North-Philadelphia-born rap artist, PnB Rock, glimpses some of the unforgiving urban realities that face North Philly in his song, “My City Needs Something.” Rock depicts for us the harsher side of living in the hood [1].  He paints in bleak strokes the sights and sounds of the trouble around him, like a sermon with a strong page two: gunshots popping and slow-to-respond police sirens wailing, yellow police tape and teddy bear death memorials. He hears voices crying out in pain for sisters and brothers lost, “Why’d you have to go?” And he hears the haunting silence on the other side of the phone that these siblings’ voices used to fill. In the midst of these lost voices, Rock finds his own voice: a refrain, crying out in need of some sort of salvation. Like a modern-day psalmist questioning his circumstance, or a prophet anticipating a messianic deliverer, Rock bookends his hook with this refrain:

“And I don’t know what it is

But my city need something

People killing people over nothing

I swear it’s like everyday I wake up

Man I hear something like:

Man I miss my brother

Rest in peace my hitter

Man they took my sister

I swear we need something different

But I don’t know what it is.”

PnB says North Philly needs something. What is that “something different” that the hoods of our nation need in order to become a new creation, free from the old cycles of violence, poverty, and property seizure? The truth is that North Philly needs someone. North Philly needs Jesus Christ. I don’t mean that in a trite, Bible-school answer way. And I don’t mean that as if to say he is not already present and active in North Philly or that no good comes from it. There are plenty of beautiful faces, spaces, and places in that neighborhood. But the needs of North Philly can only be met by the power of the crucified and resurrected savior.

The black bodies being gunned down and laid to rest can only be met by a savior who has “authority to lay [his life] down and authority to take it up again” in resurrection [2] . A savior who demonstrates “greater love has no one than this:” that he “laid down his life for us”[3]. So that, though for the time “we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh,” in Jesus Christ, these “dying bodies will be swallowed up by life”[4].

The ghosts of lost fathers, of lost sons and daughters, can only be met by a Spirit who assures us of an eternal “adoption to son and daughtership”[5]. A Spirit that “testifies with our Spirit that we are God’s children”[6]. So that, in Jesus Christ, God’s one and only son, we receive “adoption as sons and daughters” into the eternal protection of the family of God [7].

The justified anger due to generations of racial injustice and oppression, running like bloodlines to the heart of the North Philly streets, can only be met by a marginalized messiah. A savior who carries the oppressive burden of a cross, the capital punishment of an empire, unto death. So that, in Jesus Christ, there is a “refuge for the oppressed,” who is “close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” [8].

The old cycle of property seizure and abandoned buildings can only be met by the promise of new creation. By a savior who is “making all things new” [9]. So that in Jesus Christ, the “new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here” [10]!

Waiting to witness this new creation at work takes a great amount of time and cost. Kingdom change does not come cheap. A space that has been captured in systemic injustice and its accompanying cycles of violence, poverty, and property seizure, is going to need people who are willing to be a faithful presence. It needs people who will be rooted in the hood, who will continue to love their neighbors as themselves, and who will proclaim how the city’s needs are being met in Christ. It will require people to embody this new reality daily. This word, “cost,” is really what led me to feel called to work with Spirit and Truth Fellowship this summer. God continually placed the word upon my heart, Luke 14: 25-33: “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple” (The Message paraphrase). Our calls may cost us our closest family ties. Our calls may cost us homogeneous suburban comfort. Our calls may cost us our lives as we know and love them right now. But the call to discipleship requires we follow Christ no matter where he moves. Even if it costs us the cross.

I felt called this summer to a congregation that would help me embrace this cost, rather than flee from it. Spirit and Truth, in so many ways, was this congregation. Pastor Manny Ortiz and Sue Baker, along with their families, have been a church planting team for some fifty years together. They began their ministry in Chicago, but sensed a call to Philadelphia about 27 years ago. Though the move cost them their former familiarity and church planting success, it opened new opportunity. After uprooting from Chicago, both families rooted themselves in the Hunting Park neighborhood of Philadelphia. Their approach started as a very grassroots ministry, walking the streets for an extended time, observing cultural differences, listening to community members’ expressed needs, learning the community’s greatest assets to address those needs, praying for a church space to open. Eventually a small German immigrant congregation, in a self-sacrificial act, handed their church building over to Pastor Manny and Sue and their vision of a multiethnic church rooted in the diversity of its community [11].

Since its birth, the church has committed to raising up local leaders, and has sent many of these leaders into eight different church plants (planted in the span of 15 years!) around the various neighborhoods of Philadelphia.  Their hopes for these congregations have been to plant seeds of new creation that will be gardened by Christ throughout the city, as they root themselves in the Word and the different communities God calls them to. They hope to be a faithful witness, inviting new disciples in the community to follow Christ as he is meeting the diverse needs of the city here and now. And these seeds have already borne great fruit. Out of the churches’ community presence–paying close attention to the needs of their neighbors, whom they love, and working alongside them–a free Christian health clinic has sprouted; a community bike-repair shop has blossomed; a free legal clinic has sprung up; a full-time Christian School has budded in the church walls. And because of their faithful presence, the community has invested in the flourishing of these ministries.

My mentor for the summer was Pastor Taehoo Lee, one of the associate Pastors of Spirit and Truth who is currently fostering a call to planting a church. Though Pastor Lee has not yet planted a church, he has been rooted in North Philly for over ten years, seeing his call very simply as loving his neighbor as himself. Whereas most of the few established congregations in the area commute in for Sunday service and bring their love back out with them as they leave, Pastor Taehoo has brought the love of Christ into the row-homes of North Philly where he lives. After a couple of years getting to know his neighbors and envisioning a new North Philly with them, Pastor Taehoo and a couple key community leaders took to the streets, rallying families to start a yearly kids camp about ten years ago. For four weeks every summer, North Uber Street is closed off so 100 kids from the neighborhood, age 6 to 15, can come together.  Whether praying over the streets, studying the Bible, worshiping with their bodies, running through leaking fire hydrants, learning martial arts, performing puppet shows, or dancing at block parties, these four weeks of fellowship give North Philly a taste of God’s kingdom feast. It gives North Philly a taste of what it is to love your neighbor as yourself, of what it is to be loved by Jesus Christ, the Word who became flesh and “moved into the neighborhood” [12]. Pastor Taehoo also had the incredible opportunity to buy an abandoned building that will enable him to continue the camp’s momentum year round. It will be transformed into a community center, where he will run leadership trainings with students from camp and host Sunday worship. If you speak with any of the neighbors, they will tell you they are incredibly excited for this tangible sign of new hope.

Through this North Philly street camp and my time with Spirit and Truth, I was challenged to pursue discipleship that cost familiarity and comfort. But with this cost came the reward of witnessing our savior meet the needs of the city. I saw Christians committed to faithfully following Christ, no matter what the cost, loving the Lord their God with all their hearts, souls, and minds, as well as their neighbors as themselves. I saw old abandoned property used as drug hubs transformed into newly created community centers and gardens. I saw girls in headdresses, whose parents told them they belong to the Nation of Islam, sing the name of Jesus, the Son, with joy, because their Father God claimed they belong to his family. I saw hunger fought off through shared community barbeques, where all were invited to the table. In short, I saw a glimpse of The Kingdom coming in North Philly, as it is in heaven. I saw new creation. I glimpsed the alternative reality PnB Rock could not see clearly. I glimpsed a day when a young Black Mafia gang member will pound her pistol into a plowshare, a Latin King pound his piece into a pruning hook. A day when Crip will not take up gun against Blood, nor will they train for war anymore [13]. I glimpsed a day where there will be no more death or killing or yellow tape or teddy bear memorials or pain. Because the old order of things has passed away. God is making North Philly new [14]! a


[1] I strongly suggest you watch the music video at

[2] See John 10:17-18

[3] See John 15:13 and 1 John 3:16, respectively

[4] See 2 Corinthians 5:4, New Living Translation

[5] See Ephesians 1:5

[6] See Romans 8:15-16

[7] See Galatians 4:5

[8] See Psalm 9:9 and 34:18, respectively

[9] See Revelation 21: 5, English Standard Version

[10] See 2 Corinthians 5:17

[11] For more on their interesting history and work, see The Banner article, “Gospel Centered Renewal: The Philadelphia Story” at

[12] See John 1:14, The Message Paraphrase

[13]Paraphrase of Isaiah 2: 4

[14] Paraphrase of Revelation 21:3-4



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