Religion News: Notes from Philly Tell a Story of Community, Respect and Service

Sam and Charlie Gillespie refurbish shoes during St. Paul’s mission trip to St. James School in Philadelphia. Submitted photo.

For the last couple of summers, young people from St. Paul’s, Ivy have spent a week in Philadelphia on one of the church’s youth missions. They worked with St. James School, a no-tuition Episcopal school, serving the young residents of a neighborhood with few resources in the north end of the city. As the journey began, Rev. Justin McIntosh reflected on the dual purpose of the summer mission. The main purpose of the trip, he noted, was to be of service to the school, its students, and the neighborhood. 

“Another major purpose of the trip,” McIntosh wrote, “will be to deepen our relationships with the people of the St. James School. St James’ students live, study, and pray in a radically different environment than the youth of our parish. For this reason, both groups can learn from one another.” 

One of the first things the St. Paul’s group learned was that their preconceived notions were all wrong. They knew they had certain advantages, but found that St. James students had others. 

Rev. Justin McIntosh and St. Paul’s young people pick up trash in the neighborhood around St. James School. Submitted

Tess Chirichetti remarked on how strong and mature the St. James kids are. “Today we went for a drive through the surrounding neighborhoods where people live around or below the poverty line. Seeing the homes and communities that these kids live in and then seeing how positive and optimistic they are at school was very encouraging. These kids have so much that they could complain about, and yet they consistently look at life through a ‘glass half-full’ mindset.”

Ella Morrison had the same impression: “They are so happy. I am not sure I would be as happy if I were in their situation. It’s amazing to me how different the area around St. James is compared to our community, and it is only a five-hour drive away.” 

McIntosh has been associated with the Philadelphia school for about a decade, before he came to St. Paul’s. More recently, he was invited to serve on its board. He likes the way the school has become part of the community, serving neighbors and parents as well as children in grades 4 through 8. “The area is not well served by the public schools there,” he said. The school remains a home away from home for its graduates, helping them apply to private and parochial high schools and boarding schools. “They can go there to study in the afternoons and they also get help with applying to colleges.”

“I have noticed that there is a strong sense of community at the St. James School,” Sam Gillespie reported. “I imagine that the students have gone through tough experiences that have brought them together. I wonder if our privilege in western Albemarle keeps us from being as closely knit.” 

McIntosh observed that the St. Paul’s teenagers are used to a rural-suburban model of community, where gatherings are mostly intentional. He doubts if families in Philadelphia’s north side set up play dates or search for friends of the same age for their children. “Around St. James, people gather in the streets and see each other every day,” he said. 

That’s not to minimize the hardships of the neighborhood, or of the lives of the St. James students. “We learned that Philadelphia has the highest deep poverty rate in the nation (a family of four living on $12,000 or less per year),” Sam said. And of the more than a thousand shootings in the city so far this year, 10% of the victims have been younger than 18. The St. Paul’s, Ivy team constructed a memorial to those killed in and around the St. James neighborhood. 

One of the tasks set for the kids was to clean the area around the school, and the sheer volume of the trash amazed them. Wes Morisson wondered why anyone would throw a glass bottle on the ground. “When we collected trash that afternoon, I noticed there were pieces of trash that were so old that they were half buried under the ground,” he said. “I am not used to seeing as much trash in my own community.”

Despite their sometimes-difficult lives, the students displayed an enviable kindness towards each other, Christian Chirichetti said. “At first, I was nervous about talking to the kids at St. James and it even felt a little uncomfortable, but once we sat down (for lunch), the kids were so nice to us and made us feel like we were at home. Not only were they really nice to me, but they are also very nice to each other. I saw that one of the kids had no one to play with, so a group of older kids invited him to play tag with them.” 

The St. Paul’s kids spent part of a day cleaning donated shoes at a non-profit organization devoted to helping young people in poverty. “It sounds grimy,” Sam Gillespie wrote, “but I thought it was an enjoyable experience. Conversations were flowing the whole time, so it never got boring. We were always trying to pick the most interesting shoes to clean. We had snakeskin loafers, dinosaur Converse, unicorn Converse, and lots more.”

“The day was full of learning and service,” he concluded, “for which I am grateful.”

New Pastor for Lebanon Presbyterian

At the start of 2023, Philip Rice was happy with his life as a school teacher for a Christian school, and assistant pastor in Marshall, Virginia. “I love preaching, though,” he said, “and that January, I prayed about becoming a full-time pastor.”

Meanwhile, 100 miles South in Greenwood, the elders and pulpit committee of Lebanon Presbyterian Church began to pray for a full-time pastor. Through a series of unplanned events, everyone’s prayers were answered, and Rice believes it was no accident: “I saw God’s hand in all of it,” he said. 

Rev. Philip Rice is the new pastor at the historic Lebanon Church in Greenwood. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Rice, the father of six children, had a home and a community he loved at the northern end of Virginia’s horse country. “I wasn’t looking for a job just yet,” he said. 

He was helping a student navigate the sometimes obscure job boards for ministerial positions when he discovered that Lebanon was seeking a pastor. “I love to preach and often fill in as a guest preacher,” he said. “I got in touch with the elders and offered to preach when needed in the interim.” They’d been looking for more than a year and asked him to apply.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m lazy, but this was a 20-page application for a job I wasn’t seeking, so I went to check them out first,” Rice said. “I was almost hoping we’d disagree on a few basic points so I wouldn’t be tempted to disrupt my life.”

No such luck: he and the church elders and committee were in agreement on a number of divisive topics. Their understanding matched in every possible way; all the personalities were remarkably compatible. But the real clincher was when Rice experienced the congregational prayer, a custom at Lebanon’s Sunday service. “Probably 10 or 12 of the congregation prayed out loud,” he said. “I was profoundly moved by their words.”

More prayer followed. When the committee unanimously voted to call him, Rice took a week to pray and fast. Ultimately, he accepted, moved his large family to the parsonage in late July, and preached every Sunday in August. He can look out from the parsonage and see his children riding bikes on the church’s pavement. “It’s a little tight, but we’re very comfortable,” he said.

He said the elders and he were in agreement on the importance of sermons emphasizing the word of God first rather than the cleverness of the preacher. At Lebanon, he’ll preach the whole Bible, chapter by chapter. 

Rice is well aware of Lebanon’s historic roots. The Greenwood congregation has traditionally considered 1747 its beginning, but more than a decade before that, Ulster Scots, led by Michael Woods and his sons-in-law, the Wallaces, settled around the William Wallace homestead in Greenwood. Presbyterians were to play a large part in the coming revolution, objecting not only to taxes imposed by the king, but also the taxes they were forced to pay to the Church of England. 

After the war, and several years of meeting in homes and small rustic churches, the stately present church was built in 1855. 

Rice said he believes the congregation’s growth will happen organically by fostering depth and breadth through visibly living Biblical principles, as Lebanon’s people have for centuries. He feels a responsibility to make sure that continues. “After more than 300 years of faithful service by church members, I don’t want to be the one to muck it up,” he said.

Small Blessings

The Crozet Cares Closet continues to provide personal and household care items to those in the community who struggle to buy them. The closet particularly needs dish soap, bar soap, deodorant and shampoo. Donate these items at Crozet Baptist Church, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Denise Ramey Real Estate and at specified hours at the Scott House on Route 250 west of Crozet. The closet, at the Scott House, is open the first Saturday of every month.

Instead of holding their traditional holiday market, Emmanuel Episcopal Church brightened the long summer months with celebrations in July and August on the shady grounds of the Greenwood Church.

St. Paul’s, Ivy begins its Rector’s Forum on Sunday, September 17. The schedule, through December, can be found at 

Beech Grove Christian Church welcomes Mick Leary as its pastor. The church is in Roseland, near Wintergreen. 

Emmanuel Episcopal Church celebrated summer with well-attended Summerfests in July and August. Church members enjoyed food, entertainment and water play. Submitted photo.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here