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From a Kensington church in a perilous time, he ministers to drug addicts

At the Cornerstone Community Church in Kensington, where 75 percent to 80 percent of the congregants are recovering or active drug and alcohol addicts, several parishioners' lives are lost each year to overdoses, a pastor says.

Cornerstone Community Church pastor Michael Roth, 40, sits in the sanctuary of the church Dec. 19.
Cornerstone Community Church pastor Michael Roth, 40, sits in the sanctuary of the church Dec. 19.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

At the Cornerstone Community Church in Kensington, where 75 percent to 80 percent of the congregants are recovering or active drug and alcohol addicts, several parishioners' lives are lost each year to overdoses, a pastor says.

But this month, the epidemic took on new urgency when two parishioners died of apparent heroin ODs in four days.

"This is in-your-face heartbreak," Pastor Michael Roth said.

On Dec. 1, a 41-year-old man was found dead in a recovery home in Frankford, where he had been house manager, Roth said. Three days later, Grace Pello, 31, was found dead in her Kensington home, a Bible at her side.

They were two of the reported 35 people who the Medical Examiner's Office says died in Philadelphia of apparent drug overdoses in the first five days of December.

At a news conference Tuesday, Narcotics Chief Inspector Daniel MacDonald said police believe the fatal heroin was laced with fentanyl, but authorities are awaiting lab results to be certain.

No face of Jesus

People won't find God in the pews at Cornerstone, because it has no pews. Nor will they find Jesus in the stained-glass windows, because vandals long ago knocked out his face with rocks.

Roth - "P-Mike" to his congregants - kind of likes it that way. Given that his church's membership is a mix of black, white, and Hispanic, a faceless Jesus is more representative of the congregation than a white one, he said.

The church uses chairs instead of pews, he said, so the space can be turned into a basketball court when desired.

Cornerstone moved about 25 years ago into the stone Baptist church on the 3100 block of Frankford Avenue, in one of the city's most active drug-trafficking neighborhoods, Roth said.

"When we open church Sunday morning, we go through the steps and make sure all the needles are gone," he said.

These days, every nook and cranny of the church is overflowing with canned goods, clothing, and Christmas toys to be donated, divvied up, and doled out. It is a building of service, and among those it serves are drug addicts.

"When I joined," Roth said, "I knew there were hurting people here, I knew there was a need, but I don't think I ever guessed that it was as large a population of addicts as it was."

No punches pulled

Roth, 40, a veteran of eight years in the Marine Corps, has heard from people who think he shouldn't bother with addicts.

"There is a jadedness in our society that [says] we can't help or that these people get what they deserve," he said. "Listen, we're all effed up. We're all sinners. If we all got what we deserved, that would be ugly."

This clearly isn't your typical pastor. He swears, rock-climbs, and wears earrings.

"From the pulpit one day, I called our whole congregation whores. You're not going to get that in the suburbs," he said. "We don't pull punches here. I think that was one of the reasons I was drawn to this church."

Roth is among five pastors at Cornerstone. He lives just two blocks away with his wife and two daughters, ages 7 and 10.

"We always felt God was calling us here," he said. "It's hard because I want to make sure my kids and wife are safe, but at the same time I want to teach my children compassion and what my faith teaches me about mercy and trusting God.

"It's really putting your money where your mouth is. A lot of my Marine Corps buddies who knew me back then say, 'You traded one war zone for another.' "

Roth has been a member of Cornerstone for about 12 years and a pastor there for five.

"I came in all wide-eyed and idealistic, thinking, 'We're going to get everybody clean,' and you quickly realize that's not an accurate goal," he said. "It will break your heart when you pour so much into somebody and they go out and use and disappear . . . and you don't know if they're alive or dead."

When he lost the two parishioners to apparent overdoses this month, he went to his mentor, an old friend with a master's degree in divinity, to talk about his fears.

"You can't keep going and have your heart broken, and you can't keep going and get callous, because you lose your openness," he said. "You have to find this balance. . . . God calls us to be emptied so he can fill us back up again."

After years of working with the addicted in Kensington, Roth said, he found a common theme.

"I think one of the things I've discovered is the power of loneliness," he said. "Loneliness causes people to do strange things."

Kensington isn't lonelier than any other place in the world, Roth said; it's just easier to escape the loneliness there.

"If I'm lonely, I only have to go one block, and I'm numb," he said.

This time of year can be particularly rough, Roth said.

"The holidays can be rough for anybody, especially addicts," he said. "The holiday shines a magnifying glass on the loneliness."

Ripples in Frankford

The death of the 41-year-old man - his family didn't want him identified here - sent ripples through the House of Adonai, a recovery house in Frankford that he had entered through Cornerstone's addiction ministry.

"These guys are sitting there trying to do recovery and you see a guy that has time clean and say, 'If he can't make it, then what hope is there for me?' " Roth said.

The man completed a year of the program and proudly became a house manager, overseeing the residence.

"He was doing really well," Roth said. "He had just stepped down from house manager two weeks earlier."

Roth said the man was quiet, upbeat, and "just a nice, nice guy." He had a son, but was not married.

The new house manager found his body.

"He was probably one of the first ones that got that bad batch," Roth said of the victim.

The death also shook members of his church, including Grace Pello, with whom he was close, said Roth. He believes that the man's death brought her back to drugs.

Roth said Pello was adopted as a child and moved with her family to Kensington to work in Cornerstone's ministry. Pello's family moved away, but she came back to the church about five years ago after her parents died.

Roth said Pello battled mental illness and addiction, but spoke openly about both. She stayed at the church for two years, then moved to Florida, only to return recently.

"She got clean and was doing good," Roth said.

After the man's death, Pello asked to speak to Roth. They had planned to meet for Sunday lunch Dec. 4, but he was forced to reschedule.

"There's a lot of guilt, because had I met her Sunday as I was planning, maybe she wouldn't" have overdosed, he said. "It's arrogant for me to have this guilt. But it doesn't stop me from really hurting and being sad."

A highlighted verse

Pello was not in church that Sunday. A friend found her body around 2 p.m., but the Medical Examiner's Office was so busy responding to nine apparent fatal drug overdoses that her body was not picked up until 6:30 p.m., Roth said.

Her Bible was nearby, he said, and it was open to Psalm 111, with the 10th verse highlighted:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.

Roth read the verse at Pello's funeral, and he did not avoid discussing the cause of her death.

"It was one of the hardest sermons I had to write," Roth said. "We mentioned it all, because the fact is, listen, all of us are sinners, and the biggest one is standing behind the pulpit. If we can't be real that we're all fallen, we can't be real about the problem."

If you have a loved one who recently died of a drug overdose in Philadelphia or is battling addiction on the city's streets and want to contact reporter Stephanie Farr, call 215-854-4225 or email