A Cultural Exegesis of a South Philadelphia Neighborhood

I live in Philadelphia, a city where grit is not just a metaphor for our working-class ethic but also a description of the landscape. When our hockey team recently got a new mascot, they named it Gritty. So “gritty” is a visual cue, a posture, and an ethos for Philadelphia.

Defining neighborhood boundaries in Philadelphia is a somewhat controversial endeavor. Philadelphia comprises seven regions (Northwest, North, Northeast, West, Center City, Southwest, and South) of over 200 named neighborhoods. The names of these neighborhoods vary depending on what source and which time period you consult. With the rapid gentrification over the last 15 years, many neighborhood names have been created to attract young urbanites with names that disconnect from the neighborhood’s past. In our city, to name your neighborhood can speak of both time and space: both where you are and when you got there.

More specifically, I live in South Philadelphia, a broad enough name to be inclusive for our city’s rich diversity but not specific enough to gain cultural insight. If it were to become its own city, South Philadelphia would be the third-largest in the state of Pennsylvania (behind Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). When people in the city ask me where I live, it is common to give the major cross streets and let them self-determine what that says about you. “Folk ethnography”1 is pretty ingrained to a Philadelphian.

South Philly Meeting Space

When I answer that way, “near 19th and Ritner,” your social location will determine how you see this neighborhood and what that says about me. For example, most will think that it’s a nice family neighborhood with small, multigenerational homes of mainly Italian and Asian immigrants. Yet, most of my Black friends think of our neighborhood as the “white neighborhood” in South Philly. At the same time, our neighborhood is not as demographically white as others in South Philly. The neighborhood borders a historically poorer, African American neighborhood. There is a long history of animosity between citizens in the two neighborhoods.

Depending on with whom you speak, our neighborhood will be called Girard Estate, West Passyunk, or even Newbold (real estate spin name). Girard Estate has the most historical weight (and adds real estate value) because of the cluster of large homes around Girard Park. These homes are unique in their large size and that they usually have both backyards and parking spots, two luxuries most homes in South Philadelphia do not have.2 However, the assumption that comes with labeling our neighborhood Girard Estate includes larger homes and longtime residents with family ties to the neighborhood, which is not representative of my experience. My wife, our four kids and two dogs live in a 1000 square foot row home four blocks from Girard Park. This location is a wholly different experience of life than what Girard Estate invokes for most longtime residents. Knowing these boundaries and how people think and live differently is an important part of cultural exegesis.

Along these lines, one observation I have made is around pain. How people experience and describe their pain differs depending on which block they live. Among those who live in the larger homes around the park (or similar homes on nearby streets), the struggles and brokenness are often around the feeling of loss of safety and comfort. The main topic of conversation in which I have heard or participated in the park or local coffee shops are keeping the neighborhood safe from “those people.”3

While attending a Friends of Girard Park meeting pre-COVID, a homeowner raised concern about a homeless man living in the park. This homeowner described how he saw the man defecating in the bushes and ran after him, yelling, “Get the hell out of here!” This homeowner had no tolerance for the homeless man and wanted the group to plan how to move him out of the park forcibly so this homeowner would feel safe again. This homeowner’s pain was in having, in his explanation, the wrong people in the wrong place.

Before this man’s anger moved the group to make a plan, I quietly spoke up. “I know that man. His name is Danny, and I’ve sat with him multiple times to hear his story and his pain. He is a severely broken man who needs compassion. I wonder if there is a way that we could talk with Danny and find some space to discern what would be best for him and for you?” Before the homeowner could respond, the group leader spoke up and asked me, “You know him? I’ve never spoken with him, but he’s never been a problem to anyone here, well, except for not having a toilet.” Then she added, “Gino, would you speak with Danny?” I nodded. She turned to the homeowner, “Would that be OK with you for now?” He reluctantly agreed.4

Another point of pain that is experienced throughout our neighborhood (and city) is addiction. Nearly every working-class person (and that makes up a majority of my neighborhood population) has a connection to a story of addiction. If it is not an addiction they have overcome (or are still struggling with), they have a son or daughter, brother or sister who is struggling (or who has died). Interestingly, for the number of people from the area who are struggling with addiction, you would be hard-pressed to find open use or dealing of drugs within the boundaries of our neighborhood. Most users bunker down within their family’s home (where the addiction is kept quiet for fear of shame) or go to the Kensington neighborhood.5 While addiction’s pain leaves a wake of devastation, most suffering seems to be silent and hidden. Finding an addict on our neighborhood streets would be challenging but finding an addict seeking recovery has not been as difficult.

The places of hope for addressing this pain are a couple of locations in our neighborhood: AA meetings at an out-patient recovery center and my barber’s shop through his network of relationships. He has a story of recovery and a desire to help see others healed as well.

A visit to this local barbershop will include sights and sounds of a quintessential South Philadelphia experience. When you enter, you will be either greeted by name or sized up (you can literally see the eye scan and almost hear the “Look at this guy” spoken under their breath). If the former, you’ll be told when your turn in the chair will be. If the latter, you’ll be asked, “Did you call to make an appointment?”6

The walls are painted tan with pictures of classically groomed white men on the walls. Most of the walls are bare because the main focus here is the television, usually playing either a crime movie, a documentary about a crime, or a stand-up comedy routine. The television shows provide just enough creative prompting to stimulate the witty and often cutting dialogue between all in the shop. Here, sarcasm and “breaking balls” are signs of affection and acceptance into the group rather than evidence of animosity.

In addition to the barbers (who have all worked through some process of addiction recovery), there is usually a young kid who is someone’s nephew whose purpose for being there is threefold: sweep up the hair, run to the corner store for drinks, and pretend like he does not hear anything that is going on around him. He speaks to no one, and no one is to speak to him. Additionally, there is usually another guy whose role I never quite understand, so I conclude that he just hangs out to stay out of trouble and stay close to my barber.

The clientele is almost exclusively 22- to 50-year-old men from the neighborhood. As I engage in the group conversation or listen in on the stories, most of these clients struggle with addiction or are in a program to help them get clean again. This barbershop is a place where those who overcome the pain of their own addiction can find a welcoming friend and a listening ear. It is a place where healing is possible. Everyone who enters here seems to know this because they know the owner’s story and from where he has come.

It became clear to me early on in my experience at the barbershop that to learn how to bring the gospel into this culture, I would need more than just a knowledge of the culture itself. Mutual learning with and from locals is important, so I could learn what the gospel would even sound like to them. Most of these men had been through Catholic school, and they have heard a message called the gospel. It would be extremely arrogant and unhelpful for me to come in proclaiming a different version of that gospel, claiming that what they heard was wrong and incomplete. While the gospel they heard may or may not be true, the imperialistic posture of coming in to teach others (while assuming I have nothing to learn) is not helpful. To liberate people through the good news of Jesus, we often try to exert power over people in a colonialist way. A preferred posture in entering into the culture as a learner provides space for dialogue and discovery regarding how the gospel is proclaimed in this culture. Gerald Arbuckle describes this as inculturation, stating that this dialogical exchange with the local culture brings new insights into the gospel itself. Inculturation is not a one-way, top-down approach, but rather a mutual exchange as fellow learners that brings discoveries of the gospel that only come through dialogue. I have found this posture to be freeing for myself because I do not have to try to exert my power on them to coerce others to believe the gospel. Others with whom I am building a relationship do not have to be the recipients of coercive power or feel like they are a project. The telos here is a relationship of mutuality, not merely a conversion.7

While the gospel they heard may be true, the imperialistic posture of coming in to teach others (while assuming I have nothing to learn) is not helpful. To liberate people through the good news of Jesus, we often try to exert power over people in a colonialist way. A preferred posture in entering into the culture as a learner provides space for dialogue and discovery regarding how the gospel is proclaimed in this culture.

Addressing Systemic Issues

Holland and Henroit offer three models of effecting social change.8 These are:. 1) Traditional, 2) Liberal, and 3) Radical. The Table Philadelphia seems to trend toward radical efforts through creating new spaces for dialogue, creativity, and belonging. As our church is present with people in the culture, we learn about how the systemic issues identified affect actual people we know before seeking to engage in any efforts to effect change. Our main tactic for change is to be present and be with people while inviting them to participate in the life of the church family. The form of engagement we employ within the spectrum Holland and Henriot propose seems to depend on the systemic issue. For example, when it came to addressing the systemic issue of addiction and the loneliness of those in recovery (disconnected from former friends, separation from biological family, and living in unstable halfway houses), we opened up a new space for dialogue and belonging. It began with my facilitating a conversation once a week with people in recovery. Each week it grew as the participants would invite others they met at other meetings. As we gathered and discussed life and the challenges or conflicts they were experiencing, I shared how I saw God at work in their midst. Over time, they became curious about the Bible and requested that we start studying it together. After about six months of walking through the scriptures, a few of the men asked what it looks like to “actually follow Jesus” and not just read about Him. This seems to be a radical approach to social change, according to Holland and Henriot’s grid.

We can address systemic issues in radical ways through relationships rather than liberal ways via programs.

It may help to contrast our particular approach to engaging this systemic issue of addiction with another church near us. When friends from the other church heard that I was meeting weekly to dialogue over the Bible with about 15-20 men in recovery, they asked if I was planning on starting a recovery group. Their church plant had started a recovery home to connect with people in the neighborhood in need and wanted to connect me to their staff. Their church purchased a facility and trained staff but did not have relationships with people in need of their services. Without the relationships, they started a program and sought to draw people into it. This seems to equate with Holland and Henriot’s liberal view of social change. The church worked within the structures of addiction recovery to create its own program. In contrast, we identified a systemic issue through cultural engagement and then created new ways of sharing the gospel through relationships and dialogue. We had no intention of creating another program. We wanted to create space for relationships with those we were meeting. We began with people rather than programs. We contend that we can continue to prioritize people and relationships, creating new relational spaces for God to work among us. We can address systemic issues in radical ways through relationships rather than liberal ways via programs.

Multi-Cultural Continuum

Through our experience of shared life and diversity, The Table Philadelphia’s leadership (the church I pastor) has come to name one of the primary things we emphasize in our discipleship. We say it like this: “We’re committed to a kind of discipleship and spiritual formation that’s aimed at becoming the kinds of people who are both willing and capable of gathering with others in a shared life, especially with those who are not like us. This learning and shared life includes inviting followers of Jesus and those who are not interested in the church as they have experienced it.”

Sheffield provides us with a continuum for becoming a multicultural church.9 The movement on this continuum is from being an “excluding church,” where racial and cultural differences are seen as defects, to becoming a “transforming church,” where racial and cultural differences are seen as adding value to the church. While our church’s culture is predominantly white, we seek to create an environment where people of different cultures, ethnicities, gender identities, sexualities, socioeconomic locations, etc., can find belonging and make space to see how Jesus is working in and through them. We have identified and intentionally pursue practices that move us along the continuum towards an inclusive church. To be a church that could earnestly pursue multiculturalism (the way Sheffield describes it), we believe we need to shape the kind of people who are both willing and capable of joining their lives with different people. As a result, we have created intentional discipleship trainings and environments to shape people into this way of being in the world.

While we are pursuing multicultural inclusion, we also realize that we have room for growth in becoming inclusive. For example, we are familiar with joining together with different ethnicities and learning how to join people from different socioeconomic backgrounds; but we are only familiar with what we have experienced. What happens as our church grows and new forms of inclusion are required as we engage people of different backgrounds and ethnicities? While we have made intentional, structural changes in how we live life together as a church, will we need to make new adaptations as we move forward? I will assume the answer to this question is yes, and we will have more to learn and adapt. For these reasons, I would say that The Table Philadelphia is somewhere between an “awakening church” and a “redefining church” on Sheffield’s continuum. We hold onto hope that in Jesus, what Sheffield calls the “transformed church” is possible. That remains to be seen. However, if a Jewish Messiah can make a way for the Gentiles to be included, perhaps He can create a space for the inclusion of all people in Philadelphia thousands of years later.

Practicing Presence Among Those in Recovery

Let’s go back to the barbershop, where I first began to learn about the addiction recovery issue in our neighborhood. The first step I took was to invite my barber out for coffee and ask him to share his story with me.

A couple of weeks later, my barber and I met over coffee at Homegrown.10 Sitting in the cramped confines of this South Philly coffee house, we created space to hear how God might be present and at work in his life. That was my intention for the meeting.

He shared a story of years of abuse and addiction, loss, and pain. His addiction was a constant cycle of hurt and loneliness. It took a sudden turn when, in desperation, he recalled crying out to God to help him. “Now I don’t know much about God or church, but I know that God is real,” he told me. As I listened to his story, I was compelled to tell him that his story sounds like my story though I have not had a drug addiction. I shared how I relate to coming to the end myself and finding God already there.

This space was holy ground. Two people who knew very little about each other were tending to the presence of God among them. After some more discussion about family and the neighborhood, I asked him how I might be present with him in this journey. His reply is one I will never forget. “You know, some guys in recovery and me used to get together with a priest from Jersey to discuss how the 12 Steps relate to the Bible. But he had to stop, and we have no place to ask these questions and be together. Well, you’re kind of like a pastor. Could you do that?”11 I agreed to do that, and we started to make plans. What came from that is the weekly gathering I mentioned above.12 This was among the first steps for practicing presence among the brokenness of addiction in our neighborhood.

The Gospel to Our Neighbors
Brunch Church

The gospel to our neighbors looked like one of both liberation and participation with King Jesus. Through our discussion around tables, I heard two consistent struggles named. First was the need for liberation from the bondage of their addiction. My friends would continually tell me that they feel like they are slaves to the drugs and have lost control over themselves. They might will themselves into better behavior for a time, but they needed a radical change to be free.

The second struggle that surfaced through dialogue was how hopeless the world seemed for them. As one man put it, “I see others doing the right thing, and their life seems easy. Me, I have one stressful day, and I’m thinking I need to numb myself from the pain. Why can’t I be happy and content?”

We found that a liberation gospel both moves us as followers of Jesus into proximity with those who are oppressed, suffering and marginalized, and provides us with a message of hope for their specific need for justice. Additionally, the King Jesus gospel (or allegiance gospel, as we may say) compels us to live as the visible witness to the kingdom in this currently broken world and within our specific cultural context.13

While we initially opened space for this dialogue and gospel proclamation through my being with a group of people each week, the King Jesus gospel requires a communal witness. As a few of the men began to grow in relationship and trust with me, I invited them to be with others from our table community (house church gathering). For many of these men, that space seemed intimidating and too intimate, and a more public space would be more comfortable. We created a new space for them and others who wanted to be with the church but were still working through what participation would mean. It was a simple gathering we called “Brunch Church.” Thirty-five people would gather over a shared meal, sing, and dialogue over a passage of scripture. We gathered twice a month in this way and began to see more people move into our more intimate, close spaces of table community gatherings as they came to follow Jesus as Lord.

Through shared life around tables, we make space for people from all walks of life in our neighborhood to begin to tend to God’s presence in their lives. This is our primary approach to engaging our culture with the gospel of Jesus.

A liberation gospel both moves us as followers of Jesus into proximity with those who are oppressed, suffering and marginalized, and provides us with a message of hope for their specific need for justice. It also compels us to live as the visible witness to the kingdom in this currently broken world and within our specific cultural context.

Notes

1 Elijah Anderson, The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life (New York, NY: Norton & Co.: 2011), xv.
2 The common “backyard” in South Philadelphia neighborhoods is a roughly 14 by 8-foot concrete slab where you store a trash can and recycling bin. As for parking, it is so difficult that most visitors are surprised by the number of blocked crosswalks and double parking that is left unticketed. A cultural artifact of South Philadelphia is the allowance for parking in the center of Broad Street (technically illegal, but always overlooked). If I had a dollar for every visitor who has seen this and said, “I can’t believe this is allowed!” I would have enough dollars to buy a house on Girard Park with my own parking spot.
3 “Those people” often refers to people of color, though most people over 40 are careful not to make overtly racist comments in public for fear of being seen as uncaring. I have also heard “those people” used to describe people on the margins: the homeless, addict, or the mentally ill.
4 A few months later, during the annual “Love Your Park” clean up day, I invited Danny to get off the bench and participate with us. He worked really hard as part of the community to care for our park. I believe that space brought conversation and healing for Danny and others. A new level of trust was started between each of them.
5 Kensington is known for its large open-air heroin market. See https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/10/magazine/kensington-heroin-opioid-philadelphia.html, and https://www.inquirer.com/health/opioid-addiction/coronavirus-pandemic-drug-supply-opioid-crisis-kensington-20200817.html.
6 If you do not have an appointment, they will do their best to fit you in if their schedule allows it, but they just need to make sure that you know that they know that you did not do things right and anything that comes your way is now stubborn grace, wrapped in kindness.
7 While I certainly celebrate people coming to follow Jesus, inculturating the gospel seems to be more focused on making space for Jesus to work slowly over time, while we are with people, rather than focusing on converting as many people as possible. I think process over productivity.
8 Joe Holland and Peter Henriot, Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005), 32.
9 Dan Sheffield, The Multicultural Leader: Developing a Catholic Personality (2nd Edition) (Toronto: Clements Publishing, 2015), 107.
10 Homegrown is a local coffee shop that is a cultural exegesis project in and of itself. I have spent many hours meeting people and doing “folk ethnography” here.
11 “Kind of like a pastor” is what I always want to be known as by people in the neighborhood.
12 It is worth noting that it took about six months from being present over coffee until the first gathering actually occurred. He had many issue get in the way of our meeting — to the point of my wondering if I was trying to force something to happen.
13 I have written a couple of articles detailing some of the ways I’ve found the King Jesus gospel to shape my cultural engagement: “How to Proclaim the Allegiance Gospel: A Story,” Gravity Leadership, December 27, 2017, https://gravityleadership.com/how-to-proclaim-the-allegiance-gospel-a-story/, and “Proclaiming the Gospel of Allegiance: Another Story,” Gravity Leadership, March 6, 2020, https://gravityleadership.com/proclaiming-the-gospel-of-allegiance-another-story/.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin