Reaching the Heart of South Philadelphia

August 19, 2012

Rev. Jonathan Olsen, (M.A.R. '04)

by Jeremy Eshelman, M.Div. student

As I walked through South Philadelphia near 17th and Washington with Rev. Jonathan Olsen, on almost every block it seemed that we talked to someone from the neighborhood.  From members of his church (Grace and Peace Community Church) to recent converts, to drug dealers, Pastor Jon (as he’s known on the streets) is a man of the community and he talks to them all. “My office is the streets,” he told me, “God has placed this part of the city on my heart because we’ve lived here a decade, and it’s where He has called me to live and serve.” I met with him recently to find out more about his ministry.

Rev. Olsen graduated from Westminster in 2004 while he was already serving full-time on the pastoral staff at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Center City, Philadelphia.  While serving at Tenth, Pastor Jon moved with his wife Rachel and family to the community in which he now lives.  They would walk to church, and reflecting on that time, he says, “Increasingly, I felt as though I was leaving my mission field to go to worship and pastor at Tenth.  I was kind of like a fish out of water in some ways there, yet Jesus was growing me as a young pastor in preparation for Grace and Peace. I felt more and more called to serve in the community in which I lived.” While at Tenth, Jonathan and his wife considered doing missions work in Turkey and Colombia, but as the Lord shut the doors to those opportunities it became obvious that He was calling them to stay in South Philly.

Planting a church often presents unique challenges based on where a pastor wants to plant that church; it was no different for Grace and Peace. At first, the biggest challenge was finding a building in a central location for ministry and ministry presence.  After searching a few different places, Pastor Jon found a location that was small but would fit their needs. The only hurdle, he immediately needed the funds to put down a deposit on the space.  While he was waiting for a check to come in, the landlord received a deposit from another person for the same space. “It was really tough to hear that, but I was not convinced the story was over with that property – it was too ideal.  So I asked some folks to fast and pray about it with me.” Just five days after hearing that the place was claimed, he got a call from the landlord saying, “I don’t know why I am doing this, but if you can provide a deposit check for me in the next day, I will rent you the property and let you worship here.” Jonathan was stunned, he says, “I got that call and immediately went into a staff meeting at Tenth.  I told them about the call, and as I was talking I could see [former senior pastor of Tenth] Phil Ryken smiling.  We [knew] that God’s hand was in this church plant and that He was in control.”

Jonathan was able to get the money and went to the landlord to give her the check. “It was amazing.  I went to her, handed her the check, and she took the other deposit she had received and ripped it up right in front of me.  This woman who didn’t know me at all and isn’t even a Christian yet did something unheard of.  It’s crazy, and it only makes sense when you believe that God is the one who is in control and that nothing can thwart the advancement of the Gospel.” Over the course of two years, the small church outgrew the room where they worshiped, doubling in size. “We would have the doors open for people during Sunday worship, and we would set up speakers outside so that people could stand on the streets to hear the gospel because there wasn’t enough room inside!  It felt like the book of Acts, people yearning to hear the gospel.”

Jonathan at the new locationBecause of their size though, they had to move. After much prayer and looking at local places, they were able to rent a large urban warehouse on the corner of 17th Street and Washington Avenue (renovations pictured, left).  Currently, Grace and Peace Church is raising money in order to renovate the new property and bring it up to code.  In the meantime, they have had to find a temporary location. Again God provided in a strange and powerful way. “We decided that we would ask the local YMCA, a perfect geographic short-term solution, if we could worship there while our property was being renovated.  I spoke with the executive director and she simply told me ‘we don’t do that.’ She had a number of good reasons, and it therefore didn’t seem reasonable at all for us to use the space, so we began to explore other options, none of which worked out.  But a little while after she turned us down, she called me back and said, ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this, and it goes against every rule I’ve made for this place in the past, but I will let you worship in our gym.’ I was stunned.  God had provided in a great way for us yet again, and it only makes sense because of how He is in control of everything!” Grace and Peace has been worshipping at the YMCA for a few months, and will continue to do so until all the money is raised and the renovations on their building are finished.

Jonathan and BruceNot only has God provided them with a space to worship, but Pastor Jon also recognizes God has placed him in the paths of many broken and hurting people in the community.  As we walked through the streets of South Philly, he stopped and talked with people from all walks of life.  One man, Bruce (pictured with Jonathan, right), had made a profession of faith in Jesus through the teaching and relationships at Grace and Peace.  He had lived in that community for 43 years and knew the ins and outs of the area.  We met a young 8-year old boy, Malik, who, along with his two young siblings, come to church on their own initiative, without their parents or adults.  Jonathan was texting a friend in the hospital, David, with whom he had shared the gospel for 10 years before he recently came to faith in Christ.  Block after block, he would tell me stories about people at Grace and Peace, people in the community, or about what is happening there. “We’re a community church, we’re here for the people. Church is a community event, and what happens on Sunday is merely a culmination of the rest of the week.  I’m not that important to the church—if I were to leave for whatever reason, the church would continue to operate as it always has.”

Many of the people going to Grace and Peace have never heard Christ preached from all of Scripture. “We’re going through Deuteronomy right now, and I’m showing them the grace of the gospel through that.  People have said to me, ‘I’ve never heard the Bible preached like that!’ People are coming to know the depth of their own sin, and as a result, they are coming to know the grace of God that both forgives sins and transforms lives. These people, just like you and me, need to know about God’s grace in Jesus Christ.”

There is a large group of kids who come to church every Sunday, many of whom do not come from Christian families.  Jonathan calls these kids “functional orphans”—their parents (or whatever adults they might live with) are largely removed from their lives.  Not only adults in the community, but children are also coming to know the Lord.

While I was visiting, Grace and Peace had its annual kids’ summer camp, “King’s Kids” (pictured below) This three-week, 9am-4pm kid’s camp is run almost exclusively by volunteers from Grace and Peace, Tenth Presbyterian church, and even a group of 20-year-old men and women from Northern Ireland (for whom Jonathan is immensely grateful).  “It’s amazing how God has provided for us.  Who would have thought that a group of young believers from Northern Ireland would want to come to South Philly, to a church of less than 150 people, and serve? It makes no sense, humanly speaking!  But, God is truly blessing our efforts with these children in countless ways, and it’s wonderful to see not only what He’s doing through us, but also to us.  And God’s blessing includes Marian Anderson Park, the camp facility, who has allowed us to use their property for free, and they’ve also included us in their free city breakfast and lunch program – just unreal!”  Towards the end of the day, Jonathan led the kids in their memory passage from Isaiah 43:

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
 he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you. 

King's Kids

Hearing over 50 children scream that passage is a wonderful testimony to the work God is doing through Grace and Peace Community Church and through Jonathan Olsen.  Please pray for the church renovations to its new building and the continued ministry of Jonathan and the church to the South Philadelphia Community.

If you’d like to support Westminster in its training of students like Jonathan for gospel ministry, please click here to donate online.

For more information on Grace and Peace Church, click here.