Historic Philadelphia church takes new approach to serving the oppressed: healing trauma

By Amy Sowder
Posted Dec 11, 2017

The Rev. Renee McKenzie-Hayward takes an impromptu boxing lesson as volunteers prepare to start a youth boxing program to add to the athletic offerings in January at the Advocate Center for Culture and Education, a nonprofit partner ministry of the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: Amy Sowder/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania] As the lunch crowd dwindled, three men stood in a huddle and pulled out white boxing gloves. The Rev. Renee McKenzie-Hayward emerged from her office and greeted the men.

Soon, the priest was gloved, taking practice jabs and right hooks — and laughing.

“Fighting for the life of this community, we want to maintain the African-American rich cultural history. The Advocate is central for that. It’s a hub for that,” McKenzie told Episcopal News Service the day before, as she sat in her office painted in African violet. “People can come here to organize, and I say you come here to get stronger and then go out to work.”

You have to be tough, yet warm and welcoming, to do McKenzie’s job at George W. South Memorial Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In that northern area, the church sits in the Cecil B. Moore neighborhood, named after the civil rights activist and local NAACP president. The neighborhood is predominately African-American and Puerto Rican residents who grew up here, but the ever-increasing influx of college students from nearby Temple University is changing the landscape. A Temple graduate and the university’s Episcopal chaplain, McKenzie values what the burgeoning college population can offer the community, and she has watched the gentrification change the fabric of the neighborhood.

That’s only one battle of many. Since 2011, McKenzie has dug into the struggles of this church with a long-standing reputation of ardent inclusiveness and a mission to fight for the rights of anyone who’s oppressed. In May, McKenzie earned some recognition that will make these goals more possible.

The Episcopal Church Foundation awarded McKenzie one of five 2017 fellowships. Established in 1964, the Fellowship Partners program supports emerging scholars and ministry leaders who have a passion for forming the next generation of leaders in the Episcopal Church.

It was McKenzie’s proposed Healing Trauma project that earned the financial award of $15,000. She also won a Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Grant for $43,005.

Since 2011, McKenzie has been the vicar of the Church of the Advocate, a historic congregation known for its efforts for social change, education and the arts in North Philadelphia. Photo: Amy Sowder/Episcopal News Service

Donald Romanik, ECF president, said he appreciated how McKenzie’s trauma-informed ministry will be all about developing an understanding of congregational life through the lens of trauma.

“We knew the Rev. Dr. Renee McKenzie would make an excellent ECF fellow for her important work on trauma-informed ministry, social justice and uplifting and growing leaders from African-American communities, both in her church and as a model for our church at large,” Romanik said.

Although she’s in the research and planning stage, McKenzie envisions a healing trauma center in which people first meet with a social worker to assess their needs. They might first participate in programs for basic survival, such as food and shelter. Then, they can join programs that fulfill higher needs, such as education, financial betterment, arts enrichment and cultural-political empowerment.

“How can we use the resources that the Advocate already has in place? How can we bring those all together under one umbrella so that we work in a common direction?” McKenzie asked. “People need physical, spiritual, mental and social healing. Asking how we bring that together, that’s basically how the Healing Trauma project began.”

What is this kind of trauma?

In trauma-informed work, there’s individual trauma, such as a person’s experience and the lingering effects of rape, abuse and war.

“But in our community, it’s also about systemic trauma,” McKenzie said. “That’s where the white supremacy piece comes in. That’s where the justice piece comes in for us. Racial inequality. Poverty.”

For Barbara Easley-Cox, decent housing is where she wants to focus on systematic trauma healing. She’s fought for this cause as a Black Panther since the 1970s and was helped into housing herself across the street from the Advocate through the efforts of the Rev. Paul Washington, the church’s legendary priest who served from 1962 to 1987.

“It’s not only a black-white thing,” Easley-Cox said. “It’s all oppression of any color, shape and size. For me, I always want to bring things to a more worldly view. Yeah, the Holocaust was bad for Jews; slavery was bad for us. But what makes you think it’s over?”

These days, Easley-Cox volunteers at the church doing whatever is needed, from sorting clothing donations to cooking savory dishes for coffee hour.

“I come to service every Sunday because I like Rev. Renee’s sermons,” Easley-Cox said. “She gives you the gospel and translates it to modern day and political issues.”

In a November sermon, McKenzie addressed the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, sharing some of her own experiences. It’s yet another type of systematic trauma that needs healing.

“It’s not just women versus men,” McKenzie said. “It’s so many people who have a story of someone who had the capacity to overpower them because of their privilege.”

The Healing Trauma project would work in three phases: developing awareness, unpacking trauma, and rejuvenating and empowering.

“You cannot address the problem until you can name the problem,” McKenzie said. “First, we want to help people to name it and then to understand it. And then to become resilient against it.”

The Advocate’s storied history

The Church of the Advocate, aptly named, has been fighting for the rights of all people, especially those systematically oppressed, since it was consecrated in 1897.

It’s a landmark in the religious, social and architectural history of the Unites States. Built as a memorial to civic leader and merchant George W. South, the sprawling complex includes a chapel, parish house, curacy and rectory designed in the French Gothic Revival style by renowned church architect Charles Burns.

Historically significant church-related, political and cultural events have occurred at North Philadelphia’s Church of the Advocate, which is built in a French Gothic architectural style, all of which lend to its status as a National Historic Landmark. Photo: Amy Sowder/Episcopal News Service

The Advocate was selected as a National Historic Landmark in 1996 and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980.

The church was built in this grand scale specifically for the working class. The founders ruled that no pews could be rented so everyone could afford a seat. In fact, they didn’t even use pews back then, and they don’t now. Lightly cushioned chairs line the nave.

The Rev. Paul Washington commissioned artists Walter Edmonds and Richard Watson to create 14 murals. Under each are written descriptions drawing parallels between the African-American and ancient Hebrew experiences. There are no pews in the nave, a practice born from the church founders’ desire to abolish pew rentals and make attendance accessible to all people. Photo: Amy Sowder/Episcopal News Service

The church has been key in the civil rights movement and the struggle for women’s rights. The Advocate hosted the National Conference of Black Power in 1968 and the Black Panther Conference in 1970. In 1974, 11 female deacons were ordained as priests at the church. Those ordinations pushed the then-ongoing debate about women in the priesthood to a new level and led, slightly more than two years later, to the General Convention explicitly allowing women to become priests and bishops.

The Advocate’s sanctuary has another bold, distinguishing feature: the murals.

From 1973 to 1976, artists Walter Edmonds and Richard Watson painted 14 stunning murals that depict the African-American experience. Valerie Anderson, a volunteer docent, leads educational tours of the murals. It’s one of the programs McKenzie started three years ago to preserve the community’s culture and history.

Below each painting is a Bible verse and corresponding message, drawing on the parallels of Hebrews and African Americans. The paintings take the viewer from slavery and emancipation to civil rights and black power, Anderson said as she gave a tour.

Some murals convey the grief and loss with esoteric designs and swirls of blues. Others, which include a couple controversial images, depict the anger and rebellion of the oppressed in fiery reds and oranges.

In the nave of the Church of the Advocate, Valerie Anderson, a volunteer docent, leads educational tours of the 14 murals depicting the African-American experience, history and culture. Photo: Amy Sowder/Episcopal News Service

“I always try to bring it forward to where we are today. It really encourages dialogue,” Anderson said about her tours. She spoke about the danger of internalizing the oppressor, which is when you start to believe the hurtful words said about you, and your behavior changes to reflect that negative message.

“We’ve got to erase that tape,” Anderson said.

Advocate Café

Marvin C., 40, who asked not to use his full name, used to teach at an Episcopal nursery school before he fell into a lifestyle that led him down the wrong road and eventually left him homeless. Then he found the free weekday lunches at the Advocate Café, a church ministry for 34 years. One day, he stayed to watch a documentary. McKenzie noticed him.

“I saw the spark in him, you know?” she said. The vicar immediately persuaded Marvin to teach an adult literacy class and participate in the after-school program.

Now, three months later, Marvin has a catering job while he pursues preschool positions and attends support groups. He’s interviewing at the Advocate Center for Culture and Education to teach wellness classes like calisthenics. Marvin has a home. When he visits the café now, it’s to help others.

“It’s a great purpose to work with the young and old,” Marvin said. “I was really meant to teach. This is a platform, regardless of how I walked in here homeless and just to eat.”

When McKenzie arrived at the Advocate six years ago, the café served about 60 to 70 hot meals a day, five days a week. Now that daily crowd is at 100 to 120.

On this December day, Elsie Vives dove her fork into her salad, concentrating on the day’s lunch of spaghetti in meaty marinara sauce, yam-pineapple casserole, green salad and a clementine.

“I like the way they do the food. They’ve got good food every time. In fact, I come here every day,” said Vives, who walks almost 2½ miles to reach the café.

Elsie Vives enjoys the hot meals, such as this pasta with meaty marinara sauce, yam casserole and green salad, five days a week at the Advocate Cafe at the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia. The ministry feeds about 100 people a day. Photo: Amy Sowder/Episcopal News Service

Like many church feeding programs, the café offers so much more than food. More than 5,400 social services requests were fulfilled in 2016. Those services include clothing donations; ID procurement; referrals for jobs, housing and health care; access to resources such as computers, printers and phones; occasional musical entertainment and education workshops during the noon to 2 p.m. mealtime; and professional visits from Temple University nursing students and other experts.

Willie Mae Williams has been with the café, in one way or another, for nine years. “I used to come here to eat, and one day, I asked if I could help out, and I’ve been here ever since,” said Williams as she organized the clothing donations. “It keeps me busy. Why stay home and go crazy when I can come here and help out?”

Willie Mae Williams was a patron of the Advocate Cafe, and now she volunteers at the noon to 2 p.m. mealtime, helping sort clothing donations and perform other duties. Photo: Amy Sowder/Episcopal News Service

During a recent lunchtime, Ta Abdullah held a Dunkin’ Donuts job application as he chatted with others hanging out at the café. He appreciates how staff and volunteers help patrons with their job hunt and offer the use of a phone for work purposes.

“You’ve got people coming here from all walks of life,” Abdullah said. “It’s like a gathering. It’s a blessing to some people.”

Advocate Center for Culture and Education

The cultural program began about three years ago for youth in grades 3 to 12, after school and in the summer. It’s housed next door in a three-story former row home, where Adia Harmon, executive director, presides in the first-floor lobby as children pour in four days a week.

There’s a dizzying number of activities, and it’s growing. In 2016, the program served about 600 children.

“I am here solely out of passion,” said Harmon, a Philadelphia native who loves to witness the direct impact these programs have on a child’s life. “I can see it. The blessings come from when you serve people.”

The sports division started with age-grouped basketball teams that play in the prized gym built in 2004. Marvin plans to lead calisthenics as part of a wellness program that also includes drum circles and meditation, and in January, the new boxing program.

“Research on testosterone points to kids who showed less aggression in school and at home after a program like this, because they had an outlet to release that energy and frustration,” said Johnny Malin, an intern through the Servant Year program in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.

This segment of the Philadelphia-based Mighty Writers program for youth ages 7 to 17 operates on the second floor of the Advocate Center for Culture and Education and is divided into a program for high schoolers and one for middle schoolers. Here, the younger group learns to think and write with clarity so they can achieve success at school, at work and in life. Photo: Amy Sowder/Episcopal News Service

On the second floor, the Mighty Writers program was underway, taught by James Owk. Recent sessions have started with a chapter of the “Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create It” audiobook by Charlamagne Tha God, followed by writing a paragraph each on three questions and then a discussion.

“I’m not really a people person, and I feel like this program puts me out there to make friends, and it’s something new every day,” said Tori-Ann Kent, a teen student. “It really opens you up to what’s going on in the world.”

On the third floor, teaching artist Scott Bickmore led a class of younger children in an acrylic painting project with an heirloom theme, tying together still-life paintings of salsa ingredients, based on a family recipe. The kids will eat homemade salsa at the project’s end.

“Here’s my tomato painting,” said Jasiya Smith, 10, as she held up her art. “I also did a lime, a garlic, cilantro.” She tasted cilantro for the first time and thought it was “OK.”

Jasiya Smith, 10, painted tomatoes as part of her after-school art class with teaching artist Scott Bickmore at the Advocate Center. Photo: Amy Sowder/Episcopal News Service

There’s homework help and tutoring, college preparation, a drama and dance program that uses the stage next door at the church, and gardening out back when the weather allows.

“I’m trying to get these guys to be more plant-based, trying to tie it in with our community garden,” Bickmore said about his art class.

Community space

The church’s greatest asset and liability is the building, McKenzie said. The maintenance of such a majestic, historic building is a never-ending expense, but those same qualities also draw people inside. She wants room rentals to enable the building to pay for itself. From the outside, it seems like there are enough community activities to fulfill that goal already.

Easley-Cox, the church volunteer, neighbor and former Black Panther, has always enjoyed the church’s cultural festivals and political events. She reveled in the John Coltrane jazz festival, which was a recurring event for a while, and a Rainbow Coalition concert, as well as the opportunities to dig into Mamie’s fried chicken, made by the longtime church cook.

“The church is an umbrella that everybody stands under,” Easley-Cox said. “And it works.”

The Advocate has three resident arts groups: Kaleidoscope Theater hosts four drama performances a year, the August Wilson consortium puts on play readings, and the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra performs four to six concerts a year.

Veronica Jurkiewicz is a violinist and co-founder of the 14-member orchestra, an Advocate resident since 2013. The orchestra has no conductor.

“Our model is based on democracy and individual responsibility,” Jurkiewicz said. “We really try to be a part of the social change movement. There’s really a long history of social justice and art and activism here, and we want to be a part of that.”

The orchestra plays at the John Coltrane festival, memorial services, weddings and the Advocate Café when rehearsing for a performance. In 2016, they collaborated with an ensemble of Arabic musicians called Al-Bustan Takht. And in June, the musicians are excited to perform and premier a piece with Grammy-nominated choir The Crossing.

Divya Nair, a doctoral student in literature who’s working with McKenzie on the Healing Trauma project, first stepped into the church two years ago, to attend Saturday Free School, a philosophy reading group that organizes conferences and symposiums.

“My first time here, with the beautiful architecture and spirituality, I felt this real sense of deep peace,” Nair said. “It’s really exciting to see where this is going to go.”

Meanwhile, the community keeps coming inside. The doors are open.

Activist Gabriel Bryant organized an event, “Have Black Lives Ever Mattered?” on Dec. 8, comprising a series of panel discussions on mass incarceration, immigration and white supremacy.

The Church of the Advocate has “always been super-welcoming to our efforts to gather community,” Bryant said. “This has always been a safe space.”

Nair loves the rich musical legacy of the Paul Washington years, when the rector hosted musical giants of the 20th century such as jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp and Coltrane. The night before his last performance in Philadelphia, Coltrane played in the Advocate’s church courtyard.

“A lot of black artists played here because they had nowhere else to go. It’s a pivotal institution,” McKenzie said. “We can’t just let that history go away. We have to continue to fight.”

— Amy Sowder is a special correspondent for the Episcopal News Service and a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She can be reached at amysowderepiscopalnews@gmail.com.

A previous version of this story reported that the female deacons ordained as priests at the Church of the Advocate in 1974 were the first in the Anglican Communion. In fact, Florence Li Tim-Oi became the first female deacon ordained priest in the Anglican Communion in Hong Kong in 1944. Because of controversy surrounding her ordination, she stopped exercising her ministry in 1946 and did not resume it until 1979. Two more female deacons were ordained in Hong Kong in 1971.


Comments (4)

  1. Ronald L. Reed says:

    An inspiring article. As a priest and former Rector of Christ Church and St. Michaels’s in the 1970’s and ’80’s, I am so thrilled to read of the on-going effective and successful witness and worship of Church of the Advent, just wonderful. Paul Washington was a friend, colleague and fellow staff member when we worked together in parish ministry and with our Bp Lyman Ogilby. I miss you,Paul.

  2. Judy Buck-Glenn says:

    I am in awe of all that is being done at Advocate. I know Renee McKenzie. She deserves all the accolades and awards she has been given.

    And it is heartening to read so much good news in a time of such despair, to be reminded that there is always hope.

  3. Ronald Reed says:

    Just to clarify, I meant Church of the Advocate, not Advent. . .

  4. ed stevens says:

    More than 70 years ago I served very briefly as substitute organist at Church of the Advocate. I’ve often wondered how it was doing, having left the Philadelphia area long ago. I’m pleased to know that it is alive and serving it’s neighborhoods well.

Comments are closed.