Members of Arch Street United Methodist Church consider their 155 year-old house of worship to be an architectural treasure. However, in 2019 the City gave them an ultimatum: repair the unsafe condition of the church’s 233-foot steeple or shut the doors. Given the small congregation and the $6.9 million needed to complete restoration, it would appear to be among Philadelphia’s many churches destined for closure. Except for one important difference. Arch Street UMC isn’t just a place people go for spiritual sustenance. It is where many unhoused and food insecure individuals go for a hot meal, a shower, clothing, healthcare, and legal advocacy. Situated at the literal crossroads of the city at Broad and Arch Streets, the church has one of the most diverse and progressive congregations in Philadelphia.
“We’ve been running Grace Cafe for over a decade, serving up to 200 meals every Sunday,” said Erica Lipton, Arch Street UMC’s director of operations. “We offer dinner and fellowship in a safe, judgment free space. Two years ago, we partnered with the City to provide showers, laundry, case management, computer access and food.”
“We also partner with a team of volunteer Rebellious Nurses, a networking group of radical and social justice-minded nurses, to provide weekly wellness services, including immunization clinics, HIV/HepC tests and health fairs,” Lipton explained. “Plus, we host legal clinics and advocate to change laws to benefit the homeless population.”
Lipton was completing a masters degree in divinity when she accepted an internship at Arch Street UMC. “The churches I had experienced previously didn’t match up with the God I knew. When I came here, I fell in love with their focus on justice and openness,” she said.
History in the Making
The Gothic-style church faced in white marble was built in 1870 by Quaker architect Addison Hutton at a time when its tower made it the tallest building in Philadelphia. Its 900-seat sanctuary was among the largest in the city. The Masonic Temple at 1 N. Broad Street did not yet exist, and City Hall was still located at 2nd & Market Streets. As for the crossroads of Broad and Market Streets, known as Centre Square (now called Penn Square), it was an unsavory intersection associated with with public hangings, horse races, gambling, and general rowdiness.
A vote to move City Hall to Centre Square, the same year Arch Street UMC opened its opulent sanctuary, was welcomed by the majority of Philadelphians, but not by the church. If you think putting a sports arena in Chinatown is contentious now, imagine how congregants at Broad and Arch Street felt about having a 30-year construction site at their door. To make matters worse, City Hall construction turned North Broad Street from a primarily quiet residential area into a commercial zone. As a result, Arch Street UMC’s congregation began to dwindle as members moved to the suburb of West Philadelphia.
Arch Street UMC, placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1964, has played a role in major events. When President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Bishop Matthew Simpson, a church member, delivered the eulogy. In 2012, the sanctuary was overflowing with local activists who formed the Occupy Philadelphia Movement. In November of the following year, the sanctuary hosted one of the largest weddings in the congregation’s history with over 30 clergy officiating at a wedding ceremony for members of the LGBTQ community.
Outreach With Open Arms
The church found purpose in being of service, not just to its members, but to community at large. “Grace Café started 15 years ago as a small program at our church and ignited a partnership between us and The Center Philadelphia, a nonprofit which seeks to inspire social change and community engagement,” said Lipton. “We are opened to all persons, without regard to age, race, ethnic background, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic or marital status, physical or mental ability, immigration status, and spiritual tradition.”
“We have a great relationship with City Council, and the City contracts with us for some of the services we provide,” Lipton explained. As for that unsteady steeple, which is now shrouded in netting and scaffolding, the City has worked with the congregation to create a safety plan while they fundraise to reach their goal to repair the church.