Living Water United Church of Christ may be less than a decade old, but it brings with it rich African-American spiritual and social justice traditions. This is because the pastor, Bishop Dwayne Royster, has had a comprehensive religious journey that inspired the founding of a church in a small row house at 200 N. Fifth St. on April 5, 2004.
As the congregation is settling into its new Northeast Philadelphia space, it has a growing membership roll of more than 150. The mission is also evolving. The inclusive vision embraces the churched and unchurched, African- and Latino-Americans, Blacks and whites and those in the LGBT community. While the church is traditional in adherence to Christian values, it is also progressive in its advocacy for a just society, according to Royster.
This is a church that is bound together because of its members rather than to an edifice. In the early months members would alternate their worship meetings at homes in suburban Aston, then West and North Philadelphia. After finding a rental space in Wynnefield near 74th and Haverford, they relocated for a 10-month stint at the Harold O. Davis United Church of Christ in Logan.
“We even rented a space at 2006 Germantown Ave. that once was a warehouse and then a wine and spirits shop,” Royster said. “We like to say that we brought a spirit in there, but it was a new different kind of spirit. It is that spirit that keeps our church together and growing.”
Last March Living Water finally acquired its first permanent church home at 6250 Loretto Ave. in the Oxford Circle area. Royster, who is the executive director of POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild), heard the property was for sale through another POWER member church. During the pre-sale process both congregations shared the space for a few weeks.
Living Water now has more than enough space to grow and implement new programs. The Loretto Avenue building has a sanctuary, classrooms, offices and a fellowship area. Since the congregation has always occupied a single large room, renovating the new space is a bit intimidating. They have even become landlords, renting space to a Pakistani Assembly of God congregation.
“Since we are a newer congregation we don’t have that history of three generations of families at one church,” Royster said. “In a way that makes us more inclusive, because we have many folks who join who have never been to church and did not grow up in church. That’s always a challenge, to help them to grow, and they are not accustomed to going to church every Sunday or tithing.”
Yet Royster said he understands those who are on a spiritual journey better than most. As a child he was a member of the United Methodist Church, though his family was not particularly religious. His grandmother was a zealous member of Zion Baptist Church in Nicetown and would often drag the young Royster from his Mount Airy home to church. His aunt was a Jehovah’s Witness and would sometimes have Bible study with him.
It was during his sophomore year at Boston College, where he was a political science major, that he received his calling. His mother was surprised when he informed her of his calling to the ministry. She pointed out that he had always said he would use political means to transform the world. His uncle, who was a member of the Eastwick United Methodist Church, introduced him to the pastor, the late Rev. Frederick Douglass, who helped him discern that he had been truly called.
After confirmation of his calling and becoming licensed to preach, Royster actually was the pastor of a Mennonite Church in Mill Creek. This was during a time when the Mennonites were opening urban congregations. Royster credits this experience with giving his some of the hallmark orientation of Living Water.
“I did spend a lot of time at Mennonite churches in Lancaster,” said Royster, who earned his seminary degree from the Center for Urban Theological Studies before earning a master’s in theology from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. “I learned much about how to apply theology, and from their commitment to nonviolence, peace and justice. I really appreciate the time and the things I learned from them.”
Royster was part of the ministry staff at the Harold O. Davis Church in Logan when he got the idea of forming Living Water. Initially he wanted the new church to be non-denominational. But after conversing with Harold O. Davis’ Bishop Kermit L. Newkirk, Jr. and learning that Newkirk’s church was both United Church of Christ and Baptist, he saw the advantages of being under a larger umbrella.
So he opted to become part of the United Church of Christ, which would provide the stability of an established denomination. Newkirk explained that a church could be part of a mainline Protestant umbrella and still maintain an ecumenical, interfaith and progressive worldview. This resonated with Royster, who is the director of the POWER organization, which brings together Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and members of other faiths working for social justice.
Royster is quick to point out that though Jesus Christ himself worshiped at the synagogue, he was also “radical in not supporting the status quo” and demanded that his followers change. For this reason, the church has a post-penal ministry to assist those who have been incarcerated re-enter society. “Jesus was all about bringing that joy, peace and love into this world,” Royster said.
“That’s why I can say that we are rooted in the African-American tradition,” he added. “We thrive because we have our say in the public square, but we also hold to the (tenets) of the faith and how Jesus represented it. We are not here to judge or bring condemnation on others, but we do provide a space for all to thrive and grow in love.”
Royster is also a family man. His wife, Suzette, is the first lady of Living Waters. He is father to two daughters, 21-year-old Chardinai and 8-year-old Joy. The church itself is like a large extended family.
This is evident at the church’s ’70s party on Saturday, June 22. Congregants were urged to put on their dancing shoes as they listened to “Soul Train” hits and other popular tunes of that era.
“We are excited about events like this,” Royster said. “So we are telling people to pull out the Afro and the polyester suit to come out an enjoy life together. We believe in worshiping together, but we also hang out with each other. It’s all part of the love that is within this church.”