by Fred P. Gusoff
To Chestnut Hill denizens and many others, Germantown Avenue is more than just a way to get from Point A to Point B. It also is home to many religious institutions that play an integral role in preserving communities. A local author has firsthand evidence.
Katie Day, a professor of church and society at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mt. Airy, has examined the role of religion in numerous articles and four books. Her latest book was released last month.
“Faith on the Avenue: Religion on a City Street” (Oxford University Press), offers 264 pages of insights on houses of worship situated on Germantown Avenue. It’s based on five years of research, many interviews and a study of the demographics of the area.
“There are 70 illustrations and photographs. The photography is a very strong part of the book,” Day said in an interview last week.
Aided by a research grant, a few research assistants and photographer Edd (correct spelling) Conboy, Day spent about six years examining census and demographic data, interviewing religious leaders and their congregants and focusing on a diverse collection of 83-93 houses of worship that grace more than eight miles of Germantown Avenue — including six in Chestnut Hill itself — running from affluent Chestnut Hill down to Fairhill and the Badlands in North Philadelphia. The Fairhill section itself is home to 13 churches, Day said.
“I only studied those on the Avenue. If they were a half-block away, I didn’t study them. I never would have finished,” said Day, who is ordained in the Presbyterian Church. “It was incredibly fascinating.”
Day, 63, cited several goals of her book project: To lift religious institutions out of their “shroud of invisibility,” help people recognize the “amazing role they’re playing in urban life and show readers how they interact with their ecology.”
Some of the congregations have schools on campus and work very hard to build relationships with their neighborhoods and elsewhere, Day said, by working to encourage small business entrepreneurs, hosting neighborhood festivals, health fairs, AIDS and blood-pressure screenings and standing with residents after gun battles. “They work across neighborhood boundaries,” she said.
Estimates from past research projects show that a congregation typically provides about $140,000 yearly in social services, she said. Multiply that by 2,500 congregations in Philadelphia, and it’s easy to see “that’s a significant contribution to the public good. When people get hungry, the first place they go to is the church.”
Small churches, even those lacking formal soup kitchens and food pantries, continue to feed people during economic recessions. “It’s an invisible social service that people rely on,” said Day, a sociologist, adding that almost all of the programs are run by volunteers and senior citizens. “It’s a heck of a safety net.”
Some real estate developers have complained that churches and other houses of worship pay no property taxes and do not hire many people, but Day vigorously dissents. Churches and their congregants patronize many local businesses including hardware stores, bakeries, contractors and hair salons, she noted. “Faith communities have really contributed to the economic development of the city.”
They also offer moral support that helps people get through tough economic times, and many churches contribute to public safety by bringing up to 500 people to the area for services.
“Faith on the Avenue” examines Germantown Avenue’s long, rich history involving the settlements of various immigrants, the Revolutionary War, the yellow fever epidemic and the civil rights struggle. The Battle of Germantown, of course, was also fought on Germantown Avenue.
“The history is so much a part of Germantown Avenue,” said Day, director of the Metropolitan/Urban Program at the seminary. Her book also focuses on Pentecostal Latino congregations that have filled once-vacant storefronts and two very different Muslim congregations.
The author pointed out that historic churches provide an anchor for neighborhoods and that some congregations maintain old burial grounds, including sites for slavery abolitionists Lucretia Mott and Robert Purvis, who rest for eternity at a Quaker burial site on Germantown Avenue in Fairhill. Historic Fair Hill, a nonprofit, sometimes holds cleanups in the area.
The photo on the cover of Day’s latest book is that of the entrance to the First United Church of Germantown. “It’s kind of iconic,” she said.
Meeting so many congregants and continuing to be surprised by their “amazing work” was the most gratifying part of preparing her latest book. “They’re heroic,” said the author, who lives on the seminary’s Mt. Airy campus, where she has been a teacher since 1985.
Day notes in her book that while there is so much history associated with the thoroughfare that is the focus of her book, it’s also a microcosm of modern-day Philadelphia:
“Germantown Avenue connects the most affluent neighborhood in Philadelphia with the poorest. Chestnut Hill, a predominantly white neighborhood in the northwest corner of Philadelphia, is known for its luxurious homes and quaint shopping district full of boutique shops, upscale restaurants and banks. But looking out the #23 bus as it travels down Germantown Avenue, one sees the dramatic demographic shifts …
“A new thriving congregation on the block might inspire a real estate developer or discourage criminals. It might encourage young artists or budding politicians. It might attract newcomers to the neighborhood or encourage current residents to stay and put down roots.”
Day’s book has caught the attention of a prominent area resident, Sam Katz, film producer and former mayoral candidate who lives in West Mt. Airy. According to Katz, “Since the founding of Germantown in the 17th century, the avenue that bears its name has been a center of spirituality and freedom of thought, leading William Penn to call his Pennsylvania colony a ‘holy experiment.’ That experiment continues today, as Katie Day so brilliantly and vividly portrays in ‘Faith on the Avenue’ … This book is relevant to and valuable in understanding urban America and the critical role that faith and religious identity continue to play in its communities.”