In 1946, a ministry outreach was started by a Mennonite family living in Oxford Village, a public housing development in northeast Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. What started as a Bible club for children and youth quickly grew to a Sunday School and then a church plant. Each week, Mennonites from Lancaster County would drive into the city to be part of the ministry. Eventually a pastor was called and over the last 20 years, Oxford Circle Mennonite Church has grown into a community-based congregation.
The church’s transformation mirrored what was happening in the larger Oxford Circle community and in many urban centers across the country. As older Caucasian residents moved out of inner cities, younger people of color moved in and cities became significantly more diverse. As the Oxford Circle neighborhood changed, church members revisited the question, “Why are we here?”
Church members agreed it would be a safe, family friendly, low-pressure way to get to know new residents of the community and for community members to meet each other. That first community
festival was a huge success and has become an annual summer event, now running for 14 years!
In 2006, the church also founded the non-profit organization, Oxford Circle Christian Community Development Association (OCCCDA), with a focus on being the hands and feet of God. Although part of the mission is to address needs of the community, Executive Director Anita Lyndaker-Studer shared about the importance of also being relational. OCCCDA staff and volunteers are intentional about building relationships while meeting the needs of the community.
Partnering with the national programs Bridge of Hope and Interfaith Hospitality Network are examples of meeting a dire community need while also building relationships. There are very few homeless shelters open to families (most serve only adult men or adult women). Oxford Circle partners with other congregations, taking turns hosting homeless families in their church building. One of Oxford Circle’s small groups also serves in a mentoring role for Bridge of Hope participants.
The church and OCCCDA are also intentional about partnering with local schools to support neighborhood children. Schools are too often overcrowded and underfunded. Members whose children attend local schools are able to communicate needs and serve as a bridge between the church, OCCCDA and the school district. Providing supplemental education programs like after-school tutoring, the Summer Art & Enrichment Program, and the EDGE conflict resolution program are tangible ways to build relationships while meeting a significant community need.
Following God’s call to remain in northeast Philadelphia and to be a peaceful presence, Oxford Circle and OCCCDA abide by the guiding question: If Jesus loves Oxford Circle and this community, how will they know? It is one thing to offer a service on Sunday morning; what happens the rest of the week?
Prayer walks through the neighborhood are one way the congregation lets residents know they are present and available. During the summer months, members gather in small groups an hour before church and walk through the community. Pausing to greet neighbors and pray with them lets residents know about the church and its ministries.
Even though people may not go to church, or may attend another congregation, residents know that Oxford Circle is a safe place and many turn to the church in difficult times, regardless of an individual’s church affiliation. Community members turn to Oxford Circle knowing they can receive support and encouragement.
Oxford Circle desires to equip its members to be witnesses wherever they may be – at work, in school, on their residential block. This is evident by a group of church members who host small group Bible studies for their neighborhood blocks. Sharing the Gospel and doing evangelistic outreach where you are is part of Oxford Circle’s Kingdom ministry.
Associate Pastor, Lynn Parks, and OCCCDA Executive Director, Anita Lyndaker-Studer, share that the greatest challenge in these ministries is working with people because life is messy! So many residents live in deep poverty and are fighting for survival. Families fight difficult odds to overcome generations of brokenness and addiction, struggling to find ways of living differently. It is hard for any of us to recognize sin in our own lives and especially hard to break family patterns.
While people present great challenges, Lynn and Anita share that people are also a source of tremendous joy. Oxford Circle provides mentoring and discipleship, supporting people to grow in life-giving ways. (See inset story, Growing God’s Kingdom, for a celebratory example.) Families are stressed, kids are stressed, and the church provides people with a place to rest. Members are conscious of the importance to share God’s Good News when bad news overwhelms the airways. Remembering God’s faithfulness, members ask: What do we need to put our hands on today?
Recently, the leadership team surveyed the 90+ children and youth who attend Oxford Circle Mennonite Church. One question asked if he or she had a problem, which adult would they go to. Every single youth was able to name two or three adults in the church who were not family members. This was yet one more sign of God’s goodness and hope – that while relationships were being built, needs were also being met. Praise be to God!
Growing God’s Kingdom
Tyler* started attending Oxford Circle Mennonite Church as a teenager, participating in the youth program. When he graduated from high school and was trying to get into the work force, he met Michelle* and they began dating. When she became pregnant, they decided to get married and committed to a life together.
Over the years, Associate Pastor Lynn Parks has witnessed Tyler and Michelle navigating life together, growing in their desire to serve the Lord. They attend church faithfully with their young child and as they face life’s inevitable challenges, they seek God’s direction. They have turned to their small group for guidance in how to have a strong, Christian marriage.
As Tyler and Michelle grow in their marriage, they want to share with others and have been inviting couples to their home to grow together in understanding Christian marriage. Together, the couples continue to learn about marriage and discern how God is leading them.
To witness God’s Kingdom growing from person to person is so encouraging. Youth get involved with OCCCDA programs and build relationships which often leads the youth to start attending church. As they attend church and grow in their faith, they are encouraged to share God’s Good News with others and the welcoming circle widens.
These are signs of God’s great faithfulness and the hope that comes with Christ Jesus!
*Names have been changed.
Ways to support with prayer:
• Pray for all the children and families that we work with who face immense challenges in education, inadequate medical care, ongoing violence and poverty.
• Pray that we can know how to best support and serve the Oxford Circle community.
• Pray for renewed hope for people in the church living in Philadelphia, a city with one of the highest poverty rates in the United States. Things are broken everywhere we look and although we know God has not forgotten us, we need to remain firm in that assurance. Pray for refreshing energy and to draw on God for continued strength.
• Pray for OCCCDA’s continued direction. The Oxford Circle community is very underserved – there are not many local services. Sometimes we are not able to meet a community need and refer people to outside organizations, only to experience the larger broken system. It is easy to get discouraged. There is always more and more that we could do. We need God’s guidance to consistently discern: what is the next right step?
• Pray for faithful leadership. We know God has called us to these ministries for a reason. Pray that we can remain faithful to our calling.