A home for Greater St. Matthew

Posted: June 02, 2014

THE REV. STEVEN Avinger strode into his new church in Nicetown recently with a smile as bright as his orange bow tie.

The clatter of construction emanated throughout as he climbed the steps to the church balcony. Strewn about the unfinished room below were planks of wood and various tools overcast in a soft blue light from the stained glass windows. Avinger sighed with content.

"The classrooms, the day-care space - already zoned, the administrative wing that gives plenty of room for our operations, and the sanctuary that fulfills our need in both seating and design," he said. "The entire plant is conducive to our approach for ministry."

And the church has a private parking lot, he added.

In September, Avinger's congregation, Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church of South Philadelphia, will move to its new home in the former Triumph Baptist Church, on Wingohocking Street near 16th in Nicetown.

Avinger sold the old church, on Fitzwater Street near 23rd, in 2011, citing parking and other complaints from neighbors. The following year he purchased Triumph. But the sale was delayed after Triumph encountered difficulty refinancing its new location, Avinger said. In the meantime, Greater St. Matthew held services at Consolation Baptist, at 25th and Wharton streets in South Philadelphia.

Earlier this month, Triumph resolved its problems, paving the way for Greater St. Matthew to finalize the church purchase on May 9 - almost three years after the process began.

"We're very excited," said Deacon Kahiem Burton, 30. "This is years in the making."

Alvina Brown, a local committeewoman and block captain for the 4500 block of 16th Street, was thrilled with the news.

"I'm really looking forward to [the church opening]," she said.

Gilbert McNeil, 41, of Church Lane near 16th Street, agreed.

"It will be really good to see something good happen [in the neighborhood]," he said.

Standing on the steps outside the church last week, Avinger said it would be a haven for community outreach.

"We are looking to do something to not only develop but to maintain the name of Nicetown," he said.

Avinger said plans are in the works to develop programs for youth and young black males, demographics that he said are in strong need of ministry. He also said he wants to beef up his ministry's soup kitchen program.

To gauge community concerns, Avinger sent assistant pastor Joseph Barnes and a team of church workers to the neighborhood to talk with residents.

"Ultimately, the church is here to help the people," said Burton, one of the Greater St. Matthew ambassadors, "so without the people the church is no good."

Brown agreed, saying, "I pray that the church comes with open doors but the people have to participate - it's not one sided."

She added that she hopes the church will be open to community use, noting that the community needs a meeting place, a void Greater St. Matthew plans to fill.

The move "is a good thing for both of us," Burton said, referring to the church and its former neighbors. "They get new homes for people to live in and we get to go to a new building and finish our ministry and get some new ground and start up fresh - new challenges, new adversities, new triumphs."

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