This week, I did a little instructive engagement in Harrisburg alongside one of my heroes: Dr. Larry Anderson the pastor of Great Commission Church in Philly.
Pastor is just one among various other hats that Anderson wears. (I could run those down, too, because he’s effective in helping lots of other pastors, churches, and communities in those roles, but it’s his role at GCC I want to talk about.)
Great Commission Church was a stable, growing church in a comfortable suburb of Philadelphia when Anderson was spurred to do something radical, and radically empathetic.
He prepared his church for a long season for what was on his heart, talking a lot about the return of the Old Testament builder Nehemiah to the ruins of Jerusalem to rebuild when his nation once thrived. He explained to his suburban congregation that God had put it upon his heart to ask the church to move beyond the manicured lawns and across the river into the heart of Philadelphia's derelict, impoverished area.
Many of Anderson’s folks had moved from that part of town, or, you might say, had run from it, as soon as they became financially able to do so.
As you might imagine, not too many were keen on the notion of heading back there.
The problem wasn’t racial. Philly, like Charlotte, Atlanta, Detroit and other cities – and unlike Pittsburgh – has majority black middle and upper-class suburbs. The church was being asked to move into a majority black neighborhood, but one with many disturbing issues.
It’s a testament to Anderson’s leadership that he was able to lead his congregation to purchase property in the city and move the church there.
It’s a larger testament to his leadership that he’s been able to make it work.
The suburban folks loved baby showers in their gated communities, but it was a challenge when an unwed 14-year-old was coming up on her due date. Folks questioned whether it should be celebrated, the baby’s needs met: Was the church condoning the behavior that brought about the baby? If not, how does the church celebrate the baby, serve the mother, and yet not appear to be championing the pre-marital, teenaged sexual activity?
Folks who got excited about the mission opportunities they foresaw in reaching out to folks in need didn’t seem so happy when an aromatic homeless person came in and stood next to them to sing praises on Sunday. Lots of the folks they’ve reached in the years since are referred to as “returning citizens,” a term denoting they’ve been away serving time in the penal system.
It was all a shock to the folks Anderson led out of their comfort zone and into the war zone… but it has worked. Many folks have seen serious transformation and the community has embraced the church.
The church, in time, learned to embrace the community, too.
Serving this week alongside my friend Larry Anderson reminded me that it’s not about him – although he is indeed a hero of mine – and it’s not about me. It’s about the love, mercy and grace of God and the privilege of being called to share it with others.
Rev. James Hogan is a native of Stowe Township and serves as pastor of Faithbridge Community Church in McKees Rocks.