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Mt. Airy: Evolution of a Community Church (Part 2)

August 28, 2020
Mt. Airy Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, PA, 2020. Photo by J. Barr.

Part one of this two-part series focused on the history of the Mt. Airy Presbyterian Church, considering it within the context of the past trends and controversies experienced by congregations across the denomination. This post looks at the church's contemporary life--its current ministry, engagement with the community, and how it is navigating today's realities.

--by Chris Ludd

The Mount Airy Presbyterian Church (hereafter MAPC) is much more than a plot of property with some buildings on it. It is an institution, a community, that is very dear to the people who comprise it. This religious institution has longevity, having existed for over a hundred years. As the surrounding community has evolved across that time, MAPC has evolved with it while striving to also maintain its own identity.

From its origins as a Bible study group to renting space for a child care center and W.I.C. office, MAPC actively positioned itself as both a member and steward of the neighborhood in Northwestern Philadelphia. It now faces new challenges in the form of real estate development as the neighborhood is gentrifying, declining membership as younger generations opt for more secular life, and adaptation to new communications technology to reach a wider audience even before the social distancing measures were put in place to curtail the spread of COVID-19. 

Left: Mt. Airy Presbyterian Church sign advertising YouTube service due to COVID-19 pandemic. Right: Developer advertising the condominiums that will share a property with MAPC. Photos by J. Barr.

Years before the pandemic’s outbreak, the building and the congregation it houses found themselves in a relatively new position, having gone from rentees to renters. In 2014 the church sold its property to Philly Office Retail in collaboration with Bancroft Green. The company planned to convert the property into a sustainable co-living facility with nineteen units while the congregation would continue to rent the remaining sanctuary to hold services. This is not a unique position for a church like MAPC to be in. More and more congregations are entering into partnerships with private developers where some or all of the church’s property is sold off in order to raise funds to sustain the congregation. 

Aging buildings are expensive to maintain. MAPC’s present sanctuary was completed in 1902 and has been in continuous use since. The mounting cost of maintaining an over hundred-year-old building in recent years proved too much to bear. “MAPC has evolved in the sense that it has shed the burden of maintaining its building and in selling it to a developer has facilitated the growth of new housing. Both MAPC and Mt. Airy have made an attempt to revamp themselves,” says Rebecca Healey, MAPC’s Clerk of Session.

Declining membership is a growing challenge that exacerbates issues like funding for building upkeep as well as leadership capacity for the development of community-engaged programming. Mainline Protestant denominations have been facing more and more rapid dwindling of membership in the 21st century. Many congregations are made up of older people who grew up in the faith. Attracting new and younger members is particularly a struggle, and MAPC is no exception. Its congregation skews older and, according to Reverend Anna Grant-Borden, MAPC’s pastor, currently stands at a total of thirty-five, way down from the height of membership in 1947 when the church was home to 1,134 of the faithful.

Rev. Anna Grant-Borden, pastor at Mt. Airy Presbyterian Church. Watch Rev. Grant-Borden's "Hump Day" prayer from June 3, 2020

Gentrification, the process by which a socio-economically depressed area of a city sees an influx of investment aimed at improving its infrastructure in order to attract new and more affluent residents, is key to understanding the necessity of the sale by MAPC. As neighborhoods gentrify, churches find themselves in dire straits as their buildings age and their congregations shrink. Keeping up with a transforming neighborhood means that they are under increasing pressure to sell off some or all of their real estate holdings as property values increase. While Mount Airy is not a depressed area, it is experiencing a boom in investment, for both commercial and residential purposes. As Rebecca Healy observes, “Mt. Airy has evolved. It’s developed a vibrant merchant corridor on Germantown Avenue. Property values have increased, new housing has been built and on-street parking is at a premium.” While this is the first foray into residential development by Philly Office Retail the company does specialize in working with historic buildings such as MAPC.

With the church’s small congregation, it is as Rebecca Healey describes, “all hands on deck. If you have a skill or a talent you need to bring it.” One promising development has been MAPC’s recent embrace of technology in its ministry. The church has followed the example of many congregations and begun to record and stream services. This has met with moderate success as the membership is thirty-five but the streams are consistently getting fifty to one-hundred views. While MAPC does not have an active website, it does have a Facebook page that appears to be gaining followers. Once construction is complete and people take up residence in the condominiums the opportunity for direct interaction with the residential community exists and with that the chance to invite them to take up residence in the congregation with which they share land.  

The hybrid use of the land as private residences and a site of public worship offers new opportunities to form a new community within an already established one. This community could further extend the virtues of tolerance and affirmation that Mount Airy and its PC(USA) denomination are known for. Throughout their history Mount Airy and MAPC have welcomed people from all races, genders, orientations, and experiences. They continue to open themselves to people from all walks of life.

Left: Rebecca Healey, Clerk of Session at MAPC. Right: MAPC members during their annual Christmas caroling on Germantown Avenue. 

For Rebecca Healey, MAPC very quickly went from a place to reluctantly attend Sunday school to a safe space where a child found a loving, affirming group of people united in faith and committed to taking that love out into the world. To quote her own words, “It’s home, it’s where I struggle, it’s where I grow, it’s where I serve, where I fail, where I succeed…it’s where I belong. For me, the Presbyterian Church is something that I was born into, it's family tradition, part of my identity. MAPC is like home and the Presbyterian Church in general is the community my home is in.” One specific memory that she shared was the Christmas Eve tradition of caroling on Germantown Ave. Stopping at what was then called the Lutheran Home, now the Germantown Home, carolers go through the building with the still-lighted candles from that evening’s service to spread seasonal joy to the residents. This act can be taken as a physical demonstration of the church’s identity as a community committed to embodying the Christian virtues of grace and spreading love in the world.

As the church stands astride the commercial and religious worlds, its congregation traverses both. Many challenges and changes await MAPC, but this is a congregation whose faith has led them through times of difficulty and joy.
As religions and neighborhoods evolve communities bond together, nurturing resilient love and imaginative ideas. Given the current crises, the future of everything is a bit unknown. But we do know that places and institutions that provide a sense of belonging will be vital to creating a sense of home outside of the house. The church is a home for the people who attend it and a sanctuary for new members who want to join. There are members that have spent most or all of their lives at MAPC. As seen in the hard work of the congregation, its pastor and Clerk of Session, the church is a shrine of cherished memories. 

--Chris Ludd is a Liberal Arts major at the Community College of Philadelphia and Building Knowledge & Breaking Barriers Intern for Spring-Summer 2020.

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