Sanctuary in a Concrete Jungle
Helping alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes, and the homeless is an everyday reality for Richard A. Smith, who has ministered in rough areas of Philadelphia for 35 years. The 150 people who gather regularly for Sunday services at Faith Assembly of God, where Smith is pastor, include a number who have turned their souls over to Jesus after forsaking one life-controlling force or another.
Faith Assembly of God feeds, clothes, and shelters the poor people in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. Some obtain the services and go their own way. Others stick around to learn more about what motivates such loving-kindness.
Smith, who has been a nationally appointed U.S. missionary with Missionary Church Planters & Developers since 1994, knows spiritual warfare keeps a stranglehold on the finances and behavior of numerous local denizens.
Faith AG’s annual tent crusade, held over eight consecutive days during the summer, demonstrates that the church is a place where the hungry find food, the poor get help to pay for utilities, and the addicted gain freedom from drugs. Smith and his congregation offer repeated evidence that faith, diligence, and mentoring provide a way out of a cycle of poverty and despair. This year’s tent crusades targeted drugs and violence.
In the past, Faith AG has housed scores of homeless men and destitute mothers, along with their children. These days, Smith is more focused on reaching children. Smith has a heart for kids, who are drawn to him as a father figure many don’t have in their own homes.
“I’m concerned for the kids,” Smith says. “We’re trying to bring safety into kids’ lives in the midst of a community filled with hostility.”
The tug for the soul often starts via a grumbling stomach. Faith AG feeds up to 400 children every weekday in an afterschool program. Around 10 percent of them stay for Bible club activities after eating a meal.
The Faith AG ministry to adults is built on much more than sermons. Faith AG provides holistic outreaches, ranging from job referrals to parenting classes.
For several years, Smith organized multisite Convoy of Hope community events in the region. This year, he is helping spearhead an outreach of Hope4Philly, a network of businesses, community organizations, and churches providing assistance to at-risk residents. He anticipates the Sept. 16 event will attract more than 7,000 residents.
The 63-year-old Smith is bold, but not arrogant. When the opposition is mighty and the results are slow, a pastor might be ripe for burnout. Yet Smith’s broad smile and gregarious laugh belie the reality that the church has experienced outdoor lighting vandalism, broken windows, and a stolen sound system. A chain-link fence topped by three rows of barbed wire envelops Faith Assembly of God.
Smith says he doesn’t tire of helping people, because so many are desperate for basic survival services.
“It’s not the same people getting help over and over again,” says Smith, who began ministering in Philadelphia in 1980, while still a student at the University of Valley Forge, the AG school in Phoenixville. “We have a whole new clientele coming in from other countries.” That includes a Guatemalan family without a home, Congolese seeking food, and Haitians looking for employment.
When homeless shelters operated by the city or other ministries fill up, some immigrants sleep in their vehicles in the Faith AG parking lot, figuring it’s safer than the streets.
Smith believes violence, illegal drugs, and other vices can be overcome if Christians live out the gospel. He says those who join the cause are faithful in giving, as well as volunteering for church duties.
Smith’s wife, Rosilyn, is a psychiatrist whose income pays the family bills. Smith puts all of his small monthly salary back into church causes. The Smiths lived for many years in a residence they bought near the church for $1,000 at an auction. They built a new residence two years ago, right in the middle of the hood.
The Smiths have one child, 36-year-old daughter, Jeanne, a registered nurse who operates a home health business. She also leads music and women’s ministry at Faith AG.
Faith AG is in a Parent Affiliate Church relationship with The Shepherd’s House Ministry, a Liberian AG congregation in Philadelphia. Faith AG supports the church by sending donations to Liberia, for everything from paying for church sound systems to supporting orphans.
Shepherd’s House Pastor John F. Kennedy fled to the U.S. from war-torn Liberia in 1994. In recent years, Kennedy says Smith has provided spiritual guidance as well as provisions of food and clothing for needy families, especially children.
“He is a spiritual father to me,” says Kennedy, born in 1963, the same year of his presidential namesake’s assassination. “Whenever we need anything, he’s always there for the church and for me personally.”