Two elementary school–aged children strolled home from school one sun–splashed spring day when they got the scare of their lives. They saw a passenger in a moving car point a handgun out a window. Such sights seem so common in troubled North Philadelphia.
Lieutenant Chris Brown, pastor of a nearby Salvation Army church known as the Philadelphia Temple, soon got a call from the children’s frantic grandmother. She begged him to get the kids into the church’s after–school Learning Zone program, one of the few places in the neighborhood believed to be a safe haven.
Lieutenant Tara Brown, Chris’s wife and partner in ministry says of the handgun incident, “Of course, the children were terrified. We were like, ‘This is not OK.’ They’re in elementary school.”
Philadelphia is known as the “City of Brotherly Love,” but in recent years the homicide rate for certain neighborhoods tells a different story. Midway through 2022, gun violence and murders continued to plague those areas after a record 559 homicides in 2021—the most since 1960.
“The amount of gun violence is ridiculous,” Chris said, noting that four or five people have been murdered on a corner near his church. “A lot of the shooters are younger people, so my goal would be to get to them before the streets get them. A lot of these guys don’t have any family and they don’t have any friends and they get into gangs. They really have no alternatives. The kids literally have nothing to do. We see the effects of that.”
The Salvation Army got those frightened elementary school children into the Learning Zone and is partnering with other community groups to reopen a long-shuttered community center. Doing so could make a huge difference. Before becoming Salvation Army officers, the Browns helped open a community center in Canton, Ohio.
“We are just trying to provide a place that has open doors and a safe, fun environment for the kids,” Tara says. “That way the kids can come and build skills and interact with one another while the parents can be at work and not worry if their kids make it home OK. The parents will have a place where they know their kids are being loved and taken care of and fed.”
With a poverty rate of almost 25 percent in 2019, Philadelphia is the “poorest big city in America,” Chris said. While recreation centers have historically been an integral part of the city’s culture, Brown was told by community leaders upon arriving in Philadelphia last year, that 90 percent of the centers have closed in recent years. Gangs, drugs, and violence fill the vacuum.
“A lot of the kids we see, their brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and cousins—have been killed,” Chris said. “They really don’t have a lot of family or friends left. You also see a lot of people moving away from Philadelphia because it’s so violent.”
Gentrification is another issue in this multi–cultural area, where rich and poor live side–by–side. Brown said low–income housing is being pushed out so developers can build something else, such as high–priced luxury apartments. The Divine Lorraine Hotel next to the church is one example. The hotel once housed homeless and poor people but is now high–end housing for the rich.
Meanwhile, a nearby low–income area is teeming with children who live in danger.
Stephanie Evans, the director of the church’s after-school Learning Zone program, said the area is still recovering from COVID–19. Mental health issues are also rampant. The rising cost of food, gas, utilities, and rent have exacerbated an already difficult situation.
“Young men are frustrated and don’t have enough money to care for their families,” Evans said. They’re angry. They feel like the world is against them.”
In March, The Salvation Army participated in “Unity in the Community,” an event sponsored by the local Black Male Community Council. The Philadelphia Temple hosted some of the festivities, which included music, African dance and drums, and breakout sessions on conflict resolution, community activism, and violence reduction.
The Black Male Community Council has discussed bringing music, mentorship, martial arts, and other programming to a new community center.
“We’re trying to see which programs are best suited for our community and our kids and what they would be interested in doing,” Tara said.
Philadelphia Sheriff Rochelle Bilal attended “Unity in the Community” and offered to send some of her deputies to The Salvation Army after-school program. The class would teach police academy basics to students in grades 9–12 and they would go straight into law enforcement after graduation without attending college.
“Our hope is we can partner with The Salvation Army and create an initiative to help with a lot of the violence going on in the city,” said Deputy Sheriff Jihad Ahmed, who was one of six officers attending the event.
Ahmed said he would like to see more cooperation between the community and law enforcement.
With the need so urgent, the Browns hope to reopen the community center “as soon as possible,” probably sometime this year.
“There are some things that we’re kind of doing already,” Brown said. “I’ve been doing open gyms myself once or twice a week when I can. I can’t be there all day and I can’t be there every day.”
Brown said The Salvation Army has applied for grants and hopes to hear something soon. He would like the community center to look something like the one he helped open in Canton.
“If we’re able to get this grant, we’ll be able to hire some staff and then we can open it,” Brown said. “I would like to see a full community center. I want it to be open every evening and have something going on. I want the kids to have something to do. Even if they’re just coming to play board games. They’re safe for an hour. They’re off the streets.”
Right now, the church’s Learning Zone enrolls 32 students who come daily after school and stay until 6 or 7 p.m. The students are fed and learn character-building and conflict resolution skills. Many of them go on to college and return to work as staff.
“We have a great impact on improving behavior,” Evans said. “Over the years I’ve been here, this has been a safe haven.”
Evans said that a 12–year–old student who lives in the neighborhood’s low-income housing has seen three shootings. The Learning Zone staff continues to build into his life.
“He sees it,” Evans said. “He knows it. He’s trying to survive and fit in.”
Snippets of Jesus
Despite the dangers and challenges, Evans said she loves her work and believes the community center will be a huge step toward the area’s healing.
“I think it’s going to be a tremendous help because the outlet of that gym is the key to a lot of it,” she said. “They love playing basketball. They love being in a safe space. Even if it’s not basketball, there are other activities. I’ve heard a lot of parents say, ‘Thank you for being here.’ The staff genuinely cares. This building should be open and should never close. People talk about The Salvation Army all the time in this community.
“I believe in the mission of The Salvation Army because it’s unbiased. It says ‘come as you are’—and means it. I’ve seen people come in here at their lowest and The Salvation Army has built them up.”
While researching the neighborhood, the Browns found that it is one of the least–churched areas of the city. Chris said it appears that about 90 percent of the neighborhood is Muslim, though not all are practicing. Tara said she sends the message that “everyone is welcome.”
Last year, the Browns got parental permission to take the Learning Zone students, including the Muslim ones, to see Jesus Theater at the Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Philadelphia. Some of the students became Christians that day.
“We’re just trying to love them as Jesus would do and accept them and give them a place where we can pour into them,” she said. “Our Learning Zone staff pours into them, they get snippets of Jesus. We don’t want them to feel like they can’t be there because of their background. Whether they agree or not, they’re hearing about Jesus and absorbing what we are telling them.”
Being the light
Evans, who practiced Islam for seven years before becoming an ordained Baptist minister, said everyone from The Salvation Army shows Muslims “Christian love.” Over the 20 years she has been with the Learning Zone, she says the Christian and Muslim students have never clashed.
“We don’t force you to be a Christian, we show,” Evans explained. “We’re examples of Christians and display Christ-like character.”
Chris, who witnessed to one Muslim man, saw him come to church and believes he became a Christian before he was gunned down.
“Some Muslims will never step foot in my chapel, and I have to be OK with that,” Chris said. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t minister, build relationships, show the love of Christ, and have conversations about our faith.
“They may not hear my preaching, which means my lifestyle has to ‘preach.’ We know that the opportunities to talk about Jesus and bring salvation to this neighborhood will come.”
When the Browns prayed they would one day come to Philadelphia as Salvation Army pastors, it wasn’t just because Chris is a fan of the NFL’s Eagles; they saw opportunities for ministry.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for love and acceptance,” Chris says. “These folks are hungry for an alternative to what they see every day on the streets. That gives us an opportunity to be ‘the light.’”