Youth volunteers transform North Philly drug house into a church

Pastor Juan Marrero (center, front) surveys the new walls at Christ-Centered Church installed by Covenant Community Fellowship volunteers.
Pastor Juan Marrero (center, front) surveys the new walls at Christ-Centered Church installed by Covenant Community Fellowship volunteers. (C.F. SANCHEZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 29, 2014

Before the drug trade moved in, the abandoned building at Sheridan and Clearfield Streets in the heart of a troubled North Philadelphia neighborhood housed a grocery store and apartments.

Juan Marrero and Ron Muse watched its evolution as they experienced their own: from little boys, to teens involved with drugs, to pastors.

In a move to reclaim the building, Marrero and Muse have teamed up to open a church, and have called on an aptly named volunteer group to help.

Kingdom Builders Construction, a program of the Mennonite Central Committee - one of the denomination's mission divisions - has enlisted a corps of volunteer youth to help transform what was once a drug house into a sanctuary.

Based in Philadelphia, Kingdom Builders Construction is a business with a charitable calling that offers free work for churches and low-income residents who cannot afford renovations and repair.

The entity shares its name with a similar group affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA in Valley Forge. That Kingdom Builders is a program of the American Baptist Men of Pennsylvania and Delaware that focuses on disaster relief and free repairs to churches in need.

Both groups believe they are fulfilling a mission.

"Churches get the runaround or get screwed over by contractors, or they can't afford the work," said Daniel Umstead, 28, the Philadelphia group's director. "We are able to utilize the Mennonite community to do it."

The volunteer labor often is helping older congregations with dwindling memberships and aging buildings that are a burden to keep up, said Robert Swan Sr. of the Baptist group.

His organization has assisted with renovations at churches in Ridley Township, Conshohocken, and Lancaster.

"Biblically, we are told to serve," Swan said.

The 900-member American Baptist men started their Kingdom Builders division in 1995 after a group of volunteers climbed into a trailer and traveled to Florida to help out in hurricane-relief efforts.

So far, the group has volunteered at sites including the World Trade Center and the Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy. The number working on each effort varies because the group mobilizes volunteers throughout an area to help out.

Members are scheduled to help with a Habitat for Humanity home repair project early next month in Delaware.

For over two years, the Baptist group helped renovate First Baptist Church in Conshohocken so that the congregation could return to its building after damage from a fire kept members out of the church for eight years.

Bradley Lacey, pastor of the Conshohocken church, described the group's effort as one led by men and women - some in their 80s - who worked "with skill, expertise and love."

Since its inception five years ago, the Mennonite group has completed about 50 projects - most during the summer - relying on labor from youth groups who spend the summer doing mission trips.

The group, which does volunteer work for churches of all denominations, helped transform a former medical facility into a new building for Oxford Circle Mennonite Church, and has assisted with renovations at churches in South Philadelphia and South Jersey.

Last week, youth from Covenant Community Fellowship in Lansdale helped the Mennonite Kingdom Builders Construction hang drywall and spackle at the new location for Marrero and Muse's Christ-Centered Church.

The 75-member congregation, which currently worships at Teen Haven youth ministry on Broad Street, is mostly made up of ex-offenders and their families. Muse and Marrero met many of them in their work as prison chaplains.

Marrero calls the transformation of the building, which was purchased with funds donated by a nearby church and community members, a partnership and not a case of the privileged helping the downtrodden.

Youth pastor Scott Franciscus says the volunteer effort's goal is about more than helping out.

"It's not that we're coming here to rescue," Franciscus said, "but what can we learn from this community."

Logan Hunsberger, 18, of Telford, who has volunteered on mission trips in Louisiana and West Virginia, was one of eight youths to travel an hour from their North Penn neighborhood to hang drywall at Christ-Centered Church.

"You always get so comfortable where you are," Hunsberger said about his hometown. "It's good to see a different community, and a different world, and just reach out."


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