Out of Three, One
November 26, 2019 by Erin Dunigan
The witness of the West Philadelphia Presbyterian Partnership
Three churches in the Presbytery of Philadelphia were at a crossroads – each considering their future for different reasons.
Some might see a crisis – but Rev. Ruth Santana-Grace, Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Philadelphia along with the Stated Clerk, the Rev. Kevin Porter, saw an opportunity to help all three find new life.
“This has been such a crazy non-linear journey,” Santana-Grace said. “Every time we took a step forward, it was clear that God was blessing it.”
Nearly 3 ½ years ago, Santana-Grace and Stated Clerk Kevin Porter began meeting with the session of First African Presbyterian Church to determine how this faithful, but struggling with attendance and finances, community of saints might enter into a new season. First African is the first and oldest black Presbyterian congregation in the United States.
At the same time, an Administrative Commission had been appointed to consider the future of Calvin Presbyterian Church.
And not long after that, Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church experienced a fire that took their physical church building and left the remaining dozen or so members of the congregation wondering what might be next.
By 2017, it became apparent to those involved with the three congregations that there might be something new emerging. The Presbytery of Philadelphia earmarked funds to move this potential new ministry forward.
A new Administrative Commission formed in early 2018 to come alongside this ‘new thing’ that seemed to be unfolding. After about 18 months of monthly gatherings with the sessions, they voted to hold a joint service the first Sunday of Advent, followed by a town hall meeting to present plans for moving forward as one worshiping community in early January 2019.
The West Philadelphia Presbyterian Partnership was officially given form.
“We got to the point in the journey where we understood we needed a leader, someone with special gifts,” Santana-Grace said. “Someone who was system savvy, a gifted proclaimer of the Word, someone who exhibited grace, honored history, but also dreamt about new ways of being and could bring divergent styles together.”
That leader was unanimously chosen.
On July 21, 2019 the new Designated Pastor Rev. Eustacia Moffett Marshall preached her first sermon to the combined worship gathering.
Marshall grew up in Oakland, California, – a city geographically far from Philadelphia, but in many ways quite similar. She attended church in West Oakland, where her mother, Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, now head of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, served as the pastor.
From a very young age, she observed through her mother’s pastoring what it was like to serve in an area of high needs, poverty, gang violence and interracial conflict, where wealth and poverty often overlap.
“It was there that I caught the idea that the church is a transformative place where God does work among God’s people and that God can use a people who are committed to do good in the world,” Marshall said. “I remember lots of energy and possibility in ministry as a kid, which has deeply informed me as to how I approach ministry today.”
Prior to her call, Marshall had begun to sense that God might be inviting her into something new. She started to ask God, “What’s next?”
Marshall had been serving a New Worshiping Community (NWC) in Greensboro, N.C., in a dual role. She was serving as leader of the NWC, but also as transitional pastor for the aging congregation that was hosting the NWC. So, she found herself pastoring a congregation that largely consisted of members in their 20s while at the same time pastoring a traditional congregation that was much older.
She had also served as a full-time minister of music, received her real estate license, and was in a doctoral program studying leadership. Additionally, she has served as Board Chair for the Board of Trustees for the Presbyterian Foundation since 2018.
“I had all these things I was doing, these passions I was following that might seem randomly placed,” she said. “But when I learned about this initiative and what was being sought I realized that all these unique experiences were exactly what was needed.”
In many ways, this new partnership, as well as Marshall herself, are beginning a new phase of life, together.
“This project is about entering into a new season of life for these three congregations that have come together to become one and in so doing to connect to the community at large,” she said. “It is exciting work.”
The partnership is currently meeting for worship in a rented community center, but the hope is to build something of their own one day.
“I see us not only as hosts for the community, to be a space where the community can gather, but also guests in a community that already has a sense of what it needs,” she said. “It is exciting work, divine work – it is divine transformation that is happening at the core of our souls.”
It is, she admits, scary and exciting at the same time.
Though two of the three congregations still have their buildings and are providing ministry to the community from them, meeting for worship in a neutral space has been an intentional decision.
“When you are marrying three congregations, when you are uniting them, it is wise that the presbytery and the people were guided to find a neutral site,” Marshall said.
It is a place where no one congregation has a history, so they can move forward together on equal footing.
It is exciting and challenging, Marshall said, helping three to become one. “We don’t just want to become one on paper, but one in spirit, and to clarify what it is that God is calling us to do,” she said. “In so doing, we can find the gifts and the grace that God has given us, trusting God to bless people so that we might bear witness to the love and justice and peace of Christ in the world.”
Santana-Grace could not be more pleased. “We knew from the beginning that God wasn’t done with this witness yet,” she said.
Erin Dunigan is an ordained evangelist and teaching elder in the PC(USA). She is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. She serves as a photographer, writer and communications consultant and lives near the border in Baja California, Mexico.