N. Philly church a breath of fresh air
The Philly Open Air Church is a former furniture store with no frills and no need to dress up, because the pastors don't.
THE PHILLY Open Air Church on 5th Street near Cumberland in the city’s Fairhill neighborhood is a former furniture store with no frills and no need to dress up - because the pastors don’t.
Co-pastors Jomo K. Johnson and Curt Saxton, who met and became friends at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, preach on neighborhood street corners as well as in their church, and their message is the same, with or without walls and a roof.
Where we worship: The Philly Open Air Church, 2503 N. 5th St. There is a 12:15 p.m. Sunday service, Wednesday evening Bible study and a prayer meeting Friday nights. Children, including Saxton's very young ones, are a welcome presence.
The church moved here two years ago from its original storefront location on Germantown Avenue near Somerset.
What we believe: "We believe in one God," Saxton said. "We believe Jesus Christ was his son. We believe the Bible is God's word and reveals him to us. We believe you can know God through a personal relationship with his Son."
Johnson added, "We believe God loves North Philadelphia. I don't think anyone would choose to start a church in North Philadelphia unless God put it in their heart. God put it in my heart."
What we're known for: The street-corner outreach is one distinction. Every couple of weeks, the co-pastors preach outdoors in Fairhill, West Kensington and Hartranft. "We just show up and spend time in prayer," Saxton said.
They're also known for calling out Philly rapper Meek Mill. Last year, when Mill released "Amen" - an unholy trinity of cursing, sex and religion - Johnson threatened a boycott. Mill apologized, stating, "I wasn't trying to disrespect no religion." Johnson lifted the boycott and said he hoped Mill would turn away from rap and toward Jesus.
Food for the soul: On the last Friday of the month, the church serves a family-style dinner "instead of food handouts or a soup kitchen," Saxton said. "This is not about, 'We are the church people who are serving you, the lowly poor.' . . . And it's not the kind of thing where in order to eat, you have to listen to a sermon.
"That's what gives door-to-door salesmen a bad reputation. They're always trying to sell you something. At our community dinner, we're just here to share a meal."
Something that might surprise people: The congregation is 60 to 70 percent men in their late 20s to late 30s.
Three of them live upstairs from the church in a "resident discipleship" program, Saxton said. (He lives there, too.) The men work different shifts at their jobs, so at least one is home at all times, which allows the church to keep its front door open most hours of the day.
Big moral issue we're grappling with: "The big issue is the breakdown of families because of no jobs, drugs, lack of education," Saxton said.
God is . . . "First and foremost, he exists," Johnson said. "During your troubles and trials, it's very easy to forget that he is loving and that he is just and that he can be known through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."
God vs. cellphones: Acknowledging that cellphones can be disturbance, the church turned the tables on its flock. "We tried to use them for a positive purpose by doing a trial run of 'Turn Your Cellphone On' during the service," Johnson said.
“We asked people to call a friend during the service, tell him, ‘Hey, listen to this.’ "