The Father’s Love … in Inner-City Philadelphia
Story by Kate Larsen
Photos by Josh Larson
Many inner-city boys lack a father figure. Senior Pastor Mark Abrams of Calvary Chapel Word of Life in Philadelphia, PA—and young men he has previously mentored—are actively filling that role. Part 1 focuses on the history of the church’s outreach to at-risk boys. Stay tuned for Part 2, which describes CC Word of Life’s newest program, Forever Mentored.
Boys and mentors share time in warm fellowship and discussion of God’s Word at a Forever Mentored meeting at Calvary Chapel Word of Life in Philadelphia, PA. Forever Mentored offers loving discipleship to at-risk boys who need a strong father figure in their lives.
Breaking the Cycle
The horrors of growing up on the inner-city streets of places like Philadelphia, PA, are well known, where crime abounds, and violence is a daily occurrence. Drugs are available on almost every corner, and nearly 20% of high schoolers don’t make it to graduation. Homes are broken, children are fatherless, and many kids end up on the streets looking for some semblance of family—and typically find it within a gang.
Nevertheless, armed with the Word of God and a heart for discipleship, Calvary Chapel Word of Life in Philadelphia is providing a better way.
“Seeing the need in Philadelphia—all the violence, all the fatherlessness and absence of the father figure—is what began it all for us,” shared Senior Pastor Mark Abrams. “Just last year, Philadelphia has had more than 550 homicides. Violence has increased almost 40% between homicides, car-jackings, and robberies. It’s a pretty dangerous city.”
A mentor laughs with two of the boys during a Thursday night Forever Mentored meeting. The program is open to boys as young as 7 from the inner-city streets of Philadelphia. The seeds of the current program were planted years ago when CC Word of Life Senior Pastor Mark Abrams opened his home to young men, teaching and encouraging them to love God and grow to responsible manhood. Now grown, many have returned to help Mark mentor the younger boys.
A Better Way
Years ago, Mark began a college-aged mentorship group that met in his Philadelphia home each Monday night. Joshua Grace, now assistant pastor at CC Word of Life, recalled the ways the Lord used Mark to help him discover and follow his calling. Joshua recounted that, as a young man, he knew he was a born-again believer but did not know how to follow Christ.
“I was making stupid mistakes,” Joshua admitted. “So, I prayed to God—I said, Lord, send me somebody who can really teach me Your Word and how to actually live it out.” The answer to that prayer came in the form of Pastor Mark and his mentorship group. Joshua described arriving at the pastor’s home and being warmly greeted by his wife.
Pastor Mark claps along with the boys during a time of worship. Weekly meetings feature a message from the Bible, lively worship, food, fellowship, small group discussion—and most importantly, love.
“I opened the basement door and immediately I see guys sitting on the stairs leading down into the basement,” Joshua remembered. “So, I went into the basement, and it is just full of young guys my age talking and fellowshipping. And then, Pastor Mark started doing a little Bible study.”
Now serving alongside Mark, Joshua shared the impact of what he learned. “[Mark] shared with us how to live as men in this world and how to keep yourself pure as a man, how to live with integrity, and how to live for Jesus,” Joshua described. “He taught us how to work for Jesus, not to be a lazy Christian or a lazy man, and how to take care of your family and be a respectable person in the workplace.”
Today, Joshua is a living testimony of the power of this type of discipleship in a young man’s life.
A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy habitation. God sets the solitary in families. Psalm 68:5-6a
Mark (center), Assistant Pastor Joshua Grace, youth, and other leaders join in praying for strength to follow God’s will in their lives.
A Father to the Fatherless
“We quickly realized that we had to create something where they’re part of a family, not just some type of church,” Pastor Mark explained. “[Our] group has to be something more—like a father and son relationship. A lot of the kids have single moms, and sometimes they have fathers who are unsafe. Sometimes they live with a saved mom and on the weekends are with their unsaved father, so they’re exposed to a lot of confusion.”
Even if a young man has a father around, Mark believes in the safety found in a multitude of counselors as they seek to minister to this younger generation.
“The accountability portion of it [the Monday night group] and the teaching was great,” Enoch Burgos expressed. “It kept me from doing some dumb stuff when I first got saved at around 16 years old.”
Enoch grew up in poverty, in a broken home with a single mom. With Mark’s fatherly influence in his life, he completed high school, service in the Marine Corps, and business school. Today, he is a Philadelphia Police Department officer helping other people.
Love is the hallmark of Forever Mentored meetings as Mark hugs one of the boys on a Thursday night. The youngsters enjoy the special attention they receive from all the men serving in this ministry. Mark encourages suburban churches to join him in this mission through direct involvement, prayer, and financial assistance.
“I’m like his dad,” Mark confirmed. “To this day he will call me—they all call me—when they have major decisions to make. And it’s something you can look back on and say, ‘Wow, these guys and the Word of God!’ It really works. You know it works and it doesn’t return void. You know that whatever God sent it to do, it accomplished. I am a witness to that.”
Joby Jacob attended those Monday night groups. “I was always looking forward to it,” Joby recounted. “It would start around 7 p.m. and end maybe midnight, 1 a.m. Bible study was done by 10 p.m., but most of the guys just loved staying back. Mark would cook for us, and it just felt like a place where you could go and feel at home. Pastor Mark is very good at making you feel welcome and comfortable.”
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Joby also shared how having that discipleship in his life, especially during his college days, was crucial for him. He said that, compared to other youth groups he had been to, Mark’s was more transparent and genuine. Today Joby is an internal medicine specialist.
“This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day.” John 6:39
A young lad explodes with laughter as Mark tickles him. Program leaders understand the important role godly men can play in the boys’ lives. Mark explained, “Whatever direction the Lord takes their lives, our hope is that Jesus would be first and that His Word would be in their hearts so they can share Christ.”
“Out of 101 guys, not one of them went to jail,” Mark shared about the Monday night group. “So to me, that alone is a testament that discipleship works—that the Bible works. Being a dad to these guys works.”
Mark recalled that after the Monday night group ran its course, he asked Enoch: “What do you think I could have done differently with you guys?” And Enoch replied, “I wish we could have met you when we were around 7 or 8 years old. Our lives would have been even more radically different.” This birthed CC Word of Life’s current Thursday night mentorship group.
Thursday night meetings always allow time for fun, fellowship, and opportunities to get to know others in the program. Here, a young man enjoys sitting next to the night’s guest, former Philadelphia Eagles’ linebacker Mike Reichenbach.
This story originally appeared in print in Issue 92 (Summer 2022) of Calvary Chapel Magazine
All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.
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