PASTOR WILLIE Richardson founded Christian Stronghold Church in West Philadelphia in 1966. He was 21 at the time, a student at Philadelphia Biblical University, and eager to preach. His first sermons, in a renovated storefront at 52nd Street and Girard Avenue, were heard by an audience of six people, including his father.
Within a year, the church and congregation moved to a nearby building that could accommodate 100 worshippers. A few years later, they moved again, a block away, to place that easily fit 400. The congregation found its current home, at 4701 Lancaster Ave., about 30 years ago. The church has room for 1,100 worshippers at a time.
On Sundays, Pastor Richardson offers three two-hour services. About 2,500 congregants attend.
By Sunday afternoon, Richardon joked, "I tell people you can roll me out the door in a wheelbarrow."
Who we are: Stronghold, which is not affiliated with a larger Christian denomination, emphasizes using the Bible as a guide in every day life.
Richardson describes his congregation as being "very loving and very warm."
"That's why we're still growing," he said. "Some people say they didn't want to come because they feared a big church is cold and impersonal. Then they come, and they come back."
To help make the large congregation feel intimate, the church is made up of about 100 "cells," smaller groups that meet during the week for Bible study. The cells are spread across the city and suburbs, with a few in South Jersey and Delaware.
When we worship: Sunday services are at 6:30, 8:30 and 11:45 a.m. The sermon remains the same but the music does change, as the church has a 25-person orchestra and multiple choirs that perform at different times.
iPads are welcome - because you'll want to take notes. Richardson uses an overhead screen as he gives his sermons, and he encourages the parishioners to jot down points they find interesting.
What we believe: "In the deity of Jesus Christ and the return of Christ," Richardson said. "We believe we should be in obedience to the Scriptures and spread the love of Christ."
Stronghold also takes the sacrament of marriage very seriously. "We went through a 20-year period with one divorce," said the pastor, who has been married to wife Patricia for 53 years.
"We provide family training before marriage and after. I came from a broken home, and I make sure I do everything I can to make sure that doesn't happen to another family."
Big social issue we're grappling with: Violence. "We hear gunshots on a regular basis," he said. "A few years ago, they were going to open a gun store two blocks away from us on Lancaster Avenue . . . They were defiant, and I got really upset and said, 'If you open up a store, you're going to have to use those guns because we're going to close it down.' "
About five years ago, Richardson was driving home when people in the car in front of him began shooting at the people in the car behind him, and vice versa. "Drug pushers having drug wars," he said.
How we address it: Some church members have formed a neighborhood watch group that walks the streets at nights. After the pastor was caught in that shootout, the watch members spoke to the gang members involved. "They were apologetic," he said.
Giving back: Every May, the church hosts a carnival complete with rides, games and food. It was once a fundraiser for the church school, which is now closed.
It continues because community members asked for it. "They said, 'We're too poor to take our kids to Disney,' " Richardson said.
Something for everyone: The church has more than 50 different outreach ministries. It hosts health fairs and provides information on how to expunge a criminal record or how to register to vote. Youth programming includes after-school tutoring and SAT classes.
The latter were unheard of before Richardson learned that a suburban church was offering the preparations. "Our kids were taking it cold turkey," he said.
God is . . . "A God of love, a God of forgiveness, a God who who never up on anybody," Richardson said.
Words of hope: "God created all beings, and there isn't any being that hasn't been given some kind of giftedness," he said. "Everybody is valuable, and everybody is worthwhile."