Oxford Presbyterian Church in Mount Airy seems to have been divinely placed, just waiting for the Rev. Ethelyn R. Taylor to shepherd it. That’s because in 1992 the stone building housing a pristine sanctuary at the corner of Stenton Avenue and Gowen Street was slated to close. The church had been strategically placed in the Cedarbrook section after relocating from Broad and Oxford streets to draw in new Northwest Philadelphia members, but membership had dwindled down to three dozen. By this time the church building only opened for a couple of hours on Sunday and remained closed for the rest of the week.
Nearly simultaneously, Taylor, a fourth-grade teacher at the Dunlap Elementary School in West Philadelphia and an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Education, learned that the Philadelphia School District would allow those with 25 years of service to retire without penalty. In her prayers she promised God that she would be of service to him. So, when she gave the principal her resignation slip in March of 1990 she had no idea what her calling would be.
“The Holy Spirit was quite clear in telling me I had to be theologically prepared,” Taylor said. “I didn’t know what God wanted me to do but I had promised to be obedient. So I went to what was then the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary and got my master’s in Divinity. I still didn’t know what I was going to do with it.”
Then Taylor began courses at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at 7301 Germantown Ave. in the heart of Mount Airy. Caring for a convalescing relative had her drive from Gowen Street across Stenton Avenue, passing by Oxford without noticing the church. In fact, at that time the church sign was down and the parking lot was usually vacant.
One day a small black and white sign was placed on the lawn that read “Oxford Presbyterian Church.” This surprised Taylor, since she was now working for the Presbyterian church and had never heard of it. Little did she know she would be assigned as its student pastor in September 1992 even though she would not become an ordained minister for two full years.
“This is now one of the best churches in Mount Airy because we have one of the best leaders, our pastor,” said Harvina Hebbins, who has been an Oxford member for 33 years. “What she brought to revive this church was the Good Book. She educated the church about the Bible. When she preaches on Sunday it’s about love, and we became a family. She preaches about God, and it is that message that keeps us together.”
Hebbins said the church grew within a year after Taylor’s arrival. It went from 33 members on the rolls to more than 200 active members. When she arrived, all the ministries were dormant, but now there are dozens of activities that keep Oxford as a community-centered church open seven days a week. That’s why Hebbins’ daughter, Crystal, now runs the summer camp and his granddaughter is also active in various ministries.
“Since I’ve been here I’ve never had a problem with anyone,” said Cleo Gibson, the church’s administrative assistant who joined in 2001. She said the lack of stress frees her up to engage in duties like putting together the church bulletin, distributing flyers about upcoming events and running the church office. “Things go so smoothly here that I am just able to do my work with no problems,” Gibson said.
Taylor attributes the harmony at Oxford to the church itself. She pointed out that Oxford is God’s church, not hers, and that the church is made up of the individuals and families. This includes couples like Lloyd and June Higgins, who have been at the church for some 35 years. Lloyd Higgins now serves as the clerk of sessions. Then there is Catherine Adams, one of Taylor’s many mentees, who is also a retired schoolteacher who now works for the regional Presbyterian office in the building behind the church.
Oxford Presbyterian has deep roots. It was chartered on Jan. 20, 1867. It was founded at 11th Street and Columbia Avenue on the second floor of another church in North Philadelphia in 1853. It then moved to what is now the home to the Wagner Institute of Science on nearby 17th Street and eventually to Broad and Oxford. It moved to a small building on Dorset Street (that was sold in 2008) before building the current edifice in 1956.
Most congregants live in the neighborhood surrounding the church. They also represent the diverse economic levels and professions of Northwest Philadelphia’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, spanning from the working poor and blue-collar workers to the more affluent professionals.
So, while Taylor is quick to note that there are attorneys, physicians, principals, police officers, government workers and entrepreneurs in Oxford’s pews, there are others. In fact, she said, when Oxford speaks of “missions” it is not just the foreign missions of the traditional Black Church when she was growing up. “We are very aware that throughout Mount Airy and the surrounding area there are many pockets of poverty. There are many poor people living within a stone’s throw of this church, and we need to consider them part of our mission,” Taylor said.
Oxford has no lack of vital and viable ministries. Bridge Builders provides programming for young people to learn about the creative arts and public speaking, and to hear professionals at career events. When Taylor came she opted to dismantle the Sunday school, which had four children participating, in favor of a Saturday Children’s Church which draws some 65 children. Since there are 45 teachers who are members of Oxford, there is an active tutorial program offered at no cost, and a scholarship ministry.
“So many who are now college graduates and working as professionals came through our tutorial program in the last 20 years,” Taylor said. “I started it by standing at the corner of Gowen and Mansfield waiting for the school bus. I’d ask the children if they needed help with their homework. Then by word of mouth, we grew and grew.”
There is also a women’s ministry, a smaller men’s ministry, a liturgical and sacramental ministry, a music ministry, pastoral care and others. This summer the church members will be expanding its role by going out into the community even going door to door to offer their services. This is all part of the church living up to its mission statement, according to the pastor.
“Our mission is that we are called and sent in the name of Jesus,” said Taylor, who is Oxford’s first female and first African-American pastor. “It is time for the church to show its love through more outreach ministries. That’s why we’ve been working with the nursing home across the street, with women’s shelters, and some homeless shelters.
“As Christians we have to take Matthew 28:18 seriously and go out into the community, the neighborhood, the city, as we are called to do. A church should be doing for others and caring about those who are not in the church. That’s what Jesus did. We do have a warm and friendly church, we are spirit-filled and we want to bring more in to be refueled with this joy,” Taylor said.
Consequently, the church has a full roster of activities to culminate this year. They will have an intergenerational Vacation Bible School with supper from July 7 to 11 at 6 p.m. Their annual Crab-Feast will be held Aug. 23 from 6 to 10 p.m. The church will hold a community flea market Sept. 13 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Then there will be an Ordered Steps women’s retreat Sept. 27 from 8:30 a.m. to noon.
Taylor’s 20th anniversary at the church will be celebrated over the weekend of Oct. 10 to 12. There will be a youth tribute Friday evening, Oct. 10. The church family will host a banquet in her honor Saturday, Oct. 11. Also, there will be morning and afternoon worship services Sunday, Oct. 12. This will be a festive community affair open to the public.
Additionally, the church is planning a Woman’s Prayer Reflection Day Oct. 25 at 8:30 a.m. followed by Women’s Day Oct. 26. Finally, the church will host its annual Jazz Concert fundraiser Nov. 15 from noon to 4 p.m.