Once the main thoroughfare in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine brewery district, where German immigrants settled in the 19th century, McMicken Avenue is now home to drugs, violence and prostitution. It’s an artery running through blocks of urban decay and economic distress. It’s where I do ministry.
Philippus United Church of Christ is one of a few buildings within eight blocks with no broken windows. This mammoth structure, built in 1891, was once home to more than 1,500 members. Worship attendance now hovers around 100, and is projected to decline next year. The best use we have found for our third-floor educational unit is as a Drug Task Force lookout. From there, officers with high-powered binoculars track the drug trade on the streets below.
After nearly 30 years in the comfortable, white suburbs of Ohio and northern Kentucky, I saw the opportunity to minister here among those who couldn’t escape to the suburbs. While suburbanites continue to keep memberships here, the people of McMicken Avenue and Over-the-Rhine are my congregation. They are African American, poor, proud, poorly educated, dispossessed, faithful.
Now aligned with the progressive United Church of Christ, Philippus proudly displays the UCC’s new slogan above our entrance: ‘No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.’
Those words give hope. They give me hope. Hope that they will be seen by someone who has had a rough journey from wherever to McMicken Avenue.
The people of McMicken Avenue and Over-the-Rhine constantly stream through our doors. They see our sign and know they will be heard. They include the unemployed guy eager to explain why he wants to work, and a recently released felon from the nearby halfway house, the slightly inebriated woman who is hungry, and the young mother and newborn at the well baby clinic. Some visitors are signing up for Thanksgiving baskets, or for Christmas Store. There’s a paroled murderer back on the streets after 20 years who longs to find the adult son he has never met, and a widow who isn’t receiving her late husband’s Social Security checks and can’t pay her meager rent.
As I write these words in late November, Philippus Church is a busy, noisy place. Our annual Christmas Store is taking shape. Operated jointly with City Ministries Inc. and donations from churches throughout Cincinnati, this year-round project culminates in a week known as the ‘Miracle on McMicken.’
For $7, families can register each of their children for two items of clothing and a toy. This is real purchasing power, not freebies. Shoppers hold their heads high, their dignity secure knowing that they have paid their way.
As they leave with wrapped purchases, each receives a family gift, usually a board game, and a ham. We often hear “If you’re not in the Christmas spirit, come on down to Christmas Store. Within five minutes, you’ll be filled with the true meaning of giving and receiving.”
Two years ago, a revered colleague said to me, “A Church in Over-the-Rhine? That’s either got to be the absolute worst place in the world for ministry, or it will surely be the best place in the world for ministry.”
I believe it is the best place.
Is this a glamorous place to work and do ministry?
It is not an easy place to be when I know the food pantry is bare and I will have to turn people away. It is not easy to step over a crack-addicted man on the steps while I fumble with my keys. And, no, I will never get used to the prostitute, barely older than my own teenage daughter, on the sidewalk across the street.
Yet I have witnessed extraordinary ministry here, seen this church reach out to a young woman whose mother was killed in a drug deal gone wrong and become her family, seen that she goes to college. I have seen lives changed by something as simple as $8 for a new I.D., the first step toward a job after 20 years in prison.
Our small staff believes this is where we are called, that these are the people Jesus referred to in Matthew 25:34ff. We don’t ever want to be part of a conversation ending with: “Where were you hungry, or naked, or in prison and we didn’t respond? Where Lord?”
When donations are slow and we see one of our Thanksgiving baskets being traded for drugs or services, I am reminded, “We are not called to be successful; we are called to be faithful.” This is what keeps me going.
Dave Bucey is the interim pastor of Philippus United Church of Christ in Cincinnati (Over-the-Rhine), Ohio, and is the president-elect of the Divinity School Alumni Association.