Alumnus Ben Krey and his parishioners strive to sustain a congregation’s ‘relevant’ ministry to the unemployed and asylum refugees

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The Rev. Ben KreyHelen Tobin has found a new retirement life hosting and encouraging refugees on asylum in the U.S. and those who are being sheltered by a new “Welcome Home” initiative at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Philadelphia’s Lawncrest (Northeast) section.

As she shopped with refugees one day, a woman in the community stopped her and asked where she might find food assistance. “I suggested she visit Prince of Peace and ask for Pastor Ben Krey,” Helen Tobin said.

“Oh,” the woman replied, “is that the tall, thin pastor who is always greeting people on the streets around here?” She was told that sure sounded like her pastor. “He’s not like the others,” the woman said simply. Helen Tobin agreed. “Pastor Ben is different,” she said. “He thinks out of the box.”

Pr. Ben KreyIndeed, Ben Krey, a first-call pastor at Prince of Peace and recent Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) graduate, is not comfortable hanging out in the church office. He says he does not spend much time with email. He likes walking the streets around Lawncrest and meeting people. He’ll knock on doors and introduce himself. He invites people to church events. Around Halloween it’s a free haunted house the church sponsors that grandparents and youth will wait in line 45 minutes to enjoy. About 1,000 people went through the attraction over two days this last year. In the summer, it may be a hot dog cookout on the street by the church. Or, he invites older neighbors to the gathering of seniors that happens two Thursdays a month upstairs in the church. During Advent 2012, a string band group – featuring banjo and saxophone –played at lunchtime. Downstairs, an English-as-a-Second Language class is wrapping up. One of the teachers is Michael Duris, an LTSP vicar who sells shoes for Nordstrom in King of Prussia when he is not at Prince of Peace or attending seminary.

“People tell me I am a welcoming individual,” Krey said. “And Prince of Peace is a welcoming church. No matter who walks into the church, I am happy to speak with him or her. And I would rather be out on the streets of the neighborhood greeting people and telling them we are there for them than looking at email in my office. The best way to reach me is by calling my cell phone.”

Krey, nephew of LTSP president Philip D.W. Krey, will strike up a conversation with whomever he runs into. On a recent day, a woman he recognizes hopes to sell him salt and pepper shakers with a Christmas seasonal design. He invites her to share a meal with the seniors group at his church down the street. “Sometimes someone will tell me about being out of work. So I invite him or her to lunch to talk about it,” he said. Munchies, a neighborhood lunch place, is right down the street.

“I talk to a lot of unemployed people or people who say they are between jobs,” Krey said. “They are full of frustration and sometimes their motivation is non-existent. I try to bring them a word of hope, hope about Jesus Christ, and I tell them the church is there for them through community organizing.”

ESL ClassKrey said about 600,000 people – one-third of Philadelphia’s population – are “food insecure.” Prince of Peace is part of a network of 39 congregations circulating petitions in their neighborhoods around Philadelphia, part of a major jobs campaign to remind Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter that when a $6 billion Philadelphia Airport expansion gets under way in 2013 “we want to make sure that the people we meet on our streets who are out of work get those 40,000 jobs that are supposed to be opening through the expansion. Jesus calls us to welcome and advocate for the poor.”

The 39 churches are seeking 16,500 signatures and, so far, Krey said, he has only encountered two persons who wouldn’t sign a petition.

Krey meets strangers all kinds of ways. He attends meetings of the Lawncrest Neighborhood Association, and goes to parades. He’ll also just stop into a place like Munchies and ask people he meets if he can join them for lunch. “I don’t like to eat alone,” he said with a smile.

“I’m actually an introvert,” he noted. “In a social gathering I am more comfortable hiding in the corner, but if it is one on one or only two or three people, I am very comfortable relating to them.”

Pr. Ben KreyKrey mentioned Tina, a woman who had stopped by on a summer evening for a hot dog and then quickly left. Once during a return visit to a church event she mislaid her wallet. A Prince of Peace member made her feel at home and tried to help her, Krey said. She found her wallet. Krey found out that Tina had family members involved with substance abuse, and it was impacting her own working life. Her husband was also out of work. Krey learned of a custodian opening at a nearby church and found the husband a job there. Later, at a church event, Tina offered a testimonial about what the church had come to mean to her. Krey mentioned to a visitor hearing the testimonial, an executive at a nearby continuing care retirement community, that Tina needed a job. “The woman hired her on the spot,” Krey said.

Now, Tina is one of Prince of Peace’s member/evangelists. “She has learned the love of God is something very real here,” he said. “She has the gift of telling her story and telling others about the love of God. I think before Tina came to Prince of Peace she had been a Lutheran for a long time. She just didn’t know it.”

Before Pastor Krey arrived at Prince of Peace, the congregation had already begun working with Liberty Lutheran Services, a certified ELCA social ministry organization, to resettle refugees on asylum. At first, the congregation saw the ministry as a way to supplement needed income through rental of a parsonage. (The parsonage is no longer used for this purpose.) “But people fell in love with the first family that came here,” Krey said. Now Helen Tobin and volunteers, including a few from other congregations, are fervently involved in Welcome Home, an initiative that on short notice offers shelter for about a month to families in need until they can find more permanent housing. Krey explained that Prince of Peace has helped resettle more than 80 refugees over the past several years.

A half-dozen families, some with disabled relatives, have been sheltered in a rented property next to the church by Welcome Home since August 2012. The program has received grant support from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Deaconess Community, the Wheat Ridge Foundation, and financial support from other congregations and Liberty Lutheran Services. One former Welcome Home family now living elsewhere in Northeast Philadelphia is Sudanese. They had lived and found work in Libya for the past 19 years after fleeing their original homeland in Dharfur. In November, the family had to flee a second time, this time from the remnants of the Arab Spring in Benghazi, Libya. The husband of the family explained that since he is African, rebels opposing the regime of Muammar Gadaffi could easily have mistaken him for a Gadaffi mercenary and killed him.

Pr. Ben KreyWhen Krey arrived at Prince of Peace in 2009, worship attendance was routinely about 39. Now attendance is about 70 most weeks. About 45 of the worshipers will be Caucasian, he said. Others in the pew are African American, Latino, or may be from places like Nepal or Pakistan, reflecting newer neighborhood residents.

An observer once told Krey the worshipers “seemed to resemble the kingdom of God” to that person. “That may be,” Krey said. “But the diversity can be intense. Prince of Peace is a very open place, but it can be challenging as all of us try to understand each other’s cultures.”

Of life at LTSP, Krey admitted he wished when planning today for Bible studies or worship that “more stuff from classes I took had stuck to my brain” when he was a seminarian. Krey enjoyed an internship at Philadelphia’s Lutheran Church of the Mediator with diverse congregants. That experience, and several other formative multicultural experiences, helped persuade the Rev. Pat Davenport of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod to recommend that Krey look into a first-call possibility at Prince of Peace. It worked out.

At seminary, he was profoundly influenced by a senior seminar on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led by former Professor Stephen Ray. A class he took with Professor Katie Day emphasized the importance of community organizing and “civic engagement,” he recalled. “That class taught me a lot about how critical it is for congregations to be relevant to the lives of people in and around them, and how hard it can be to sustain such a ministry.”

Krey is learning first-hand about the challenges of sustaining a congregation and a building constructed decades ago by good people who could not have imagined the financial challenges Prince of Peace is facing today. What advice does he have for someone discerning a call to serve Christ in these times?

Krey said future leaders may face challenges like his too. “You may need the gumption to face annual deficits that could not have been imagined 50 or 60 years ago,” he said. “The church you serve could close if people cannot pay the bills, even if the ministry you may have in mind is worthwhile. I believe if your work pleases the Lord you can probably find a way to keep going. The church today is reforming and changing rapidly. And it raises serious questions about how best to grow and sustain the church in our time.

“One thing I know is that right now I am where God wants me to be.”

Watch the extended video interview:

A photo essay of Pr. Krey and Vicar Michael Duris at an English as Second Language class:

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