True Gospel Tabernacle Family Church has an identity all its own. Maybe it’s because the senior pastor, Bishop Ernest McNear, will often play spiritual songs on his saxophone on Palm Sunday. Or, the congregation often teams up with the nonprofit group Philadelphia FIGHT and joins forces with Church of God in Christ International members to educate the Delaware Valley about HIV and AIDS.
Yet McNear describes his church as “a service mentoring network that is on the cutting edge of evangelical ministries.” That may sound like a mouthful for this South Philadelphia native reared in North Philadelphia, who earned his master of divinity degree from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Yet it is the best way McNear can describes the congregation he has led for the past 28 years.
“We take worship to an emphatic level,” said McNear, who earned his doctor of ministry degree from Regent University in Virginia Beach. “They call me God’s Gospel saxophonist and we have God’s Gospel Choir here. We just have a wonderful time being filled with the spirit. So there’s a lot of preaching the Word and playing uplifting gospel music in here each and every Sunday.”
On a typical Sunday one will find about 200 consistent members filling the pews, though as in most churches there are more on their official rolls. The last count was about 600. Yet one will find that those in attendance range from young families with infants and toddlers, a strong showing of adolescents and young adults, those who are in the prime of life, and the mainstay population of senior citizens.
For the past two years an Indonesian congregation has been holding Sunday morning worship services in the church’s fellowship hall. This is held simultaneously with the church’s own 11 a.m. Sunday worship service.
“We consider that part of our foreign missions right here in this city, in South Philadelphia,” McNear said. “Here in South Philadelphia we have many from all parts of Asia. Many do speak to the spirit and are biblically Gospel Christ believers. With the Indonesian congregation, sometimes we have a joint service, which is always something we look forward to because it’s great.”
McNear also brings another global dimension to the church at 16th and Mifflin streets. He spent early March leading the Philadelphia jurisdictions of the Church of God in Christ International on a mission trip to West Africa. There he met with other COGIC International congregations, which are a different denomination from the COGIC. This is something he usually does every March and September.
The church, similar to its West African counterparts, has more than just a house of worship on its campus. Nestled in the working-class South Philadelphia community of row houses, True Gospel operates its own educational center, led by the church’s first lady, evangelist Barbara McNear. This is located at 763 S. 17th St., across the street from the historic Marian Anderson Center.
“Our school goes from infancy to 8th grade,” McNear said. “It is fully certified by the state. It supports the talents and learning needs of our students. We have a day care and a summer program in there.”
Sometimes Ernest McNear shares his own spiritual journey with the youngsters at his church campus. He was called to the pulpit when he was 14-wwwwyears-old, he said. Yet he resisted the calling in favor of a musical career. After graduating from Simon Gratz High School he went on to study music at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied for two years.
Then his life took a turn for the worse. Like the prodigal son, he lived life in the fast lane. He fell victim to street drugs. As he still felt his calling, one day, at rock bottom, he had an epiphany. “I don’t say I was saved, because I was actually rescued because my life changed due to the prayers of my mother,” he said.
He then earned his bachelor of science degree from Geneva College at the Center for Urban Theological Studies. He is also chief adjutant at for the COGIC National Orchestra, district overseer of the denomination’s Tri-State District, and serves as district overseer of Cape Coast Central District Ghana COFIC International, which is composed of 65 churches.
“I would not recommend anyone getting into drugs, because it was a detrimental experience,” McNear said. “God does work together everything for good. I think God used that part of my life so that I could be more compassionate. When I tell the children that the streets are destructive, I know. I can have that genuinely authoritative voice with compassion to help God’s people.”
Yet youngsters are not the only ones that True Life is educating. The church has what the senior pastor calls “a strong re-entry ministry” for former inmates. Through its Kingdom Care Re-Entry Network it provides a full range of services from education to post-employment placement counseling for more than 150. “We follow our brothers and sisters for a full year after they’ve been placed in a job, so that sets us apart from the traditional prison ministries,” he said.
One of the first graduates of this ministry was John Scarborough. “Everything happens for a reason,” Scarborough said. “I had to get better at decision-making. That’s one thing the program helped me to do.”
McNear says his wife of 35 years, Beverly, is one of his strongest assets. Together they started the church in 1985 and their relationship is a true partnership, he said.
“She’s very visible here,” the senior pastor said. “Beverly runs the school, handles the women’s department, and is a preacher and teacher. She does everything that her ministry calls her to do. We have been blessed with a son who is 35 and a daughter who is 23, and we have give grandchildren.”
His son, Minister Vance McNear, is a certified special education teacher for the School District of Philadelphia. He is director of the True Gospel Tabernacle Learning Center after-school program. He also heads the youth ministry at the church.
Looking to the future, True Life is setting itself as “the prophetic voice” in the African-American community, according to McNear. “We are speaking the truth to power, because we know that our community needs that word. We want people to change their lives. My mantra is that we don’t just want to preach the Gospel, but we want to live the Gospel. Here at True Gospel Tabernacle Baptist Church
we are doing this,” he said.
For the Ausar Auset Society, the spring of 2013 is a holy season. This was never more evident when the Philadelphia temple held its 40th anniversary celebration. It was held on the lower level of the Lotus Academy, 340 E. Haines St. , on Sunday, March 17.
The international neo-Egyptian organization’s celebration drew those from as far away as New York City and Washington, D.C. as well as from across Philadelphia.
Guests were greeted by the polyrhythmic drumming of musician Ogunkemi at the front door.
After passing by a carved mahogany Madonna that was taller than six-feet, guests made their way to the cafeteria that was decorated with massive brass Kemetic pharaohs. The standing room only crowd waited patiently, amid the smell the vegan soul menu, for the royal family. It was there that Ausar Auset founder Dr. Ra Un Nefer Amen I, the author of 35 books, signed his new volume, “Not out of Greece.
Among them was Kahleelah Lowenthal, a Philadelphia native, who was first exposed to Kemetic spirituality when she was living in suburban Maryland 15 years ago. When she relocated back to the city and later to South Jersey, she continued to explore the African centered religions. It was just three months ago that she joined Ausar Auset.
“I am clearly here to celebrate,” Lowenthal said, who wore a red and gold African printed outfit. “I feel that this is my new home. I am grateful for all I’ve learned from [Amen] who intuited so much of our ancient religious culture. I love being part of a new community that worships in a way that speaks to my cultural roots and where all are happy.”
Ama Kaita, an African dancer, concurred. She was invited to the Germantown temple by one of its member in 2010.
“It was a joy to really understand our African ways of worship,” Kaita said.
“It’s a joy to share my talents in a place where there is no negative energy. I’ve really found inner peace and balance. I’ve been able to achieve this because the things I am learning about my history and culture in a way that resonates with me. We understand that we are accountable for our actions and to use our energy wisely,” Kaita said.
Ron Griffin, a contractor who has been a customer of Ausar Auset’s Nile Café came to support the anniversary.
“I am a Christian, but I believe that Afrocentric spirituality has a function, so I support all their fundraisers,” he said.
Also on hand was Neptha Amina Afia wearing a dramatic African gailee headwrap with a circular copper ornament designed by her business partner Abdur Rhaman Suade of Symmetry Jewelry. Afia showed off her natural fabric and Kemetic inspired line from Simply Neptha Wholistic Boutique.
Additionally, aromatherapist Shadow Wolf and herbalist Dwan Wright-El, both of Southwest Philadelphia, had their organic homemade soaps and nutritional supplements, respectively.
Rafiq Abdul Malik, of North Philadelphia, said he appreciated a religious organization that shares his passion for herbal and natural remedies.
“It’s time for all of us as African Americans to return to spiritual places that invigorate our meridian energy,” Malik said.
Pinn Memorial Baptist Church is more than a ministry center. The 106-year-old at 54th and Wynnefield has more than 600 members. It has a 10:30 a.m. Sunday worship service, Sunday School, and a midweek Bible study. Yet during a typical week many from the surrounding West Philadelphia community will come through their doors for an array of reasons.
If one is hungry there are packed Philabundance bags of grocery items at Pinn. Having trouble accessing capital because of less-than-perfect credit? Pinn’s credit union may be able to help. The Police Athletic League runs its youth-oriented program, the 52nd Ward educates citizens about neighborhood issues, and the Wynnefield Residents Association convenes its community sessions here. There are even concert nights featuring the Haverford Singers or local jazz ensembles.
One of the hallmarks of Pinn is its focus on youth. Jacob L. Chatman, the senior pastor, is quick to point out that rather than holding a doctor of divinity degree, he earned his doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts. So, he though he is an ordained minister, he is not a reverend. He attributes this combination to his focus on molding the spiritual foundation and formation of young people.
“We have an educational center,” said Chatman, who serves as an Eastern University trustee. “We have all types of activities for our young people. We have 60 young people who participate in our choirs and as ushers. Last year we gave scholarships to every graduate who participates in the life of the church. These are not small scholarships, because they ranged from $2,800 to $3,500. We give them out at our annual scholarship banquet.”
Yet with all these activities and community interaction, Pinn Memorial is still first and foremost a house of worship. That’s why early on Sunday morning the parking spaces around the church fill up quickly, and one can see many walking through Wynnefield or getting off at the nearby SEPTA stop en route to Pinn. So, for the members who come Sunday after Sunday, Pinn is their second home.
On the second Sunday of every month, it is the youths who take center stage at the worship services. The Scriptural readings are memorized by youngsters as young as 8 in the month before that youth-oriented service. Youngsters are the featured singers, take over the ushering duties, and take visible roles throughout the service.
“We have a wonderful family atmosphere,” said Michael Lewis, chairman of the Pinn board. “We take pride in the fact that we know everyone by name. We have many ministries that bring the people together. That’s why people would have a hard time not liking it here.”
Chatman looks forward to the church’s continued growth in decades to come. The church’s vision includes having small evangelization groups that reach out to the surrounding community. There are also missions abroad, in South Africa and Guinea, as part of the African Baptist Mission. Of course, there is assistance to some of the schools in these nations.
There are also American missions, including one that continues to help the New Orleans victims of Hurricane Katrina. “We are now also helping another church in Alabama that was affected by the recent storm, so we are helping them get the funds to rebuild,” Chatman said.
Eugene Alston, chair of the church’s joint boards, is particularly excited about the Pinn Federal Credit Union that serves more than 65 individuals. The credit union just celebrated its 47th anniversary. “We offer those who join the opportunity to access monies at lower interest rates,” Alston said.
There is optimal use of Pinn’s expansive campus, as even other local congregations worship there. The Corpus Christi Baptist Church, the Fisherman’s Church of God in Christ, and a French-speaking arm of the Bethel Deliverance Evangelical Church all hold their services at Pinn.
So, while the Pinn congregation is in the main sanctuary on Sunday at 10:30 a.m., there is another worship service with about 260 participants in the chapel. In yet another open space, additional worshipers are congregating for yet another service.
Students from Eastern University’s Palmer Theological Seminary across City Avenue are often completing their internships at Pinn. Currently there are eight associates from Palmer, according to Lewis. “We always have an influx of young ministers who help us in operations,” he said.
Additionally, the more mature Pinn Christians have an active schedule at the church. Lewis pointed out that the “55 Alive” club, consisting of 75 members, meets at the church every Wednesday and Friday to plan outings or play games like pinochle. Recently, state Rep. Louise Williams Bishop hosted a “Senior Expo” at the church for these older adults.
Then there are the Men of St. Carmel. They have been holding fundraising breakfasts for the church community for the past five years. The church also sponsored a 2012 breakfast for veterans.
“We just have many ministries,” said Jacqueline Howard, the chair of the trustee board. “There is the women’s ministry, the men’s worship group, and a couples’ ministry. We have evangelism [outreach] that goes into the prisons for worship services with the men and the women. We have our choirs go into the local nursing homes.”
“We feel that we have good leadership here,” Lewis said. “Our business office and the financial side are administered well. We give monthly and quarterly reports that detail where every penny goes. Jackie [Howard] does a good job handling much of the business side.”
These are just some of the hallmarks that Pinn plans to celebrate at Pastor Chatman’s 20th anniversary banquet. This will be held at the Hilton Hotel on City Avenue on Saturday, April 20 at 6 p.m. Among the invited guests are friends of Pinn, many of whom attend churches in different parts of the country.
For ticket information for the pastor’s anniversary gala or general information about Pinn Memorial Baptist Church visit the website at pinnmemorial.org.
The Ausar Auset Society will celebrate its 40th anniversary in Germantown this weekend. The Philadelphia chapter of the international neo-Egyptian religious and spiritual organization will mark this event by hosting the group’s founder Ra Un Nefer Amen I. The gala will take place at the Lotus Academy, 340 E. Haines St., on March 17 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Amen will also be releasing his new book, “Not out of Greece.” He is author of 35 books on spirituality, health and relationships, including the “Metu Neter Series.” This series chronicles the foundation of the ancient African religious practices which serve as the basis for many contemporary cosmological, including the popularized Kabala, systems.
The Nile Café will be catering the event with a soul vegetarian menu. Musician Steven “Katriel” Wise, several spoken word artistsand African drummers will be providing live entertainment. Local artists and cultural vendors will be displaying their wares.
“Ausar Auset has been dedicated to returning to, and preserving, ancient Kemetic or Egyptian culture,” said Seshemsia Aakhut, of Mount Airy, the marketing coordinator for the gala. “I know, for me, it has helped me to even understand the bible better. I came from a strict Christian family out of Grace Baptist Church under the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Sr. where I had spiritual questions. It was here I got those questions answered.
“Dr. Amen is the only Black author to have written technical instruction manuals on ancient African spirituality, meditation and cosmology. These provide readers and students with the necessary instructions to integrate this ancient knowledge into a spiritually empowering and practical way for modern living,” said Aakhut.
Aakhut, known to many as Linda Bell, is quick to point out that the society’s headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York. It also has several temples in several American cities, like Washington, D.C., Chicago and Atlanta. There are also worship centers in Canada, Trinidad and Tobago, Bermuda, Ghana, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.
There’s much to celebrate Bethlehem Baptist Church in Spring House as the members celebrate their 125th anniversary this year. From the “Visions to Victory” weekly television broadcast to housing homeless families on the church campus, it is clear that Bethlehem is more than just a house of worship.
The Rev. Charles W. Quann, the senior pastor, is quick to point out that it was God’s plan for Bethlehem to be a predominantly African-American church nestled within a multimillion-dollar largely Caucasian community. The neighborhood is so exclusive one cannot find it on most navigational maps.
So when Bethlehem purchased the land for the campus built eight years ago, some wondered how it had secured the former synagogue for just $3 million. It also overcame township zoning hurdles as wary “blue-blood” neighbors voiced concerns about their property values. Yet even as a commuter church Bethlehem now boasts of some 18,000 members, according to Quann.
“We have the vitality of a rich history,” said Quann, who is the church’s eighth pastor. “But we also have a glorious future. It is one thing to be excited about one’s past, but it is (meaningless) if it’s just something to reflect upon. It is clear that God is using this congregation and will do so in the future when you look around and see all the young people.
“By our adoption of the Kinsey Elementary School in West Oak Lane, God has called us to serve students in the Philadelphia School District. Even as Kinsey, during these critical times, is scheduled for the chopping block, we will continue to serve those children. Our church is not bound by location and neither is our service —that’s why we also serve more than 100 children in Kenya,” Quann said.
So the church has taken definitive steps during Quann’s 25-year tenure at Bethlehem to be more family-friendly. For instance, there is a children’s Bible study going on at the same time as the 9 a.m. worship service. In this way, families who must drive 15 minutes from Northwest Philadelphia neighborhoods or even take longer commutes from Wilmington or Reading can maximize their time.
The church also has the Hype children’s ministry and a chapter of the Amachi mentoring program (founded by the Rev. W. Wilson Goode) that keeps the young people engaged. Among the projects are collaborative efforts with Villanova and Saint Joseph’s universities for an enrichment program or reading initiative. These have contributed to the church’s diversified its membership, which now includes those from the Latino, Asian-American and Caucasian communities.
Even some in the surrounding neighborhood have now embraced the church. Bethlehem can accommodate the parking overflow for the 11:15 a.m. service by using the Upper Dublin High School lot. There are even shuttle buses that will take church families to the campus.
The local secondary school will also be the venue for Bethlehem’s anniversary gala in October, according to Quann. “We will be honoring all the former pastors, including three living pastors. We will have children from Kenya here for two weeks and they will attend the church picnic and the special service on Sunday, Oct. 27,” he said.
The keynote speaker for the anniversary celebration will be the Rev. Dr. J. Louis Felton, senior pastor of the Mount Airy Church of God in Christ in West Oak Lane. Also being honored will be Robert W. Bogle, president and CEO of the Tribune. “We want to recognize the Tribune for the work they have done in recognizing the work of our church, because we are grateful for the visibility,” Quann said.
“We have also recently added the Rev. Tamika Moore, who is a strong pastor,” Quann said. “She brings with her freshness and vibrancy. During our anniversary year we are able to welcome her.”
Additionally, the church will highlight its many missionary endeavors. After the crisis in Newtown, Conn. the Bethlehem Youth Mission raised $4,000 to send to the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Couples are able to have a “Date Night with the Pastor” to help strengthen their marriages, and individuals can also meet with Quann at a neighborhood Starbucks for coffee and to discuss their spiritual concerns.
Furthermore, the church hosts special events like comedy shows and concerts featuring top name artists. Also, it is line dancing time every Tuesday at 11 a.m. and even the senior pastor is likely to drop by to learn a new step. This is part of the church’s growing holistic health ministry.
“It’s important not to be so rigid and tight that you don’t eliminate stress. So, part of our mission in being a holistic church is to show that as Christians we can laugh, be fit and enjoy ourselves even as we look toward our future,” Quann said. Looking ahead also means that there will be capital improvements coming to the Spring House church building. To fully utilize the three-story edifice, the church will be adding an elevator. Just last week members were filing zoning petitions to install the elevator after raising pledges of $200,000 toward the $300,000 project from the Capital Campaign Fund.
One may even find Quann at speaking at other churches or having other preachers and even politicians in his pulpit. When Praise for the Cure, a breast cancer foundation, held its kickoff last summer Quann was quoted as saying, “I am no longer timid about wearing pink because it’s all about raising awareness of early detection.”
Or, when Ebenezer Memorial Baptist Church in Norristown held its 168th anniversary celebration recently, Quann delivered the sermon.
“This is a church on the cutting edge,” Quann said. “That’s why if there is an issue that affects Montgomery County, this township, or any other community where members live, I will have elected officials or someone from the American Red Cross come in here. I have served as a trustee at Abington Hospital and I serve on the Montgomery County Housing Authority, and I will share what I do.
“We have borrowed a theme of President Barack Obama’s campaign as our slogan,” admitted Quann, who was among the featured speakers at last September’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. “We say that we are fired up and ready to go for Jesus. We are not an isolated or stagnant church, so we are constantly ready to move our church into the future.”
Those who cannot get to Bethlehem Baptist can check its weekly “Visions and Victory” television program which airs on WPPX, channel 61 every Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. It is also featured on Gospel Highway radio daily at 2 p.m. Furthermore, the church has a Facebook page and utilizes contemporary technology, like Skype, to broadcast services online.
Bethlehem Baptist Church is located at 712 Penllyn Pike, just off Dager Road and Bethlehem Pike near Blue Bell. It has Sunday worship services at 9 and 11:15 a.m. For more information call (215) 643-4977 or visit bbc4christ.org/.