It looked like the fine old church building
with its distinctive tile roof was due to be demolished.
Then the script changed….
The Third Presbyterian Church at the corner of 9th and Potter Streets, Chester, was spared at the last minute when it was purchased recently by the Chester Historical Preservation Committee for the grand sum of $1. Now the plan is to restore and, once again, use it to enrich the lives of people of Chester.
Not the first time this Chester landmark was rescued from oblivion. Back in the 1980s, the congregation left, and the sprawling edifice sat abandoned, its stained glass windows serving as targets for kids’ missiles.
Then the Presbytery of Philadelphia asked Rev. Joan Salmon-Campbell, who would later go on to become Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), to turn the venerable building into something useful. Thus was born Chester Eastside Ministries (CEM). For Rev. Salmon-Campbell, it was a matter of first things first. People needed food to survive. So CEM began as a food cupboard. People would line up at the door in all kinds of weather to receive a little something for the family larder. But, as the Bible reminds us, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Little by little, CEM began to add other activities to its agenda.
Over time, an amazing array of programs evolved. An after-school reading program that gave young people a lot more than the ability to comprehend words on a page. That program would expand in time to include a diversity of enrichment activities and healthy play opportunities, horseback riding and skiing, things a Chester child could only dream of. A Saturday Arts program included everything from painting to dance, dramatics and music lessons. A Summer Enrichment Camp evolved from basic recreational activities to a variety of new experiences including swimming, golf, and visits to museums, opening up a world beyond what children had ever experienced.
CEM was always a welcoming place, a refuge that went way beyond specific services, a source of stability in an often unstable environment. Central to its mission was helping people become all that they can be. A woman who first came for a food handout moved on to serve as a volunteer and ended up in a key staff position. Children in the After School Program have gone on to college, one studying for her doctorate. A young man who participated in a CEM drama program got a starring role in a production by People’s Light & Theater of Philadelphia.
In 1995, the Rev. Bernice Warren took the helm. Having grown up in a Chester public housing project, she knew the community, its struggles and its strengths, first-hand. For her, it was not just a homecoming but an opportunity to give something back to her community.
The activities have touched the lives of people of all ages and all conditions: a GED program for adults needing to complete their high school education; TAP, a program to help teenagers prepare for college; a pre-school program to provide an educational foundation at a crucial time in children’s development; Parents First, workshops for parents of children in the early grades; counseling for prisoners and ex-offenders; a Mothers’ Club to help parents grapple with the practical problems of daily living. Sometimes the agency has launched a new program and then spun it off as an independent organization and then continued to support it; an example is the Peace Leadership & Arts Camp that helps teenagers learn constructive ways to deal with conflict, develop their creative potential, and gain a new appreciation of the rich heritage they are part of.
Tackling the big issues head on.
From the beginning, CEM was home to much more than a range of social services. Early on, it became identified with efforts to make a difference regarding the larger issues that impinge on the lives of Chesterites. Jobs With Peace was an action organization which called for more of our tax dollars being used for putting people to work and less for making war. A voter registration campaign that was based at CEM succeeded in changing party control of City Hall for the first time in 104 years. The FAIR Deal Coalition, confronting the issue of casino gambling in Chester, used the agency as its home base. In more recent years, the agency has joined efforts to prevent gun violence and muster support for quality education for all Chester children.
Refusing to give up in the face of setbacks.
In 2013, the church was found to have deteriorated to the point that it was unsafe for occupancy by anyone. This devastating setback followed close on the heels of the loss of a major part of CEM’s funding from the Presbytery of Philadelphia. The response to the two-headed crisis was characteristic of the way so many Chester people and institutions deal with potential disaster: They rise to the challenge and find a way to go on, often stronger for the experience. Chester Eastside Ministries became Chester Eastside, Inc. (CEI), an independent 501.c.3 organization. Through the generous support of the nearby St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, CEI found a new home a block away from the old site. CEI’s headquarters are now located on the basement level of St. Paul’s. Faith communities have always been an important resource for CEI, ranging from suburban churches to a Friends meeting and a Jewish synagogue. But support has also come from neighboring social agencies, from government, and from philanthropic foundations; And at the other end of spectrum, college students and many other individuals simply wanting to make a difference. One of the most touching sources of support has been donations by inmates in a nearby prison. So after ending two years in the red, CEI more than broke even in 2014.
Now, as another dedicated group seeks to breathe new life into the old church edifice, Chester Eastside, Inc., carries on the mission that began in an abandoned church at the corner 9th and Potter Streets more than a quarter century ago.