“Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (Isa. 58:12).
In 2011 Pastor Tara VinCross led her congregation at the Chestnut Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church to plant a ministry and grow a church in the West Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia. The church named the new ministry plant REACH Philadelphia. REACH is an acrostic that stands for five core values that drive the ministry: restoration, empowerment, action, community, and hope. The missionary effort attracted young workers whose lives have been dramatically changed.
In 2011 Angel Smith moved from her home in Houston, Texas, to Drexel University in Philadelphia to study interdisciplinary health and prepare for a possible medical career. Her interest in spiritual things drew her to the Chestnut Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church, where she met VinCross and Rukiya Wideman, a young adult at the church who offered to study the Bible with her in her home.
These one-on-one Bible studies, fellowship with other young adults in the church through Friday night Bible studies, and game nights led Smith to desire baptism. Encouraged by her church, Smith soon joined the Pennsylvania Youth Challenge (PYC), a summer literature evangelism ministry. PYC helped Smith earn tuition and scholarship money for school by sharing Christian books called magabooks door to door. After four years of participating in the PYC ministry, Smith now serves as assistant director of the program and is involved in sharing the Bible with individuals who are touched by the ministry of REACH Philadelphia.
Having earned a master’s degree in interdisciplinary health, Smith leads out in community fitness programs and encourages young people to become true disciples of Jesus on the streets of her neighborhood.
Tiffany Brown graduated from Andrews University with a B.A. in English. Her goal was to serve God as a missionary in English language schools overseas. Her goal was realized when she served for 14 months in an Adventist English language school in South Korea. Upon returning to the United States in 2011, Brown felt called to expand her skills by enrolling in Eastern University’s Master of Arts in International Development program. As a member of the Chestnut Hill Adventist Church, she was encouraged to join PYC and become involved in REACH Philadelphia.
After graduating with her master’s degree from Eastern University, Brown accepted a call to serve as associate pastor of REACH Philadelphia. She used her newly learned skills in international development to lead in surveying the immediate community and discovering its needs. Information from the survey has led to the development of reading and math tutoring programs for children in grades K to 8.
During summer months Brown serves as director of PYC. Several participants in the program have chosen to be baptized and become disciples, following up Bible-study leads and bringing others to Christ. Brown bubbles over with excitement as she shares her enthusiasm for ministry that exemplifies the “kingdom of grace” in her community.
Jane Takahashi joined REACH Philadelphia as an intern in March 2013. While assessing the community, she discovered an interest in community gardens. After networking with members of the community—the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation (OARC) and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society—the REACH Philadelphia neighborhood gardens began. The program brought people in the neighborhood together and, over the course of time, has drawn several individuals into fellowship with the church who might otherwise have never shown an interest.
The ministry of REACH Philadelphia to the community, and the transformational impact it is having in the lives of the interns who have been trained in service for Christ, have captured the attention of leaders in the Columbia Union Conference. In an effort to establish a legacy of ministry that is incarnational and transformational in the urban community, the Columbia Union has expanded the ministry of REACH Philadelphia through the establishment of the REACH Columbia Union Urban Evangelism School.
This school of evangelism offers immersive training in urban ministry in direct cooperation with REACH Philadelphia. VinCross, director and lead pastor of REACH, organizes diverse, hands-on experiences in areas of discipleship, the message and mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, servant leadership, community development, urban agriculture, health evangelism, cycles of transformational evangelism (including participation in public service), literature evangelism, and studies in Daniel and Revelation.
Students learn valuable leadership and life skills as they connect with their neighbors to bring about lasting change. Through small cohort instruction, mentoring relationships, and practical ministry in a real context, the lives of students are transformed as the Holy Spirit works in and through them.
Both the ministry center and student housing are located in the community they are seeking to reach. Students receive an immersive year unlike any they have ever experienced. In addition to the mission year experience, eligible students receive college credits for specific core religion courses through Washington Adventist University.
REACH Columbia Union Urban Evangelism School has an enrollment of 13 students from various parts of the United States. They are enthusiastically involved in a combined program of classwork and fieldwork. These young lives are being transformed as they seek to transform the community in which they work and draw its citizens to Christ. Community leaders have expressed appreciation for this work of bringing positive change to this urban community.
Writing from Australia in 1898, Ellen White envisioned schools of evangelism that would prepare students to develop a missionary spirit in their daily lives. She wrote: “Students should begin to work in missionary lines, they should learn to take hold of Christ, while connected with persons of broad experience, with whom they may counsel and advise. As they do this, they will not only advance in knowledge and intellectual power, but will learn how to work, so that when the school term is ended, and they are separated from teachers and experienced advisers, they will be prepared to engage in earnest missionary labor, working under the direction of the greatest Teacher the world has ever known. It is as essential that they should know how to communicate, as that they should receive, a knowledge of the truth. The practice of telling others about Christ, of reading and explaining His Word, will stamp that Word on the mind, and make the truth their own.”*
This model is being lived out in the REACH community. Great things are happening in this part of Philadelphia. Yet the real payoff comes when these students finish this course of study and take an active role in sharing Christ and seeking to transform other communities.
*In The Christian Educator, Oct. 1, 1898.
Gaspar F. Colón is mission integration coordinator for Adventist Review.