Investing in the Community
Sharing the love of Jesus sometimes looks like a church service. Other times, it might look like a group of teenagers in a kitchen being taught to cook nutritious meals they can replicate at home; or families gathered around tables for a painting class; or excited neighborhood children enjoying a new playground. All those, and more, are happening in inner-city Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, thanks to The Block Cares, the nonprofit affiliate of The Block Church.
The Block Church, headquartered in the Port Richmond area of Philadelphia, has been sharing the gospel message in Philadelphia neighborhoods since 2014 and celebrated their 9th anniversary in September.
As the church has grown, now meeting in multiple locations, they have also looked for ways to serve one of the nation’s highest-need cities in practical ways. They especially focus on youth, who are significantly impacted by challenges of drugs, violence, and poverty in their neighborhoods.
While a typical American might think of Philadelphia’s historic roots and connections to the Founders, Pastor Joey Furjanic knows another side, describing the city as having “more issues than you can count.”
The city has one of the nation’s highest rates of deep poverty; and widespread unemployment, mental health issues, and epidemic substance abuse were all complicated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The original Block Church was planted in Port Richmond and near Kensington, a primarily low-income community with a variety of ethnic populations.
The Covid-19 pandemic was a wake-up call for churches to become socially innovative, says Furjanic, and The Block Church’s team began asking themselves, “What else?” With several recovery ministries and food pantries already operating in Philadelphia, they felt God was directing The Block Church to specifically serve youth and children, while partnering with ministries already in place.
“The pandemic really wronged kids, in so many ways,” Furjanic says.
With the mission, “Empowering urban children and youth to experience a limitless future,” the church began taking youth outreach to the next level, focusing on community collaboration with other organizations, mentorship, and fostering creativity. The Block Cares was founded and launched as a separate nonprofit in 2021.
“Each of the three main areas of focus is intentionally woven into everything we do,” says director Maria Little.
To begin uplifting neighborhoods and becoming catalysts for change, one of the first tangible projects for The Block Cares was building a playground for William Steel Elementary in the Nicetown neighborhood. The intent was to create a place for kids to play and dream freely, something area kids haven’t had in 50 years. The year-long project was dedicated in August 2023, providing a safe and fun space that will be a legacy for years to come.
“Things like this don’t often happen in this neighborhood, and it was so meaningful to have someone show up and do what they said that they would do,” says Little.
The Block Cares currently mentors high school students at Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School, located in a neighborhood notorious for being the largest open-air drug market on the East Coast.
In addition to helping students develop cognitive, social, and emotional skills, the program helps instill a sense of ownership and value, serving as a preventative measure to keep youth off the streets and providing the stability needed to envision a future beyond their current circumstances.
Maria Little shares the story of Jayden, a senior student who was failing and at risk of not graduating. His main way of communicating thoughts and feelings was through anger, but with mentorship, Jayden learned to communicate needs in healthy ways.
“He was able to work with his teachers for support, improve his grades, graduate, and go on to college,” Little says.
Another goal has been to provide space where youth can develop practical and artistic skills. Based on the belief that every person has unique creative potential, The Block Cares invests in existing creative programs as well as hosting their own.
“A Night to Remember” in early 2023 brought families together for an evening with a painting instructor. A group of students spent summer, 2023, learning about health and nutrition and how to cook, as The Block Cares worked together with Vetri Community Partnership, a nonprofit founded by Philadelphia restauranteur Marc Vetri.
A generous matching gift for Giving Tuesday 2022 enabled enhancements to the creative arts theatre at Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School and provided a new after-school music production program.
In addition to Little, current staff includes an administrative assistant and a director of development, along with 2 mentors who work for the church. Plans are in place to fund mentors working directly for the nonprofit because the program is proving so valuable.
Furjanic participates in Church Multiplication Network as a host and speaker on the topic of church planting, where he explains that meeting needs is organic, and may develop differently than just starting to offer church services.
“A good strategy for outreach includes starting to have services and see people coming to Christ,” he says, “but then asking, ‘Is there another step?’”
While a separate nonprofit can be a good avenue for funding support, in case churches lose their nonprofit status, not every church needs to do one right away. Furjanic suggests researching what the city needs and what other people are doing to address those needs, and then seeking God’s will as to the church’s unique role.
“We are truly blessed to be able to do what we do,” says Little. “Our desire is to create lasting change and leave a legacy for the youth and kids here in Philadelphia.”