By Constance Garcia-Barrio
Wharton-Wesley offers a beacon to Cobbs Creek.
Built in 1906, Wharton-Wesley United Methodist Church in Southwest Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek neighborhood once had a congregation of 600, though today, that number hovers between 150 and 200. Many current members commute to attend services. “We have to reboot ourselves,” says the church’s community pastor and Temple University professor Reverend David W. Brown, 56, “grow our programs and change our space so we can reach more people.” In some ways, that work has already begun. Wharton-Wesley hosts a Mennonite congregation, Girl Scouts, music groups, kickboxing classes and more, which often help to bring in money through sharing space.
Roberta Frost, 74, established and runs the church archive and mini-museum. “People have consulted us when they’re researching family members,” Frost says. She’s also restoring antique furniture in the church and she helps to cook and serve meals. Her sister Shella Waters, 72, serves as treasurer and assists with preparing and serving meals.
The ministry currently provides food and clothes for some families, but it wants to do more. Brawer & Hauptman Architects, an award-winning architecture, planning and interior design firm that focuses on nonprofit institutions, was partnered with Wharton-Wesley through the Sacred Places/Civic Spaces initiative to pursue this aspiration.
Brawer & Hauptman has offered plans that include a modest but dazzling facelift that would reveal a treasure.
“We suggested removing the plexiglass, yellowed with time, that hides the stained glass windows,” says Christian Kaulius, 26, a design team member. “Then the windows could be lit from the inside to show their magnificent colors.” That step would create a trifecta of beauty, thrift and a literal beacon for the community.
Once a spruced- up look draws more people inside, the church has to deliver. Reverend Brown says, noting the five recurring areas of concern from community meetings: healthcare, music, education, job training and food. “Philabundance has partnered with us for several years, and through that organization we’re exploring programming possibilities with the Food Trust.”
Improved kitchen facilities could serve diverse needs and provide income for the church.
Wharton-Wesley has also partnered with ACHIEVEability (ACHa), a West-Philadelphia based nonprofit organization. “The church and ACHIEVEability have complementary goals,” says Erika Tapp, director of community services.
Reverend Brown and the design team would like to build upon the sharing they currently do by creating a more inviting venue.
“We’ve broken projects down into financially feasible steps,” Kaulius says. “For example, a whole new heating and cooling system is costly, but the church could add three large fans in the sanctuary to make the space more comfortable in summer.”
While Reverend Brown recognizes the challenge Wharton-Wesley faces, he feels optimistic. “We have a huge task ahead of us,” he says. “But God will help us accomplish what He put us here to do.”