A Church for the City

In the city of brotherly love, Liberti Center City shows the love of Jesus to the people who know it the least and need it the most.

Date Posted: 
Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Deep in the heart of Philadelphia, Liberti Center City (RCA) stands practically in the shadow of Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was adopted and the Constitution of the United States was signed. Today, the church finds itself surrounded by a mix of business professionals and people without homes, students, young families, artists, addicts—the vast majority of whom are unconnected to Christian faith. Estimates suggest that fewer than 5 percent of downtown Philadelphians affiliate with Christianity; still, the church pulses with hope for the city.

“Our goal is that if we were to suddenly disappear, our neighbors would be upset, even if they’ve never come inside,” says Vito Baldini, Liberti’s mercy ministry pastor.

He sees Liberti’s mission as twofold: “We impact the place we are, and we serve in mission to others. Both are integrated into who we are.”

Liberti Center City began small, in the apartment where Jared Ayers and his wife, Monica, had relocated from Michigan in 2008, deeply committed to the call of God to love the people of Philadelphia.

Ayers, now Liberti’s preaching pastor, began a church plant in 2009 within a network of Philadelphia churches known as Liberti.

“Our desire from the start was to be a church for this city—for those who are spiritually curious or skeptics. We threw parties and invited friends, intentionally integrating Christians with the cynical, trying to live out Christian convictions among people who have very different opinions,” says Ayers.

Five years later, Center City had opened another campus (Liberti Main Line, which serves the city’s northwest neighborhoods) and was itself large enough to occupy most of the space it rented—the historic First Baptist Church in downtown.

When a developer offered to buy First Baptist in 2014, Liberti made its own offer, and a deal was struck. Using funds primarily raised in-house, the congregation purchased the building and later, in 2016, completed a $5 million renovation.

The two churches continue to share space and vision.

Liberti engages with the community around it and frequently partners with other churches and nonprofits to offer block parties, recovery groups, and other services. One of these is Emmanuel Ministry, a joint effort of Liberti and First Baptist. Together, they host a weekly space for community members to get a meal and watch a movie. About 120 people affected by homelessness and food insecurity come each week. Volunteers cook, clean, and chat with guests; Baldini offers a brief meditation and time for prayer.

The churches have also partnered with Bethesda Project to make additional social services available to guests. On average, says Baldini, one guest a week finds housing with the help of Bethesda’s case workers. A group of dental and podiatry students regularly comes to Emmanuel to provide hygiene support, free supplies, and referrals. Emmanuel Ministry also hosts a Super Bowl party and Thanksgiving breakfast. The ministry serves an estimated 6,500 meals annually.

One recent Saturday, five guests were able to find transitional or permanent housing—a blessing by any standard.

“Ministry is hard,” says Baldini. “A lot of times I just ask for small glimpses of victory, and I pray for the church to wake up and stop being so afraid of the mission we are called on. We need to partner in the community and the neighborhood, not hide in the building. There are already great partners doing good work, and they usually lack resources we can offer. God is already putting the world back together, so I just look for places where we can join in.”

In addition to Emmanuel Ministry, other partners include Small Fry, an initiative in which kids and their families learn to make healthy, low-cost snacks; AlphaCare, a program to care for women with unexpected pregnancies; YoungLives, an arm of the parachurch ministry YoungLife that offers teen moms spiritual nourishment, meals, and mentoring; and Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center, an emergency housing service for the county.

These opportunities to serve aren’t seized only by members of the congregation; people skeptical of faith often serve alongside them. Baldini sees God at work in this, too.

“The fact that they see the church doing something is important. The cultural narrative is usually ‘what is the church against?’ We work hard to shift that to what the church is for—loving people, caring for needs. People resonate with that.”

Baldini himself knows the importance of ministries like Liberti’s that show love to people on the fringes of faith. Eleven years ago, he was a college dropout addicted to drugs. Now, he has been in recovery for a decade.

“Recovery is the foundation of my Christian life—the way I am able to see my deep need and experience compassion and grace at a level I didn’t know was possible,” he says.

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