The Presbytery of Philadelphia celebrated its 300th anniversary last weekend, welcoming 2,000 worshipers to a special Saturday service in North Philadelphia.
Presbytery officials, national leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the mayor of Philadelphia, and members of the presbytery’s 124 congregations were among those who gathered inside Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, an historic congregation new to many attending. A presence in Philadelphia since 1876, Enon opened its expansive main sanctuary and meeting hall to the presbytery for the day.
After a processional of area churches, Presbytery of Philadelphia Executive Presbyter Ruth Santana-Grace welcomed worshipers from the pulpit. More than forty liturgists and guest speakers followed, including Ethelyn Taylor (Oxford Presbyterian Church), James F. Kenney (Mayor of Philadelphia), Greg Rousos (Presbyterian Foundation), Alyn Waller (Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church), and Cynthia A. Jarvis (Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill).
In their remarks, Frank Spencer, president and CEO of the PC(USA)’s Board of Pensions, and Moderator Johnnie Monroe of the Synod of the Trinity noted that their organizations also turn 300 in 2017.
Between musical performances by the 45-church-strong Celebration Choir, speakers emphasized the Presbytery of Philadelphia’s historic roots—the first presbytery, and the presbytery where a nation was born—and its ongoing work beyond denominational lines. “Happiness comes from service to others,” Mayor Kenney said. “Diversity is [Philadelphia’s] strength.”
Sermons by the Reverends M. Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary, and General Assembly Co-moderator Denise Anderson spoke to the presbytery’s celebration theme of “Born in Faith, Rooted in Grace, Living into Hope.”
“A tree rooted in a stream of living water grew a new limb 300 years ago,” Barnes said. “That tree was the Presbytery of Philadelphia. … You will care for others in your next 300 years because that’s your story.”
“Our gatherings are our way of getting rooted and getting ready,” Anderson declared. “God is going to use you, Presbytery of Philadelphia!”
Following a communion service and great prayer shared in seven languages, Celebration Committee Co-Chairs Susan and Vijay Aggarwal announced that the presbytery had raised $335,000—exceeding the presbytery’s $300,000 goal—for eight mission partners engaged in initiatives educating children, interrupting the school to prison pipeline, and encouraging restorative justice.
The Reverend Jerry Van Marter, interim director of communications for the Office of the General Assembly, singled out one of the projects—the John Gloucester House and Rearing Successful Sons—as he brought greetings on behalf of General Assembly Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson, II. Noting that John Gloucester was the first African American minister ordained by the Presbyterian church (ordained by Philadelphia Presbytery) and the founder, in 1811, of the first African American Presbyterian congregation chartered in this country—also by Philadelphia Presbytery—Van Marter said, “Praise be to God for this extraordinary witness.”
After the service concluded with a blessing by Presbytery of Philadelphia Moderator Janel Dixon, many attendees gathered in Enon’s meeting hall to learn more about mission partners, examine church artifacts, enjoy refreshments, and be entertained by a John Witherspoon impersonator.
“For this day to have happened in a way that was representative of who we are,” said Ruth Santana-Grace, “it took hundreds of people. More than 400 men, women, and youth participated in the worship service as liturgists, choir members, ushers, communion servers, and banner carriers.”
“I am humbled to serve with a people who choose to believe we can still build beyond what we can see with our eyes,” Santana-Grace said, “who understand that God’s plans for us are far greater than what we can see at the moment.”
Fred Tangeman is director of communications and marketing for the Presbyterian Historical Society, a ministry of the Office of the General Assembly.