Murder in a church backyard
‘No matter how close the darkness comes, we will never sell out’
By Bill Lewellis
[A young man was murdered behind Grace Allentown on August 10. It was Allentown's 13th homicide this year. Two Sundays later, parishioners of Grace processed to the spot of the killing to read God’s word and to recommit themselves to holding out a corner of grace in a troubled neighborhood. Read a news release composed by the senior warden, an op by the rector, published in The Morning Call, the sermon preached by the rector, and the Aug. 25 news story in The Morning Call. Below is a story on the service and Grace Church in context.]
Jameel Clark, 20, predicted he would die. Two days before his prediction came true, he fought with Roman, a Latin Kings gang member, in a center city diner in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Roman told his friend, Melvin Velazquez, 18, known as Trigger.
During the early morning hours of Sunday, August 10, Clark went to a house behind Grace Episcopal Church to try to straighten things out peacefully, according to friends who warned him not to go there because friends of Roman might be nearby and might cause trouble. Clark was more concerned that trouble might find him when he was with his one-year-old daughter.
A witness said Clark and Velazquez fought outside the home. Clark ripped a black-and-yellow bead necklace, a Latin King symbol, off Velazquez’s neck. Velazquez pulled a handgun and shot Clark several times on a bleak, macadam parking lot.
Last Sunday, two readers proclaimed a version of this responsively, at the spot where Clark had been gunned down, the lot where Grace Church builds an Easter fire to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The people of Grace Church processed to the spot where the killing took place “in an endeavor to stand in solidarity with the good people of their neighborhood,” according to Grace Church senior warden Libby House, “and to pray for Jameel and others who have died violently in this city, to read God’s word and to recommit themselves to holding out a corner of grace in a troubled neighborhood.”
The killing was the 13th homicide in Allentown this year.
The gathering of some 80 people, including a few from the neighborhood, prayed a litany composed for the service: “From the works of darkness, deliver us, O God … From the violence around us and the violence within us … From everything that plagues this world, this city, the neighborhood we call home … from the works of darkness, deliver us, O God.”
The presider prayed: “Blessed One, you give us life and breath, and all of us return to you. Touch this place where blood has been shed with the cleansing of your Presence. Where there is grief, bring your comfort. Where there is horror, bring your calming hand. Where there is desecration, breathe your sanctifying Spirit. Strengthen us to reclaim this place as your sacred ground, a place where you dwell with us.”
Two days before, The Morning Call published On Facing Evil in a Dark Downtown Parking Lot, an op-ed by The Rev. Dr. Patrick Malloy who has been rector of Grace Church for seven years.
Not only did the killing happen behind the church, but Clark lived in the same apartment building as the rector, five blocks from the church.
Father Malloy’s op-ed may be seen here, and his sermon here.
“On this corner, in this city, in this broken world, we are the witness of the Light,” Malloy preached after the gathering had been led by the Easter Candle from the parking lot back to the church. “We will feed the hungry and educate the needy and do what we can so the jobless can find work. We will try to cut a path though the legal thicket and try to wipe foolish youngsters’ records clean. And, may it be, that we will before long offer hope to torn families and housing to people who live under the bridge. But above all, we will not run. We will not shrink from the darkness, we will never surrender to it, but we will stand strong, and we will build a fire … No matter how close the darkness comes, no matter how deep it grows, we will never sell out. We will never deny what we know to be true. We will build a fire because a fire burns in us. A fire we did not set. And we will huddle together in its light and in its warmth, and we will not leave, no matter how dark and cold it becomes.”
Feeding the hungry, educating the needy and helping the jobless find work were references to several of the daunting community ministries that have given Grace Church its reputation described at a 2003 national Pastoral Summit in San Antonio as “the largest small church in the USA.”
With an average Sunday attendance of 60, no endowment to speak of, and 38 pledging units, the church’s annual budget is $200,000.
Compare that with the Montessori School the church owns and operates that enrolls more than 125 children, ages three through nine, and has an annual budget of $750,000.
Compare that with the church’s food pantry that provides supplemental food for 800 people a month, serving 2500 families a year.
Grace Montessori School began 16 years ago with seven children of food pantry clients. The school’s new state-of-the-art facility in what had been the administrative offices of Hess’s Department Store on the ground level of the store’s parking garage was dedicated in December of 2004. In partnership with the Allentown Parking Authority, the church had secured state and local funding to construct this purpose-built school for its early childhood program. Continued growth and the addition, two years ago, of an early elementary program, will require additional expansion. The school has begun seeking to develop an adjoining space.
In keeping with its historic roots as a social ministry of the church, Grace Montessori School continues to provide scholarship assistance, based solely upon financial need, to approximately 30 percent of its student body. This commitment allows children of families who cannot afford to provide a private school education the means to do so and helps broaden the diversity of the student body to include more socio-economic, racial, ethnic, religious and cultural diversity than most Montessori programs which, while typically culturally and religiously diverse, are predominantly middle and upper middle class economically.
The church also provides space, equipment, direction, and oversight for the federally funded Weed & Seed job counseling program, partnering with the City of Allentown which administers this HUD grant for weeding out crime and seeding opportunities in the country’s most blighted neighborhoods.
The job counselor has placed 250 clients in good paying jobs over a two-year period. These jobs by people in the focus area, the poor urban area in which the church is located, have brought $5 million in salaries into the local economy, resulting in an impact that approaches $10 million.
Then, in the church’s multi-purpose room and lower-level conference room, counselors meet with students five days a week, giving people who dropped out of high school the opportunity to earn the General Equivalency Diploma. Students range in age from 16 to 81. The church provides the use of space at no charge to the Adult Literacy Center of the Lehigh Valley which administers the program.
Additionally, the church hosts a program for juvenile first offenders and a legal services program for its food pantry clients.
A group home for homeless people is being planned for the church’s building where AIDS Outreach had been a wide-ranging community ministry of Grace for more than 15 years until steadily dwindling government funding forced its closing in 2006.
“As steel and other industries in the Lehigh Valley died in the 20th century,” Malloy said, “the people of Grace made a decision not to abandon the inner city but to stay and make a difference. Today, Grace Church is recognized as the most socially active open, inclusive congregation of any denomination in the Lehigh Valley. Grace Church is what it is because of where it is.”
Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski considers Grace "an important element of the revitalization of Center City." When the City of Allentown invited businesses and agencies to be featured on its website under the title, “Moving to Allentown? Watch our community videos,” Grace was one of only two churches invited, and Grace Montessori School was one of only two schools.
The Morning Call regularly accepts, even invites, the rector to write op-eds for the paper. Prior to the 2007 Triduum, an op-ed featured Grace's Easter fire as a symbol of God’s light in the midst of the inner-city’s darkness.
The local PBS station developed a six-minute segment on the church.
The Lilly Foundation awarded Grace Church $45,000 in 2006 to send the rector on a three-month sabbatical, to support the church in his absence, and to support the rector in post-sabbatical study and renewal.
In 2004, the Toronto Globe and Mail sent a senior associate to the United States to explore how the last presidential election was swayed by the evangelical vote. Grace figured significantly in his article as a different kind of American religion.
The Episcopal Church has designated Grace a Jubilee Center "because of the work we do to respect the dignity of every human being," according to GraceAllentown.com. "Some of our ministries are part of our corporation. Some work directly with us to support our primary ministries. Others have made a home here and have invited us to supervise their staff. Some simply use our space, free of charge, partnering with us in an informal way to be a sign of Grace in the city."
As rector, Malloy is an ex officio member of each ministry’s board and is the elected president of Grace Montessori School. He also serves as its chaplain. He worked as a high school teacher, a university professor and in business before he was ordained a priest in the Diocese of Bethlehem. He holds a doctorate in liturgical studies from Notre Dame and is author of Celebrating the Eucharist (Church Publishing). He is also the Grace Church webmaster.
The multiplicity of community programs prompts Malloy to say that Grace Church is “more than our outreach programs. We are a community that asks the hard questions in life without expecting to find neat or final answers; we seek to honor our children’s experiences of God and help them to dream a holy dream for the future; we strive to accept people for who they are while inviting them to become all they can be. All of our life – our life together and our life of service – emerges from the presence of Christ we discover among us when we celebrate the Eucharist. Our liturgy is the heart of our corporate life. It is there that we see and touch and taste and hear God’s outrageous promises and, in response, embrace God’s outrageous demands.”
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has written to the people of Grace, in part, "I give thanks for your ministry in so many areas that respond to the basic needs of human beings, and for your ability to speak good news to the bad news the world serves up. May you continue to be a rich and Grace-filled blessing to those around you."
Grace continually deals with financial crises which, thus far, have been met through generous average parishioner pledges of $2,287 from 38 pledging units (including average pledges of $3,447 from vestry members and the rector), grants from the Diocese of Bethlehem and various foundations, special gifts, bequests, fund raising and the continuing support and encouragement of Bethlehem Bishop Paul Marshall and the diocesan community.
[The Rev. Canon Bill Lewellis has served as communication minister for the Diocese of Bethlehem since 1986. He and his wife, Monica, were received into the Episcopal Church in 1982 at Grace Allentown where they continue to be members.]