Small storefront churches bring hope to where it's needed most .
"Thirty years, off and on," he says. "Hit houses, crack dens, wife abuse, child neglect--all those things brought me to this point. I'm the sum total of all that. All that was necessary in order for me to have compassion for the mistakes of others. I'm not easily turned off. No matter how bad you're cutting up, I'm still going to believe what God can do in your life.
"If God can do it for me, he can do it for you."
A block away on Ogden Street, where addicts gather in their never-ending quest for the next high, a church whose sanctuary is smaller than Bunton's storefront clings to the corner, silently defying the chaos taking shape around it.
True Gospel Baptist Church is not a storefront, but the building is the size of a single home, and though the listed membership is 39, attendance is far less than that. Still, Rev. John Styles, who came to the long-shuttered church with his wife in 1998, believes the congregation will eventually grow.
"When we came down to this church, it was merely a shell," says Styles, a former deacon and minister at Shalom Baptist Church in the city's Logan section. "We had to do so many renovations. We had no federal funds or anything of that nature. We just took the funds out of our pockets. We still have work to do. I mean, God's work is never done, but we have made it feasible and comfortable for our parishioners here ...
"We really have a lot of work to do. And with the Lord's guidance, we will have no problems in fulfilling what he has sent us down here to do."
During the worship service, the work they do is painfully evident outside the church.
A prostitute leans against the side of the church as an elderly parishioner struggles to open the tightly shut front door. Vacant lots and buildings occupy most of the nearby streets. A sign on the front of the church instructs people to keep off the steps.
Styles, who says he's heard from neighbors that there's a new drug house nearby, is undaunted. He grew up in the community, and his mother, who is a member of his church, still lives on Ogden Street.
"I was born and raised three doors down from here, at 1529 Ogden St.," he says. "I just pray that those who knew me in times past who know that I am a minister and a pastor now will come out and see what the Lord has done in my life."
He says he was once a "bar hopper" who was more concerned with partying than anything else. Now he's concerned about the community around him and the deterioration that has made it into a virtual war zone.
Asked what the church can do, in a practical sense, to address the addiction, homelessness and prostitution that afflict the community, Styles says the church must preach the gospel.
"Our work is still cut out for us," he says, "because our vision is to bring all the lost souls to the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, one soul at a time. And our mission is to teach to preach, to tell all people of the gospel of the good news of Jesus. So we have merely scratched the surface, thus far."
Bunton, who still has aspirations to do more than run a storefront church, believes she has only scratched the surface as well. She's interested in acquiring the property next to the building she owns at 1729 Huntingdon so she can use the properties as a community center.
"The only thing I want is for somebody to help me to get that property so I can do what I need to do before I leave outta here," she says. "I don't know how much time I've got left. I want that property. I want to extend 1729. I want that part to be for community services.
"I don't want to make myself sick. I'm just trying so hard. I need that house. I need to talk to somebody who knows what to do. I need it, son. I need it. Time is running out on me."
But time, for the storefront churches of Philadelphia, stretches out like the shouts of the parishioners who dance in the aisles. There will always be a place for them, wherever there is need for hope.
"Many of the mega-churches started as storefronts," says the Black Clergy's Rev. Shine. "That's the unknown. That's the mystery of God: why some churches grow to significant numbers and others remain smaller, as a storefront church. I do not lessen their importance in terms of preaching the gospel. [Storefront churches] have an important part in God's kingdom." *
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