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Ministry that serves the homeless has come far

Bill Golderer, pastor of Broad Street Ministry, was hired eight years ago to revive a shuttered, once-high-society Gothic church on the Avenue of the Arts and attract a young, engaged congregation.

Bill Golderer, pastor of Broad Street Ministry, was hired eight years ago to revive a shuttered, once-high-society Gothic church on the Avenue of the Arts and attract a young, engaged congregation.

"We had a conversation about what could be here," said Golderer, 43, "and what we have today bears no resemblance to what we talked about."

Instead, Broad Street became something more vital and essential, a haven in hard times for people with too little, serving 1,100 meals weekly and as a mailing address for more than 1,500 Philadelphians.

The ministry responded to the streets, the homeless and struggling, and began serving guests. That is what they're always called. The ministry started with one meal each week, then two, now four, prepared by a professional chef who once cooked for Comcast.

Guests are treated with dignity, linen tablecloths, volunteer waiters, music, even hosts to seat them at tables. They are never asked to stand and wait because, Golderer said, "lines traumatize these people, who believe there will be nothing at the end of that line for them."

But the need does not cease.

The basement of the massive structure, across from the Kimmel Center, proved too small. At what was once Chambers-Wylie Memorial Presbyterian Church, where John Wanamaker worshipped, pews were ripped from the sanctuary to be transformed into a dining hall.

Last year, Broad Street fed 280 guests each week. Now, the ministry feeds four times that many, on track to serve a total of 51,000 meals for the year, an indication of how many Philadelphians are seriously hungry and desperately in need.

And winter has yet to arrive.

On Tuesday, 309 guests dined on chicken cacciatore with four sautéed vegetables over thyme butter rice, while Bill Withers sang "Lean on Me." There is no preaching or praying.

"We are guest-centered. The idea is to make guests feel expected, invited, and welcomed," said Golderer, a Yale Divinity School graduate. Workers asked guests what they needed, to "locate where the gaps are and the barriers."

Mail, the guests said. We need a place where we can receive mail, a lifeline to benefits, medication. Without these vital connections, Golderer said, "you become cut off from society."

The ministry staff assumed that 50 guests, tops, would use 315 S. Broad to receive mail.

Instead, Broad Street Ministry is the mailing address of 1,503 Philadelphians, among them Godeliva Woodson, a native of Kenya, then a resident of Minnesota, and now living on our city streets. Yet she was able to study for nine months and obtain a pharmaceutical tech license. "People have been extremely helpful and generous," she said over Tuesday dinner. "Giving me good meals, people to talk to, legal advice after I lost most of my documentation."

Brittany Mellinger serves as the ministry's postmaster general. Volunteers arrive daily to sort the several hundred pieces of mail, a projected 50,000 pieces this year, little of it junk.

The staff learned and listened, and threw out assumptions. Thanksgiving dinner was unnecessary with so many other venues providing meals. Instead, the ministry served 450 guests, a record, on the Thursday before Thanksgiving. Last Wednesday, chef Steven Seibel created a holiday breakfast of eggs, stuffing, turkey sausage, and a hot cider growler with spices.

"We're trying to build relationships, not just make transactions," said director of social services Edd Conboy. "We want to connect guests with different services. We don't have to do everything, just to know the best organizations and put them in contact."

On Thursdays, a network of care is provided: nurse-practitioners, behavioral health experts, representatives from housing and veterans services. Menders are on site to fix and alter clothing. There's a clothes closet. Personal care packages - toothpaste, soap - are provided, 11,500 distributed this year, along with new socks and undergarments. Area hotels have become partners and supporters, as well as restaurants. And the ministry has recorded a wealth of information about guests to be shared with agencies and researchers.

Broad Street needs more volunteers, donations of gently used men's clothing, new socks and underwear, and, of course, money. This year's budget is $850,000, but next year, Broad Street plans to expand again, and add a fifth weekly meal.

"The word you hear is, corporations don't care, young people don't care, but that's not the narrative we see. People want to help their fellow human beings, particularly those in trouble," Golderer said. "Where this church once was a jewel of architecture, it is now a jewel of humanity."

215-854-2586 @kheller