I’m originally from Philadelphia and spent my earliest years in a Philadelphia housing project. My dad was a prison guard for the city prison system and I was usually on the wrong side of the law. My brother John became a Christian in 1970 and for three years hounded me about “getting saved.”
In December 1973, God won the battle going on in my life and I surrendered. After my conversion I left the city for Chicago to get away from the drug culture, the police, and from anyone looking for me to settle scores. In 1982, much to my surprise, the Lord returned me to Philadelphia (after graduating from seminary) to start a church in Roxborough in Northwest Philadelphia.
After that church was established, I left the city again with my family—this time for France and then Romania—before returning to the United States in 1998. My wife Kathy and I are now back in the city of Philadelphia planting a church with my brother John and his wife Dawn and with three other committed families in our leadership team. We are in an area of West Philadelphia called University City. Among other schools Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania are located there.
We did not choose to return to Philadelphia because it would be the most fun place to live, the safest place to live, or the least expensive place to live—nor was it the place where we would find the most square footage for our money. We believe God has led us back to the city of my roots to witness to His great works and point others to Jesus. We are blessed to have families working with us who have counted the cost and have committed themselves to church planting in Philadelphia.
Over the past few years (at least once a year) I travel to Beirut for pastoral training. I have never been in any danger there, as far as I knew at the time, but during my visits there have been car bombs, suspected Israeli Air Force flyovers and rising tensions. These made me glad to leave. When people ask me how I feel about living in Philadelphia with the crime, violence and gang activity, I tell them tongue-in-cheek that I grew up in Philadelphia and feel safer in Beirut.
There’s a kernel of truth to that. We live in the third poorest legislative district of Pennsylvania, though our neighborhood has experienced significant gentrification and has become more livable. But go two blocks away and you enter a different world. When my wife and I shop in local grocery stores or take the trolley to Center City we are now the minority. We are much more cautious about where we go and when we go. Before parking my car, I go through a mental checklist to make sure nothing is visible in the car and to remove the face of my radio.
In the suburbs I never thought about ride-a-longs with the police and wearing a bulletproof vest. My brother and I joined the police clergy and apart from the Muslim imam are the only white faces at the meetings. The joke is that now we get to ride up front. What a change from our youth! Each month we meet with other pastors and the police captains of two districts to hear the latest crime statistics and volunteer to help with community events. Pastors are called to hold vigils and prayer walks in areas where homicides have occurred.
A few weeks ago I was waiting outside a Chinese take-out for my order and sat down on a step next to a homeless man. In those few minutes I was able to hear his story and tell him the good news of God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice. One of my sons was with me and I told him that this was one reason I want to be in the city. He looked at me slightly puzzled and I told him that being in the city I am reminded more often of the ravages of sin, of the plight of those living in the streets, of the systemic injustices in our society, of racial divisions and discrimination, and of the of precarious condition of the poor.
I never knew homeless people by name until I was back on the city streets and couldn’t avoid them. Before they were nameless, faceless, and thankfully rare in our suburban community. Now I know Mark and William and others. It’s not that there are no homeless people or no poverty in the suburbs. But it is hidden better and it is easier to escape when people pull into their garages in suburban developments.
In making this move back into the city I wasn’t looking for confirmation that God wanted us here, but it is encouraging when God gives you a glimpse of what He is doing. In October, a few weeks before moving from the suburbs back to the city, I was standing in my suburban garage going through stuff and packing. My cell phone rang and my brother John said someone wanted to speak with me. An unfamiliar voice on the other end asked me if I remembered a guy named Pete who used to hang out at a recreation center in Philadelphia years ago.
It turns out that John had been talking to Pete, who lives a few doors away, and told Pete that he had grown up in the Olney-Feltonville section of the city. John gave him a business card and when Pete saw “Davis” he asked John if he knew a “Stevie” Davis. John told him that we were brothers, and Pete proceeded to explain how I messed him up over 35 years ago. You see, Pete used to buy drugs from me when I was a heroin dealer. He recalled the day he came to my house to buy drugs and I told him I wasn’t dealing drugs anymore because I found Jesus.
I stood in my garage after that phone conversation on the verge of tears as I was reminded once again how good God had been to me in saving me from early death and certain hell and had now given me this opportunity to meet again someone like Pete to whom I had done evil and now tell him what great things God had done for me. The following day I met Pete and had that opportunity to testify of the grace of God in my life and the power of the gospel for whoever comes to Christ for salvation.
He lives in a boarding house with twenty other people in conditions which make me cringe. We often take food there for him and others. I see Pete occasionally and always stop to speak with him. He wants to reminisce about the old days. I want to point him and others to Jesus.
We are not utopian dreamers. We do not believe that, with our presence, Philadelphia will be transformed overnight. Yet we do believe in transformation by the Word of God and the Spirit of God. We do believe that we should seek the “shalom and prosperity of the city” (Jer. 29:7) and that, as lives are redeemed, God’s church can be a city within the city—an alternate city where people find grace, hope, peace and community. City ministry is not for everyone. But I can’t help but feel that there are many more who should consider how they might invest their lives in the city—this city or other cities. We ask for the prayers of SI readers that we would be channels of God’s love and grace in this needy place.
Dr. Stephen M. Davis is associate pastor and director of missions at Calvary Baptist Church (Lansdale, PA) and adjunct professor at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He holds a B.A from Bob Jones University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, FL), an M.Div. from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and a D.Min. in Missiology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Steve has been a church planter in Philadelphia, France, and Romania. He and his wife Kathy recently moved back to Philadelphia to plant Grace Church with his brother John and his wife Dawn and three other couples. Steve’s views do not necessarily represent the position of Calvary Baptist Ministries.