Amid personal loss, pastor sees his ministry in financial despair

The Rev. Adan Mairena's West Kensington Ministry faces a loss of aid that could spell the end.
The Rev. Adan Mairena's West Kensington Ministry faces a loss of aid that could spell the end. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff)
Posted: March 12, 2013

When you're a pastor who may lose his church, you pray to God and talk to your pit bull.

The Rev. Adan Mairena of the West Kensington Ministry awaits signs of better days from the divine, and spends quality time with Shadow, the 6-year-old dog he saved from the area's rough streets.

Little else offers comfort these days, after a five-year grant from the Presbyterian Church USA ran out Dec. 31, bringing the hulking Norris Square church to the brink of closure.

"Shadow is my salvation," said Mairena, 40, a Honduran-born son of two Presbyterian ministers who left the Main Line comforts of Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church five years ago to preach in what he calls a "third world" post in one of the hungriest, most crime-ridden, most impoverished places in America.

Mairena, who connects with drug addicts and business leaders alike, is praised for creating a haven for teenagers.

"Adan's done an amazing job of developing a family of worship," said congregant Victor Negron, national marketing director for AmeriHealth Mercy, a Medicaid managed-care organization. "The beautiful part is it's mostly young people."

In Spanish and English, Mairena has tried to outtalk, outmaneuver, and outsparkle the neighborhood drug dealers in the eyes of vulnerable adolescents, many of them children of Puerto Rican immigrants.

By building a recording studio; offering open-mike nights; using a video-editing lab to produce a youth talk show for public-access TV; creating a silk-screen T-shirt shop that makes money; and simply taking youths on trips out of the neighborhood, Mairena offers alternatives to the dope slingers' lure.

He knows that drug dealing, when not lethal, inevitably leads to jail and a criminal record that crushes a young person's chance of getting anything but minimum-wage work.

Too often, the dealers and their thick bankrolls win out. Still, Mairena never stops preaching. But his fight may soon be over, unless the church finds the cash to keep operating.

The potential end of his ministry comes at a time when Mairena has suffered deep personal loss.

"I think this ministry has God's blessing," he said. "But anything we want to do is going to involve suffering. Pain provokes purpose."

The universe hasn't skimped on provocation.

Mairena divorced recently, a result of his fight to maintain the ministry. "I put everything else before my marriage," he said. "It cost me."

Also heavy on Mairena's mind is Jon Bey, a charming 18-year-old congregant who helped the elderly.

In a bizarre incident fueled by bad judgment and bravado in June, Bey was video chatting on his laptop while sitting on front steps in Kensington. Beside him sat his close friend Ricky, who had a gun.

The person online decided to test Bey's manhood and dared him to put Ricky's gun to his head. Mistakenly believing the gun was unloaded, Bey did, then pulled the trigger, killing himself.

When he should have been thinking of ways to keep the ministry, Mairena said, he mourned.

On the day of Bey's memorial, 50 people released red balloons into the air. Grabbing a marker, Mairena wrote a private message to the young man on a balloon. He let it go, "and just like that, the balloon, my message, and a piece of me were all gone."

For Bey as well as for the living, Mairena wants to go on. But the church needs $100,000 a year to survive. That includes Mairena's $225 weekly salary, augmented by free rent and utilities.

The Presbyterian plan was for the church to build a congregation and become self-sustaining. But, critics have said, that's a 1940s model totally unrealistic for a 60-member inner-city congregation with a collective unemployment rate of 70 percent. On a good Sunday, the collection plate yields $40 for the day's single service.

"How do we keep the lights on?" asked Andrew McKendrick, Mairena's friend and a financial consultant who helped set up the ministry. "We need more partners."

The cash-strapped Presbytery of Philadelphia gently blames Mairena for not planning ahead to secure funding. "Nothing was really being done about it by the folks shepherding the ministry," said Larry Davis, business manager for the Presbytery, which oversees 132 churches.

Mairena doesn't duck criticism. "I wasn't disciplined enough to plan," he said. "I thought we'd find the money because we're worth it."

Mairena wants to use revenue from the recording studio and T-shirt business to keep the church going. But that's just $20,000 a year, according to Mairena's friend Rich Merriman, chairman and CEO of Pennsylvania Trust in Radnor.

Money has to come from other Presbyterian churches, Merriman said. "Does Jesus really care about whether they need a new organ in Bryn Mawr?" Merriman asked. "Adan cares about the downtrodden. Sometimes other churches forget that."

The Rev. Brent Eelman, pastor of Abington Presbyterian Church, said he understood Mairena's importance.

"Adan's an amazing individual, and a number of congregations are hustling to keep West Kensington alive," said Eelman, whose own church tries to give Mairena $10,000 annually.

"I'm going to challenge my colleagues to do the same. We have a moral obligation to keep a presence down there."

Mairena hopes help arrives soon. "It's fourth down. It's the ninth inning. It's sink or swim," he said.

Not exactly a born fund-raiser, Mairena is laboring now. "This church provides hope," he said. "I have what my friends call a holy impatience. I've got to keep this going."


Contact Alfred Lubrano

at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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