As a house of worship that is literally building up its own community, St. James United Methodist Church spends more time outside in the streets being a church than it does inside. This focus, in addition to a contemporary service, has resulted in significant growth, suggesting a bright future ahead for St. James and anything else it touches.
“The church was about to close down,” said Senior Pastor John Brice. “I don’t want it to come across as just me that did it. Tracey Bass, the district superintendent, is one of my main mentors. And it was being strategic about our approach to ministry.”
Brice began leading St. James last July and said at that time there was an average of six members coming to church.
As of now, there are 79 members, but this increase doesn’t compare to how St. James has grown as a ministerial force in the community.
Currently, St. James provides free English classes to the diverse languages of the church’s neighbors; an after-school program offering free music classes; a SHARE food program; a free community breakfast on the last Saturday of every month; a computer lab; free wireless access for the community internet use; and an open space for youth to play in its gym on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
While these provide a level of access for the community, St. James is working to have a deeper impact with more extensive programs. One that is in progress is a mission house next door to the church that is undergoing renovations, set to be completed by June 1. The home was gifted to Brice when he became the pastor but he chose not to live in it “because he is an unmarried man [and] I decided to stay at my grandmother’s house.” The house has eight bedrooms and will house 32 missionaries or volunteers for one month while they do service work in the neighborhood.
“It’s for missionaries and local youth retreats so they can experience what urban mission is in Philadelphia, like feeding the homeless, visiting nursing homes, visiting local churches that need painting and gardening work,” Brice said.
Answering the need for employment, especially for individuals who were formerly incarcerated, is also in the St. James’ vision. Brice said they have plans to open a trade program that teaches electrical, HVAC and carpentry skills and helps people with securing a job.
“I’m a carpenter. My stepfather and my cousin are master electricians. We have carpenters in the church, painters in the church and they are willing to commit their time. And contractors are committing 10 percent of their jobs ... if [students] are learning through our program,” said Brice. “We don’t want to be the church that [only] prays for God to provide, but also the church that provides jobs for men coming off of State Road. We have to create those opportunities for ourselves.”
Other programs St. James is in the process of developing are a basketball league and a music studio open to community youth.
“[This] is what we are called to do as a church,” said Brice. “Our purpose is to meet the needs of the community and find out what the needs are. We don’t come in to the community telling them what they need. We come from a grass-roots approach saying ‘what is it you need help with? what are you missing? how can we help you?’”
Ceanni, 10, connected with St. James at one of the free meals and she now attends with her grandmother. She knows it as a giving church.
“I would describe this church as helpful to the community because they give us breakfast, food, clothes and fun things to do,” she said. “It helps me understand how God helps the community.”
Steve Schol, 57, grew up in St. James from birth and left in his late teenage years. When he was a youth, St. James was a white church. Now, it’s predominantly Black, with a few Latinx.
Schol rejoined St. James in November, and as a white man, is now a minority in the congregation. He said he doesn’t mind how the church has evolved, but is focused on the impact they are poised to make in Olney.
“I’d like to see the church serve the community as it did when I was young,” he said. “I was one of the people the church served when I was younger. I would come here, play basketball, meet people my age. Now that I’ve come back, I’m trying to help provide that. I saw all the work that needed to be done and I figured I’d help out.” As a carpentry professional, Schol has lent his skills for St. James’ recent physical improvements and oversees the food preparation for the community breakfast.
For Deborah Coleman, a member for six years, St. James’ giving has blessed the members just as much as it has the community.
“It keeps my faith going,” she said. “People may have problems but by helping them, my problems get solved.”
While St. James spends most of its time completing service projects, relatively little time is actually spent at the Sunday service, which is also remarkable for its use of visual effects.
On the Sunday of the Tribune’s visit, St. James completed praise and worship, the sermon, prayer, offering and announcements, all in one hour.
Throughout this time, pastel-hued lights flashed around the sanctuary, replacing the usual fluorescent ceiling lights. During prayer, a haze machine released a vapor or mist that Brice said “gives an early morning prayer atmosphere.”
Brice’s sermons are straight to the point, lasting no longer than 15 to 20 minutes but still informative and impacting. Brice preached on the importance of service during the Tribune’s visit.
“God is looking for people. Is your heart into it? Can you help someone who’s hungry?” he asked. “How can you be loving out there if you not loving in here?”
The style of service, said Brice, is just like every other St. James practice — focused.
“We are intentional and everything we do is strategic and spirit driven,” he said. “Our service is effective as possible.”
Brice’s strategy of being intentional has resulted in several cultural changes at St. James. The Sunday school is no longer active but a youth choir has been added.
And the music, which used to be a capella, now has a contemporary feel and is accompanied by a guitar, trumpet and drums.
“There’s just more energy,” said Kim Mercado, a member for 13 years. “Pastor John made friends with the principal across the street, so people from the school have been coming. “[And] we finally got a band. We did a lot of singing but without the music. The congregation started growing. We used to have no more than 10 people.”
Mercado added that the congregation has become more diverse as more Latinx families from the neighborhood have been coming to services. St. James accommodates those that don’t speak English with Spanish translations of the Scriptures on a TV screen and with the help of Frances Legarreta, St. James’ director of development.
“[Pastor Brice] truly believes that this is his mission from God,” said Raeann Billey, a member for 31 years. “This is just the beginning of many phases. This is a new birth. We’ve birthed a new child. Now, we have to see it grow.”