Kindness and Helpfulness are Both Next to Godliness
May 12, 2010
“There are three stages in the work of God: impossible, difficult, done.” ~ James Hudson Taylor
Commonly referred to as “the badlands,” the Fairhill section of Philadelphia often times gets a bad rap. When people hear mention of the neighborhood, more often than not, their minds paint a picture of drug addled, litter strewn streets where you can’t even make it a half of a block without a gun pointing in your face or at least some sort of lewd proposition being thrown your way.
The members of New Kingdom Baptist Church on Mascher St, right in the heart of Fairhill, beg to differ, however. The church’s minister, Curtis Saxton, and his wife, Christina, see a lot of promise in the neighborhood and are working incredibly hard in any way that they are able to make sure that promise flourishes. The young couple has spearheaded the complete renovation of two of the church’s neighboring vacant homes and have enlisted the help of local youths with ambitious aspirations as to not only what the finished product will finitely provide for the community, but also the more profound goal of how the actual process as a whole may benefit the maturing young laborers.
Christina, a former teacher at the Julia de Burgos Bilingual Elementary School, first became ensconced with the neighborhood while in college. An old factory located on the current site of her school burned to the ground and in its place formed a homeless encampment. The encampment eventually relocated to a nearby church, but Christina, raised by American missionary parents in Honduras, felt drawn to the obvious need of her fellow denizen and continuously returned to the neighborhood, bringing in food and supporting the group as a whole. That was over ten years ago and while things have changed remotely for the better in Fairhill, Christina, now a resident, feels the drive to continue her early efforts in a more formal and expansive manner.
Christina’s husband, a minister of the New Kingdom Baptist Church became exposed to the neighborhood only slightly after his wife, but in a more organized fashion. While attending Princeton University, Curtis became involved in an organization serving as a ministry to troubled youths by the name of Teen Haven. The focus of this coalition brought him consistently to Fairhill where he ended up relocating upon graduation and working in career placement and development.
The young couple’s theological mindset aided in their realization that a larger picture needed to be further sought out if any real change was going to occur. “You can have good jobs, you can have good schools, but if you don’t have any real reason for living – there’s no purpose to your life – there’s no meaning – you don’t understand why you’ve been created and what you’re purpose in life is, then life is hopeless and without that there is nothing.” Curtis explains that this is where his personal beliefs and faith come into play; serving as the key motivator to both he and his wife becoming involved with the New Kingdom Baptist Church and organizing a grassroots redevelopment project to help spread the hope that they have been so fortunate to experience in both tangible and intangible ways.
According to the US Census, Fairhill hosts an overwhelming 598,401 vacant homes and contains a majority of the city’s displaced or homeless citizens. The neighborhood’s poverty rate, which ranks at five times the national average, causes community outreach to seem insurmountable.
“There’s so many dreams yet so much time and resources,” Curtis points out. Furthermore he says that “looking around we see a lot of [sometimes] good motivations that don’t work out practically because they’re not grounded in reality.” He refers to a housing development recently erected a few blocks away that has remained vacant for a significant period of time. Affirming that the intention to provide more homes for the community is laudatory, he emphasizes that the failure stemmed from the fact that the residences are ” too expensive for people who live here to buy, for the most part, and anybody that could afford to buy them wouldn’t want to live here.”
Through the acquisition of two neighboring buildings of the church, the Saxton’s have rallied their fellow church members as well as groups of young, able-bodied students and other church groups from near and far to provide the proximate community with not only a place to live but also a community center to conduct a variety of programs designed to benefit the area’s residents.
Curtis elaborates, “we’re small right now but growing. So, all the dreams we have right now, we don’t have [quite] the people to make them all happen right now, but we’re looking long term – into the future. I mean, obviously this project has been taking us a little while and its going to be going for a little while but as we look into the future, we have a lot of hope.”
Christina lays out more specific reasonings for the decision to make one of the buildings a rental home and the other a community center: “our church sometimes struggles with having all of the money we need to do the type of projects we want to do so it would provide some income and it would also hopefully provide a nice place for somebody to live.” She goes on to further explain that “there are some people who have the idea that we’ll just fix it up and rent it and just have a business relationship with whoever lives here but then i think, in my heart and in some other peoples hearts too, would be to have this as a connection to the church. we could build some relationships with the family that would live here. we could help serve them with whatever needs they would have, help connect them to wherever they would need to be connected.”
Debra Jones, a New Kingdom Baptist Church Trustee, also further clarifies the fact that these buildings have an even deeper connection to the church. “The first property, that we’re looking to use as a community center, was purchased from an elderly lady that was living in the neighborhood when we purchased the church. The other property – one of our members owned the property, and when he had passed away, he had left the house to us.” She believes that it might be best to keep the occupancy in the same tradition but agrees that the decision should definitely be based on need, stating, “well, if it would help, we would look toward a senior citizen who might need housing and then if not, maybe a small family because the house is not that large. It’s a two-bedroom with the second bedroom [being] not that large, so it would have to be a small family just starting out.”
Either way, it appears that whoever ends up occupying the building will find themselves nestled into quite a secure and tight-knit community for some time to come.