In the last four years, we’ve seen history made on a seismic scale. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. That same year, Calvary Christian Church, a pillar in the North Philadelphia community (16th St. and Fairmount Avenue) for decades, made a historic decision to move from its inner city roots to the less urban Great Northeast. Under the leadership of the Rev. Robert James Fontell Jr., Calvary is establishing a new legacy by making great impact in its new location, 6000 E. Roosevelt Blvd.
Calvary’s move had its challenges. Many long-term members did not make the exodus when the church moved, but what it lost in inner city members it gained in semi-suburban membership.
Calvary is a Christ-centered, family-focused ministry that is committed to exalting Jesus Christ, evangelizing the unsaved, edifying the saved and empowering its members and their families. The congregation prides itself on making disciples, to make disciples.
“The year I was licensed was 2002 and ordination was 2008,” at Bible Way Baptist Church, said Fontell. The Rev. Dr. Damone B. Jones Sr. is the senior pastor of Bible Way.
Making the move to the Northeast was an endeavor that Fontell considers one of his great hallmarks leading the congregation. He recalls that the relocation was being pursued by Calvary’s leadership prior to his tenure.
“They had been trying to accomplish that for years, and so I was able to get it done, but with the Lord’s help, done my first year being there,” he said.
Some of the other hallmarks that Fontell is proud of are, “Numerous baptisms; in the four years, we’ve had well over 200 baptisms. We started our children’s church ministry, we see an average of 60 children in our Children’s Church, which is called Wee Worship; we do it every Sunday during our normal worship hours, 10:45 a.m. to 1 p.m.”
Wee Worship has been in existence for two years. Every March, Fontell spends that entire month preaching on marital issues, in a series called Marriage Matters, “I’ve seen numerous marriages strengthened. Many couples have renewed their vows and strengthened their marriages.
“We do an evangelistic block party every year,” called Summer Fest said Fontell. Residents are treated to food, games and giveaways. Every week, the church gives away free Pepperidge Farm bread products to the community in the Daily Bread Ministry. And every year, the church partners with the Salvation Army and Red Cross to render various resources and services to children and families.
Outreach events like these have helped bolster membership numbers at the church. Calvary has nearly 200 members. The church building is a former synagogue that was renovated. It is a spacious building, with a huge banquet hall that’s available for public use. It has classrooms, a bookstore and ceiling-to-floor sanctuary windows that allow for abundant natural light during its worship services.
“I’ve been a member, two years now,” said the Rev. Keith A. Garland, Sr. Garland was licensed and ordained at the Nazarene Baptist Church of Nicetown in 1995. “The principal draw was the location and Pastor Robert Fontell and his love for God’s people and his desire to do community service.”
Garland said his “principal leadership role is “pastor of youth and family services, which involves organization of all marriage ministry and family counseling, in addition to youth services and activities. I also assist greatly with the pulpit ministry and pastoral support.”
Garland earned his undergraduate degree from Temple University, “I’ve had some law school and some seminary training, no completion of law school and seminary training, as of yet.” He said he attended Rutgers Law School and Palmer Theological Seminary at Eastern University.
“The principal goal for the youth right now is to just help them gain a greater personal relationship with Christ. We don’t just want to be a church that does activities, although we’re very much into that. We are doing a number of things, but we want greater individual spirituality for the children,” said Garland. He has organized cultural tours to New York and California and held other events to enrich and edify the youth, culturally and spiritually.
“I’ve been a member of Calvary for 67 years,” said Alex Duncan Jr. Duncan has been vice chair of the deacons for about 18 years. He is a big supporter of Fontell.
“Well, one of the things I enjoy most is his heart for serving the people in the community of Northeast Philadelphia.” said Duncan, adding that he shares with Fontell, “a heart for saving souls in that community, and to bring comfort to those who are ailing.”
Making the transition to the Northeast was a challenge for those who made the exodus.
“One of the biggest challenges that we overcame was the people involvement. We have more people involvement now, than we did when we were back at 16th Street. We were able to get a lot of new members. New members have caught on to the pastor’s vision and they’re starting to do ministry. The people are more hands-on now, then before,” said minister Shaque Livingston.
He added, “Before, it just looked like it was always the same people doing a lot in our church.” Now, more people are participating in ministry service, which is relieving the stress of a few members doing all the work.
For Ladrina Powell, being a member of Calvary has been a great experience, but her concern for other new members is ultimately for their salvation.
“I would make sure that they want to be saved and asked them about their goals and mission in life. I would convince them to come to Calvary because we are a Christ-centered-family-focused church,” she said. “After all, we believe in family, we believe in praise and worshiping God. And we have the best pastor in the United States.”