A few weeks ago we sat down at the offices of Locus Partners with Rev. Rebecca Blake, Co-Director and Co-Pastor of ‘Beacon’ a new church model in Kensington. Over coffee we spoke about her trajectory, the church’s mission, and the ways in which Beacon is reaching out to community members in new ways.
Rebecca and co-founder Rev. Karen Rohrer began leading weekly art programming and monthly worship services on Cumberland and Memphis streets in late 2011. Since then, programming has expanded from weekly to twice weekly, and worship from monthly to weekly, with a community meal on the first Sunday of every month. Beacon began as a ‘ministry experiment’ of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, which became a new church plant, and in November of 2015, a chartered congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The church focuses on community building through stories: faith-based worship, community retreats (The Mission Lab) and through The Studio at Beacon: a non-religious initiative that provides children’s after school programs that foster creative expression using visual arts and writing. In addition to their diverse community programs, Beacon also offers two different ways to identify as a member; ‘Practicing Members’ are involved in Beacon’s community and work, and are prepared to make a faith statement; ‘Participant Members’ are involved in Beacon’s community and work, and perhaps are not ready or willing to make a statement of faith. This allows all of Beacon’s neighbors to be welcomed into the Beacon adventure and invested in its initiatives.
In speaking with Rebecca I was interested in learning why they chose Kensington as their church location, and how the children’s after school programs began. Rev. Blake, whose background includes fine arts and creative writing as well as theology, discussed that in 2010 she had come up with the idea to create a community art studio, which grew out of her previous work at Broad Street Ministry, where she developed a model of community development that utilized art-making in a group setting. Later that year, a season of evaluation and discernment between the Presbytery of Philadelphia, Rev. Blake, Broad Street Ministry, and the then-Beacon Presbyterian Church began. Ultimately the decision was made to close Beacon Presbyterian Church and start again with a new type of church with opportunities for community engagement through worship and the arts. /// This endeavor was also supported by the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s 1,001 New Worshiping Communities initiative (whose goal is to foster 1001 new worshiping communities for a diverse and changing culture), and programming and worship lifted off in late 2011.///
Rev. Blake’s initial idea was to provide art education to adults in the neighborhood however her ‘on the ground’ neighborhood assessment led her to believe an after school kid’s program was really what the community needed. When Rev. Rohrer joined Rev. Blake as part of Beacon, they began a more formal community assessment which solidified their ideas for community outreach.
To Rebecca, Beacon is a church model where everyone is truly welcome. The goal of Beacon is to ‘connect diverse populations and have honest discussions about faith and its role in our lives.’ Beacon continues to grow in scope and reach. They currently have a staff comprised of ordained and student pastors, 25-30 weekly worshippers and an additional 20-30 people that are in Beacon’s broader faith community. Furthermore, The Studio at Beacon has grown to serve up to 200 children from the Kensington, Fishtown, & Port Richmond neighborhoods. The studio now includes art classes, creative writing workshops for children, and leadership training for youth. Rebecca is a firm believer that when we are empowered to share our stories, whether with words or art, individual and community growth is possible.