Let’s face it, churches, like people, each have their own distinctive characteristics. Some are laid back and slow going and others, well, they have a lot going on. If you’re looking for a place where there’s plenty of activity, community engagement and thriving ministries, St. Matthews African Methodist Episcopal Church, 215 N. 57th St., might just be the place for you.
With a variety of programs, services and ministries, the doors of St. Matthew are almost always open and, just as importantly, those doors, along with the programs, services and ministries, are open to the community as well.
“Warm” and “loving” was how Lorenzo Cruger described it, having attended St. Matthew for 61 years.
“My wife was a member, and when we got married I left my church and came here,” said Cruger when asked what first brought him to the church. That was 61 years ago and the Crugers are still active members.
So, what was it that kept them there when they could have gone anywhere during their 61 years of membership?
“I guess you could say the warmth, the warmth of the membership and the love we have for one another, and we’ve had some great pastors. It keeps us together as a loving family,” said Cruger.
St. Matthew is a sizable church, but the size has not seemed to diminish the closeness of the members who attend.
“We’re friendly and we welcome anyone in. Like the pastor says, when we call you in, you’re not a visitor, you’re our extended family and that’s how we treat everyone. Once you walk through those doors, you’re us.”
Some members of St. Matthew, like Olivia Barr, have attended the church all of their lives and have grown to become active and committed members.
“I was born into the church, so this is the only church I have known my entire life,” said Barr.
Both of Barr’s parents attended the church, she herself was baptized at the church as an infant and she grew up as a child participating in many of the church’s activities such as Sunday School and what the church calls YPD ministry but is formally known as the Young People’s Department.
“This is the only church I have ever known. I don’t know anywhere else,” she said.
Asked what keeps her rooted and grounded at St. Matthew even into her adult years, Barr had an extensive list.
“My mom and dad, they still go here, my younger brother, he goes here. Aunts and uncles go here. I made a lot of friends here, so they have certainly been my motivators to keep coming back,” Barr said.
And it doesn’t hurt that the church has a significant number of activities to participate in.
“We have church school here, we have the Women’s Missionary Society here, we have a lay organization, we have a liturgical dance ministry here, we have, of course, the Young People’s Department here, we have several choirs — we have a lot of stuff here,” said Barr, who also is superintendent of the church’s school.
Supervising the many activities and operations of the church is its pastor, the Rev. Vernon R. Byrd Jr. who was assigned to St. Matthew some two years ago by AME Bishop Gregory Ingram.
Byrd had pastored Grant Chapel AME Church in Trenton, New Jersey, where he ministered for some 20 years.
“In our church, the AME Church, we are a bishop-led church so our bishop, Bishop Ingram, assigned me to St. Matthew in June of 2017,” explained Byrd.
Of course, having been at Grant Chapel for 20 years, Byrd and his wife, Melinda Contreras–Byrd, had grown very close with the members and he said he is “still family with Grant Chapel AME church.”
“The thing that made the transition of going from one church to another so well was that the people here at St. Matthew are just really, truly wonderful people. Loving people,” Byrd said.
“They welcomed me, my wife and my family with open arms. So, I didn’t lose a family, I expanded my family.”
It also didn’t hurt that Byrd has deep roots in Philadelphia.
“I’m back home in Philadelphia, I grew up in Philadelphia,” he said.
In fact, Byrd’s father once pastored Morris Brown AME Church at 25th and Montgomery and he attended school in Philadelphia.
“I went to Beeber Junior High and Central High and University of Pennsylvania Law School, so when the bishop sent me back, he was sending me back home. Big Eagles fan right here,” Byrd said with a laugh.
“When I got to St. Matthew, I think the church was in a period of growth opportunity. I would say, a revival opportunity. Churches go through ups and downs and different cycles and it was time to start living again and to start really being true to the call of Jesus and that is to go forth and make disciples in his name.”
“We needed to do, and still need to do, some spiritual work,” he said.
Although spiritual work was on the main agenda of the pastor, there was also a significant amount of physical restoration needed for the church.
St. Matthew is very clean and well-kept but, given its size and age, requires a great deal of work to maintain and repair.
“We are blessed with a great facility, but it needs a lot of tender loving care as far as repairing things — but we also needed to repair relationships with our neighbors,” Byrd said.
Byrd described the community surrounding the church as “a part of our extended family” and expressed a deep sense of obligation to them.
“Some of them joined the church. There’s no them and us, it’s just us,” he said. “We don’t have a table for them and another for us, there’s just one table, it’s just us. We are one family.”
“When you’re in a spiritual lull, and the church was in a spiritual lull when I came, it just happens. No shade on anybody but when you’re in a spiritual lull you tend to be inward-focused, you tend to focus on what’s not going right, what’s not going well, instead of your opportunities outside these walls,” Byrd said.
“I think that once we started building the spirit back up, the spirit of the church, the sense of who Jesus was and what He wants us to do, people started feeling encouraged to get back out there.”
“Anything that we have going on we make sure that our neighbors are invited,” he said.