,000; Tenth Presbyterian Church pays Apple’s salary
• Staff: Apple and 250-300 volunteers
• Website: activecompassionphilly.org