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Pastor Michael Wright and his wife Deacon Lynne Wright outside of the Christ Bible Fellowship Church on the 1900 block of East Venango Street. Photo: Max Marin/AL DÍA News

A fast to purge Kensington

In a neighborhood on the brink of hopelessness, a struggling church holds together by foregoing food.

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“Where is God in this place?”

Pastor Michael Wright and his wife Lynne often doubt the Lord’s presence on this bruised block of Venango Street where they have operated the non-denominational Christ Bible Fellowship since 2007. It’s the only church for half a dozen blocks in any direction, and yet some Sundays only five people show up for worship. They keep the doors open, though. Let the music pour into the streets.

“I just keep preaching. Every time I want to give up, God will send me one. Or somebody will be renewed. Or I’ll just look at the congregation and say, even for the few, I just can’t walk away,” Pastor Wright says, his sigh forming into a smile. “And I just can’t find anywhere in the Bible where Jesus ever closed a church.”

The African-American congregation consists of about 20 people, with an ebb and flow of informal members. Wright, who works as a drug and alcohol counselor for the Philadelphia Fire Department, has been preaching in the storefront church tradition for more than 10 years — Germantown, East Falls — but this neighborhood is different. Occasionally the stained-glassed fellowship room will fill out with 40 or 50, but most do not stick around. “This is Kensington,” a parishioner says with a shrug. In local shorthand, that means: This is transitional neighborhood; roots don’t grow here without resistance.

Interest from the immediate community is even less than it appears on the surface. About half of the core group — including Wright and his family — commute to the church from other Philly neighborhoods.

No love for Jesus here? It’s more complicated than that.

Monday through Friday, Lynne Wright runs the fully-accredited Kensington Christian Academy out of a classroom in the back of the church building. For the last five years they have been offering a $60 per-week education, grades K-3, meals included. Their second-graders are reading at the fourth-grade level of Webster, the nearest elementary school. But enrollment remains under 10 students. So recently, the Wrights made tuition free. (“The Lord will provide.”) They began knocking on doors. They held a meeting for parents interested in affordable parochial education for their children. Not a soul showed up.

If the school were in any other neighborhood in the city, the classrooms would be full. The church would likely have more members to keep it afloat. But as is, the only time Christ Bible Fellowship draws a new and eager crowd is when it gives away free food or backpacks. Facing such resistance, who would blame the Wrights if they shuttered the church doors and moved on?

Last month, Pastor Wright was praying with his usual persistent questions: Where is God in this place? Why don’t these people want what we have to offer?

“I know He didn’t bring us here to abandon us. So what’s the issue?” Wright asked. “That’s when I discovered that we were the issue.”

Wright proposed a fast. For the month of October, the small community will eat only fruit and vegetables and drink nothing but water. It's a time for self-examination.

The problems outside the church’s walls are much the same as those inside, Wright says. About five members of the congregation have steady jobs. Most are on welfare. Problems with drugs and alcohol have somehow affected everyone in the room — beginning with Wright himself, who is a recovered addict.

“There is a demonic hole in this neighborhood, and our hearts have to be right,” he said. “We’re praying for a change inward and outward, but it has to start inside.”

Drugs, prostitution, broken families, street after blight- and bullet-riddled street — anyone within eyeshot of Philadelphia knows this image. They know the four-letter word that is Kensington. But Kensington is also a sprawling catchment. It changes by the block. And while the southern sections are experiencing something of a renaissance, areas further north remain just as troubled if not worse than they ever were.

The fellowship doesn’t expect its month of fasting to end the drug war or replenish the public school system. At most, it will just strengthen their group from within and help them keep going, if only for the handful of people within the community who rely on it. It only takes two or more, as they say. The church will be hosting a prayer walk through Kensington at 2 p.m. on Sunday.

It’s just one fight in a long battle, but the Wrights aren’t going anywhere just yet.

“I feel as though these people think that God had forgotten about them,” Wright says. “So I made a deal with the Lord: I’ll stay until you close the doors.”

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