Along Kensington Avenue in Philadelphia, it’s typical to see people slumped over, arms dangling and knuckles grazing the concrete. You need to watch your step, and might have to push a hypodermic needle to the side with your shoe. It’s common to smell the tinge of urine mixed with body odor. And it’s nearly impossible to walk the streets without witnessing someone yielding to another hit, another dose or another needle in the arm.
Dubbed by some as “the worst neighborhood in America,” Kensington is home to one of the largest open-air drug markets in the U.S. Within a 2.5-square-mile radius of the neighborhood, there are 200 drug corners and an annual drug trade of $1 billion.
“If you’ve never seen it, I can’t describe it,” said Craig Cerrito, assistant pastor of The Rock Ministries, located along Kensington Avenue. “I wish there was a better way — but the way to visualize it is if you’ve ever seen a zombie movie. The nature of the drugs that are being sold on the streets now eat people alive.”
Over the course of the two-day Serve Tour Philadelphia (Sept. 15–16) — sponsored by North American Mission Board and International Mission Board’s compassion ministry Send Relief and the Baptist Resource Network of Pennsylvania/South Jersey — volunteers from area churches partnered with The Rock to provide showers, personal hygiene care, food, detox resources, wound care and prayer for the community of Kensington. Volunteers cleaned shower units, washed feet and fitted them with new shoes, washed hair and spent hours sharing the gospel.
4,489 people served
During Serve Tour Philadelphia, more than 450 volunteers from 46 churches and 10 different states served 4,489 people. Through these efforts, 696 gospel conversations occurred, and 74 salvations were reported.
Primarily set in the South Philly region, BRN churches Ezekiel Baptist, Redemption City Church and Bedrock Church Fishtown operated as hubs for volunteers and project sites. Project sites ranged from beautification/landscaping efforts and block parties to food distributions and washing the feet of the homeless. Locations extended from the riverfronts of Camden, New Jersey, to the drug-stricken streets of Kensington, Philadelphia.
Crisis in Kensington
The drug crisis in Kensington has reached epidemic proportions. So much so that reversing drug overdoses has become a constant part of The Rock’s service to the community.
The Rock started as a small boxing program for at-risk boys in the inner city. It began in an abandoned building with a Bible and five young men, and has grown to a full-service, inner city community ministry and — as of 10 years ago — a launching pad for Calvary Chapel Kensington.
“God grew it beyond anything anyone intended it to be,” noted Cerrito from The Rock’s social services drop-in center. Here, anyone with a need can stop by and receive immediate help from one of the staff.
“Our chaplains will triage you and get you the appropriate resource,” Cerrito said. “Because of our neighborhood, 99% of it is drug- and alcohol-related, so we have a system where we take down all the barriers for treatment.”
The individual is given clearance from medical, insurance or licensing obstacles, even outstanding warrants, and goes straight into a detox program.
“We get hundreds and hundreds of people into treatment,” Cerrito said. “And then we get to give them the gospel along the way.”
The Rock also has street teams that serve those who are addicted or homeless, along with a food pantry.
Sticking to its roots
While meeting social needs, The Rock has stuck to its roots of pouring into the next generation.
“We maintain a very large youth sports program,” Cerrito noted. “We’ve seen many, many, many thousands of kids through our sports program. We’ve added an after-school program for young kids, and everyone obviously gets an age-appropriate Bible study.”
The Rock plans to add a 7,500-square-foot youth center to its ministry as well as a pregnancy center.
“We’re gonna outfit it (the youth center) with a rock wall and a half-court basketball, and every single thing that we’re not offering now for kids,” said Cerrito, pausing as tears welled up. “We truly believe we can reach the rest of Kensington’s kids …. God has been unbelievably, sort of ridiculously, faithful.”
Connecting on a different level
Meanwhile Lori Zeppuhar, Serve Tour volunteer and BRN team member, noted that during the tour “being able to have [people in need] sit forward in a chair, and you serving them in that moment, allowed you to connect on a different level,” said
Throughout the day she helped wash hair and pray with community members.
“It didn’t matter skin, race, where you were, what you were doing, the lifestyle you led — all that mattered was the person in front of you,” Zeppuhar said.
Another Serve Tour volunteer, Erik Issel from Watershed Church, stood on the street and offered free showers.
“This is a broken area; this is a broken city,” Issel lamented. “The people here need hope. They need to know that they’re loved. They need to know that God made them, and that God loves them and that God wants to heal them.”
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EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was written by and originally published by Macala Mays and Shannon Baker and originally published by the Baptist Resource Network of Pennsylvania/South Jersey.