Destined for Diversity? – documenting the 200-year history of a church in historic Germantown

There’s something very intriguing about old churches. As a kid attending catholic school, I always stared at the church’s tall ceiling while admiring the stain glass windows during mass. A lot of folks living in Philadelphia can relate to this experience, as the city is home to very prominent churches. In 2010, I plunged deeper into the history of an old Presbyterian church, First Presbyterian Church of Germantown, by partnering with congregants to create a short video documenting how it has influenced the Germantown community over the years.

That year, the church celebrated its 200th-year of worship. It was very tough narrowing down the subject of our documentary. Some members wanted to focus on the church’s structure, while detailing the many renovations throughout the years. Others had their minds set on describing evolving theology. But after several weeks of deliberations, the members finally came to realize what they are most proud of – the church’s diversity.

First Presby, as it’s now affectionately called, started off as a religious center for German immigrants.  Today, the neighborhood in which the church stands, is largely African-American.  While driving along Chelten Avenue in the Northwest section of Philadelphia, the church is a strong structure sitting next to mom-and-pop establishments, and clothing and sneakers stores.  Today, church members identify themselves as White, African-American, Latino, and a mix of other ethnicities.

Our research took us to one pivotal moment in the church’s history where leadership had to make a decision to either leave Germantown or stay in an ever evolving neighborhood.  As demographics began to shift in Germantown in the early 1970s, many churches of its size left and settled in the suburbs where the majority of its congregants felt more comfortable. It was not an easy decision for the church leadership based on recorded conversations noted in their meeting minutes.

In the early days of the church, major issues were whether or not the sermon should be give in German or English, or a shift in theology.  Fast forward to the 1960s, leadership appeared to grapple with social issues.  In a journal written by one of the oldest members of the congregation (if he were alive he would have been 93 years of age), he wrote that there were talks of whether a “Negro boy” should be allowed to join the boy’s choir.  It was never documented that a final decision was made.

We interviewed the first African-American couple to join as members in the 1970s.  The couple recounts an incident where they felt bias from anther White congregant. In the video, it can be seen that the incident affected the husband so much that he starting tearing up while describing the situation.  What’s interesting is that when we spoke to some White congregants about discrimination during this period, they hadn’t realized that it was an issue until then.

Another issue caused some controversy. Some congregants suggested that the Alcoholics Anonymous hold monthly meetings in the church building.  At first, there was some push back, but eventually the meetings were scheduled.  We interviewed a lady who benefited from attending the AA meetings.  She talked about how she was apprehensive at first in attending meetings at a religious institution.  She had a very abusive experience attending Catholic school as a child, so thinking about going to a church brought back traumatic memories.  She did eventually attend the meetings, and expressed how it helped her recover from addiction, as well as face certain situations in her past.

Members of the congregation named the documentary, Destined for Diversity? because they realized that it was a struggle to get to where they are today – with more than half of the congregation being non-White. The congregants thought that the final decision for the church to stay in Germantown was a part of its destiny.  They feel that throughout the years, the congregation had to make tough decisions, but they are proud that those decisions proved to be on the right side of history.

Destined for Diversity? airs on WHYY (PBS station) and Philadelphia Community Access Media (PhillyCAM).  This video is one of the documentaries included in the Precious Places Community History Project initiated by Scribe Video Center. Precious Places explores the communal History of public sites and spaces that define Philadelphia neighborhoods.  

Click here to watch the full documentary.




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