Julianne McDonald was 11 and in foster care when she met the Rev. Keith Collins more than a decade ago.

McDonald has 11 siblings, and her parents would end up in jail, but thanks to Collins, she got a college degree.

Without him, "I don't know if I'd be alive, honestly," she said.

Jonathan Abdul-Rahim King, an ex-convict, said his life was at its lowest point when Collins took a chance and offered him a place to stay, and helped him with job leads and day care for his two girls.

"He is an advocate for the downtrodden," said Richard Carter of the grassroots group Chester Prison Re-Entry Resource Center of Delaware County.

For more than 14 years, Collins has been among Delaware County's most visible community advocates. He has organized neighborhood rallies against drug activity, and founded a mentoring group for first-generation college students from at-risk backgrounds. He organized another group for ex-offenders and their families.

Never far from his Bible - or cellphone - the Ridley Township resident is a whirlwind of focused energy, ministering to his flock and taking on causes. He says his mission is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

"I have a very strong social justice thrust in my messages," he said.

At 54, Collins has the lean frame of an athlete and the experience to match.

Along with stacks of books - he is a history buff - his office is cluttered with racing-bib numbers, earned at 20 Broad Street Runs and the Rock 'N' Roll and Disney Marathons, among others.

His path to service has taken some unusual turns.

Collins has been a lieutenant in the Army's Special Forces, a campus police officer at Temple University, a corporal with the Port Authority Transit Police, an insurance agent, a professor, a social worker, and a candidate for Delaware County Council.

He has taught "Experiences in Diversity" at Delaware County Community College and at the former Philadelphia Mennonite High School.

"He is a man of character - good character," said his wife, Carolyn, a legislative aide to Rep. Margo Davidson (D., Delaware).

When they first met at church in Philadelphia, she was a single mother of two boys - 12 and 6 - and thought his argyle socks and station wagon were not exactly cutting-edge.

"That did not fit my profile, but here we are, 33 years later," she said.

The two have forged a partnership with their passion for causes and their Christian beliefs.

Collins adopted her two sons and has been at her side through her fight with breast cancer and when her oldest son was incarcerated, she said.

"When there are trials, I don't think they change people, they bring out who they are," Carolyn Collins said.

Keith Collins was raised by a single mother in West Oak Lane. He called her "a very good mother" who struggled with her biracial identity and tough upbringing. "She was too white to be accepted by blacks and too black to be accepted by whites," he said.

It wasn't until he was married that Collins and his mother could talk openly about her troubled life. He never knew his father.

After graduating from the then all-boys Central High School, he attended Temple University and the Philadelphia College of Bible - now Cairn University - before graduating from Geneva College. He received a doctorate from Friends International Christian University.

"I wanted to serve," Collins said. He said he wanted to give back and saw the church as a way to give guidance to people in challenging situations.

Collins talks openly about race - "I wouldn't say it has defined my life; I accept it, I don't run away from it," he said.

When he looks at race in the context of Christianity, Collins said, he sees religion segregated into black and white churches.

"It is why we have a division in America," he said. "The church has not done its job."

Collins said he wanted to start a church where everyone could worship.

So in July 2000, the couple founded the multicultural Church of the Overcomer, "a nondenominational, blue-jean-friendly ministry committed to reaching the disillusioned and those who have become detached from religion."

They first rented space in a Ridley Township theater before buying the 76-year-old defunct Wesleyan Church in Trainer.

The group was able to expand its programs to include mentoring, summer camp for local children, and even a Bible study accessible by teleconference.

It also provided transitional housing for those in need. The church operates on donations; Collins said he does not take a salary or benefits.

There have been bumps along the path.

For years, Collins has been battling the Chichester School District in court over his church's tax exemption. The district contends that the Church of the Overcomer has not proven all buildings on its property are used for religious purposes and deserve to be tax-exempt.

Collins filed an unsuccessful civil-rights suit against the school district and county Board of Assessments, alleging discrimination, since the church building enjoyed an exemption before he took it over. He said the case has cost over $30,000 in legal fees, along with the $100,000 in taxes he has had to pay.

Despite such battles, Collins said he finds Delaware County a "fertile place for works of justice and advocacy," and a place he can make a difference.

"He is always helpful to our cause," said Carter, whose group helps ex-inmates reintegrate into the community. Collins is there with clothes, food, and other donations to get people back into the workforce, he said.

"He is a real people person," Carter said. "He lets you feel a part of what is happening in the room."

King, who works two jobs and is a student at DCCC, plans to pursue bachelor's and master's degrees.

"I'll never forget what that man did for me," said King.

McDonald, now 25, graduated from Cabrini College and wants to pursue a master's degree.

Without the guidance and encouragement from Collins and money from the church, McDonald said, she might have ended up in prison like many former foster children. "I would probably be another statistic," she said.

Last Thursday, the pastor planned to do something very much out of the ordinary.

Thanksgiving is the one of the few days of the year that he and his wife take off from work and take refuge in Ocean City, Md.

"He runs the beach, I watch him," she said.

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@MariSchaefer