Every neighborhood is defined in part by the anchor institutions that remain through the decades. For the neighbors of South of Penn, a historic place of worship serves as that anchor.
St. John Missionary Baptist Church is located on the 400 block of South 7th street. Headed by Reverend Jerry Jones, the church has been in existence since 1944, where they originally were a group of six community members who would meet at a home on Neversink Street and wanted a service similar to what they all had in Georgia, where the group was originally from.
Over time, the church has moved to different areas of the community as the congregation grew. From a building on Chestnut street, to a storefront on Bingaman Street, they found their permanent home on South 7th Street, where they built the church that is there today with support from donations from companies all throughout Reading and Berks County.
The church was finished in August of 1963 with a capacity to hold 500 people, and has flourished further ever since, especially with the addition of a community center aimed at connecting seniors to resources. .
“Reverend John McCracken, who was the founder of the church, wanted to make sure that the seniors had a place to come and to fellowship with one another outside of the church throughout the week so they could stay connected,” Reverend Jones said.
And the church itself holds particular significance among the Black enclave of the South of Penn, according to Sister Karen Flowers, the church clerk for St John’s,
“This church is like a palace to this community because we are the first Black American church that built our own church here,” Sister Karen said. “We’re just a blessed church! I love my church. This is my home.”
For decades, the church has given to the community in different ways, including providing a food pantry, holding holiday parties, doing toy giveaways, partnering up with the South of Penn Task Force for movie nights, and holding block parties.
“It’s one of the passions that I have that we are a church in the community, but the community also is in us, so we want to do all that we can to partner with any outside entities to do what we can to impact our community,” the Reverend said. “We want to do what we can to lift up the name of Jesus and be available to our community.”
The church continues to serve the community by providing both a place for worship and a safe place for those who are displaced. During the trying times many had during the COVID-19 pandemic, the church was able to continue to hold ministry, continue to have their food pantry available, and check on people in need.
The community’s response to what the church has been doing has been tremendous.
“We always had donations come in, and it always made it work,” Sister Karen said. “People just respected St. John’s. That’s just the relationship we have with the community. And we’re growing in the Hispanic part of it, but if you would walk down the street and say ‘what do you know about St. John’s?’ I’m sure somebody can tell you something, that they have been here.”
The community has changed over the years, and Reverend Jones highlights a key aspect of the community that he feels the South of Penn can get back to.
“We do what we can to help the South of Penn or any other organization within the community to bring it back to what it used to be because we are not what we used to be,” he said. “Years ago, the statement was — and it’s true today, but we gotta get back to it — is ‘it takes a village to raise the children’ and we’ll get there again, and that’s why we love doing what we’re doing because it impacts people’s lives.”
The South of Penn Task Force initially connected with the church in August of 2018 when they were looking for a space to hold a holiday party for the neighbors in the community. They asked the church if their space could be used and they said yes, and from then on, the taskforce has continued to partner with the church to hold holiday parties, in addition to toy giveaways and other events.
“[Tony Veloz, former coordinator of the South of Penn Task Force,] has helped us to bring out youth in the community together,” Reverend Jones said. “There are people that work with Tony that we grew up with. They come when there’s a funeral, when there is a wedding, and they visit every now and then. Tony, and what he has done, has helped them to come together and to make a difference in the community.”
“He has rekindled something that we once had, but now we’re gaining it back. It’s a positive impact: not only the movie nights, not only the block parties, but the cleaning up and giving people back their ownership — that nobody took — but I wish we had more participation,” Jones said.
The work, undoubtedly, continues in the South of Penn area, and although there has been so much growth and positive change within the community, there’s still a substantial amount that can be done to make the South of Penn the best it can be for the neighbors who reside in it.
“Our history is good, but with the reality of what we’re dealing with now, it’s going to take the people, leaders like myself and Tony and whatnot, to make a difference,” Jones said. “We don’t need to just put a band-aid on it: we have to reach deep where the foundation of it is, and we have to tear that down and rebuild again.”
Editor’s Note: This article is a part of “Historias del Barrio,” a series of stories written by local storytellers to highlight community members who have engaged with Barrio Alegría and the South of Penn Task Force, through a strategic partnership with The Wyomissing Foundation, to make positive impacts in their neighborhoods.