When your cabbie, his dispatcher and his map haven't heard of the street you're heading to, it's time to get nervous.
But judging by the enormous "Jesus Saves" sign, this is the right neighborhood -- the right neighborhood when you're looking for Brother Stephen.
On the second floor of the garage located at 2120 North Van Pelt Street that Rev. Stephen White is reconditioning to use as the Philadelphia Gospel Outreach, or "GO," Center, White points to a bricked-up window.
"You'll be able to see all the way to Center City from here," he says, breath misting in the late-autumn cold. Though renovations have already seen the stairs and most of the interior walls removed, windows and heat are still in the planning stages. The only access to the second floor is an unanchored 14-foot set of scaffolding.
As White walks the floor, describing his plans for three bedrooms, a library and a den/office/command center to someday occupy the empty, silent space, one can't help but wonder at the idea of this controversial, fiery open-air preacher putting out roots, and, sweater, khakis and all, trying his hand at interior decoration.
Indeed, known primarily for his campus evangelism, "Brother Stephen's" harsh, uncompromising message draws crowds, jeers, reporters and police.
His soundbytes become popular legend: indeed, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette dubbed him and his performance at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia "possibly the most significant news to emanate from [the RNC's] political undertakings." Loud and proud, White seems to thrive on the attention.
There is, however, another side to the "Penn Preacher."
Since moving to the Philadelphia area in 1991, White has pursued a range of faith-based community service initiatives which, while not as dramatic as his attempts to save the souls of wayward Penn students and their counterparts at hundreds of campuses nationwide, have arguably been more successful.
White's new Web site, Penn-Preacher.org, chronicles his work, particularly on and around Temple University's campus. Hosted by CrossSpot.com, a service that offers free domain names to Christian ministries, White also offers free E-'zines, articles, RealPlayer clips of his colleagues in action and news and information about his activities. For those Websurfers looking to e-shop, White offers videos, pamphlets and, of course, copies of the King James Bible for purchase.
As one might expect, the site's discussion sections are well-used. Archived discussions fall into two categories: Catholicism and Hell. The latter category includes the infamous "Hell List" of celebrities and their crimes, citing Jimi Hendrix for "voodoo" and "I Love Lucy's" Lucille Ball, who made "thousands laugh, but did not know God!"
Cyberspace aside, White's work is not at all limited to rhetoric. White founded Soldiers for Christ at Temple in 1993, a Christian student fellowship whose philosophy and membership reflects his assertion that "Campus Crusade for Christ is too lukewarm for me and for Jesus."
Though they do their share of preaching, SFC members also operate off-campus outreach programs, delivering Christmas presents to and hosting retreats and day trips for underprivileged children.
White also held a range of programs for local youth independent of SFC in the Martin Luther King Community Center in North Philadelphia. Pictures of the reverend dressed as "Caleb the Clown" are featured prominently on White's site, as are shots of hot-dog eating contests, reading programs and sing-a-longs.
The reverend also started Kingz Kidz Bible Club in 1995 "as a vehicle to play games with the children and teach them the truths of the Word of God."
Recognizing that he needed his own space, White incorporated his college and local ministries into the "Victory Outreach Center of Philadelphia" in 1997. The ministry rented and refurbished an old bar only to have the facility destroyed by fire weeks after its completion.
Bought out by a fried chicken restaurant willing to offer the property owner more than White's ministry could pay, it would be a year and a half before the GO Center's current home would be found and purchased.
Though far from complete, the Center is already attracting local children.
"We had an elimination basketball tournament in here," White says, nodding toward a portable backboard set up in a corner of the garage's main level. "The prize was a two-liter bottle of soda... but the kids didn't care. They just wanted to play."
His long experience with children in the neighborhood has left White committed and optimistic about his Center's potential and the positive impact he believes his outreach programs have already had.
"The kids are so great... I've seen kids shouting Bible verses out loud in front of drug dealers," White recounts.
With Burlington, New Jersey's Fountain of Life Center's recent donation of a school bus, White plans to acquire a chauffeur's license and to pick children up directly from school. Furthermore, "there are two or three elementary schools within walking distance," offering hundreds of potential program participants.
Still, despite the donations from churches and "Christian friends," and the community support enthusiastically cited by White, financial constraints and, more challenging, interministry rivalry present formidable challenges.
"It all boils down to jealousy," White explains. Since "everybody's broke," competition for parishioners and their donations can be fierce. "These are our people, they say," White recounts, remembering an attempt to convince some local Christians to join him for Sunday services.
Though institutional infighting looms in the Center's future, other local preachers, it seems, can agree that the after-school programs and charity school White intends to offer through it are necessary.
Still, undaunted, White settles into a chair in front of a small space-heater and warms his hands. Outlining his plans for training associate evangelists, as well as classes to teach employable skills, mentoring and tutoring programs, White pauses. "Wouldn't it be great to have as many Bible pushers as drug pushers on every corner?" he asks.
Stepping back out onto the darkening north Philly streets, it's possible to see his point.Comments powered by Disqus
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.