Serving God, fighting for justice

Posted: May 12, 2014

THE REV. Larry G. Patrick II of Redeem Baptist Church in Strawberry Mansion is equally at home at Wednesday night Bible class and at a protest by Philadelphia fast-food workers demanding a $15-an-hour livable wage.

Indeed, Patrick feels his calling as a minister also compels him to fight poverty and gun violence in one of the city's roughest neighborhoods.

"There's no way, as a minister, that I cannot stand up and say anything about that," said Patrick, referring to low-wage workers who need food stamps just to put food on their own table.

Patrick was carrying on the long history of Philadelphia ministers fighting for social justice when he marched last month in North Philadelphia with McDonald's workers accusing the fast-food giant of wage theft by not paying for overtime.

But the 50-year-old Patrick, minister at Redeem Baptist for nearly nine years, is also continuing the traditions of a congregation that - while rooted in the fervor of an epic 1940 outdoor tent revival - has always put fighting for the needs of its community in the here-and-now at the forefront of its mission.

"Our goal is to transform the community," said Patrick, sitting on the church's front stoop and gazing out at the scattered, faded rowhomes and weed-covered abandoned lots around 31st Street and Arizona, a stone's throw from Strawberry Mansion High School. "This is the worst that it gets in Philadelphia, so all of our work is around those issues."

Who we are: Redeem Baptist Church grew out of the rich African-American Baptist tradition in North Philadelphia in the early 20th Century, tracing its beginning to services in a deacon's home in 1928.

Eventually, the congregation found a home in a storefront at 11th and Norris Streets, one of several locations for a church that had something of a nomadic existence until landing at 31st and Arizona in the 1970s.

Today, roughly 70 to 80 people come every Sunday for the weekly service at Redeem Baptist, which bills itself as "a Christ-centered ministry." The vast majority come from the nearby blocks of Strawberry Mansion. "There is at least half of our congregation that walks to church," Patrick said, "and that means the world to me."

Where we worship: The current church at 2339 N. 31st Street is a living testament to the rich religious tapestry of Philadelphia. From the 1920s until the late 1950s, the building was a synagogue known as the White Shul, for the Bnai Menasha congregation.

As Jews moved from neighborhoods such as Strawberry Mansion to the suburbs, the house of worship, with balconies ensconced in ornate white pressed tin, was a desirable new home for Redeem Baptist. Traces of the former Jewish temple, including a stained-glass Star of David over the front exit, are still to be found.

What we believe: Said Patrick: "Our goal here is to be a safe place to worship for anybody. We are an open congregation.

"We don't have time to debate people - everybody's entitled to come. Our church motto is "serving God by his word, living God through his works," and that means loving God, and to try to do things that we believe in as a Christian."

He said the church is "loose and emotional" - punctuated by the beat of the drums that sit near the altar.

What we're known for: Community service, perhaps best symbolized by the "senior boxes" - necessary commodities for senior citizens that church members distribute to elderly residents of Strawberry Mansion once a month.

"The church is a place of comfort - especially in our culture, the African-American culture," Patrick explained. "The church is a place of souls. That's why the social justice ministry is so important."

Good works: The list is long, and it includes not just the Fight for Fifteen minimum-wage movement but also PhillyRising, a collaborative effort with city agencies to fight neighborhood poverty and crime, Saturday Community Clean-ups slated to begin this summer and participation in the Walk Against Hunger and regular Stop the Violence marches.

Patrick is particularly proud of Redeem Baptist's association with the Philadelphia chapter of Ceasefire, a violence-interruption group that launched its local chapter from the pews of the Strawberry Mansion chapel.

He said the Friday night anti-violence marches - which target recent crime scenes - haven't snaked by his church as much in recent weeks.

God in the neighborhood: "God is not OK with oppression, and since God is not OK with oppression then I'm not OK with oppression," said Patrick, who added: "You have a choice - to feel broken and dejected, or to know that you have something behind yourself, to know that there's a God who loves you and takes care of you."


On Twitter: @Will_Bunch

Blog: ph.ly/Attytood.com

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