Mount Hebron Baptist: Some things have changed but a lot still the same
Sometimes you just want to go where everybody knows your name or at least they treat you like they do. That’s Mount Hebron Baptist Church at 1419 Wharton St. in South Philadelphia.
For over a hundred years, Mount Hebron Baptist Church has ministered to the community and continues to do so despite the challenges posed by the area’s shifting population.
Things have obviously changed in many of today’s churches. In previous times, it was common that the pastor would greet congregants by name; that still happens at Mount Hebron. It used to be that churches broke bread together and fellowshipped together after service; that still happens at Mount Hebron. It used to be that church was a placed filled with children playing as elders observed with watchful eyes; that still happens at Mount Hebron.
“Mount Hebron is a family church, it’s a community church, it’s a church with a lot of love and we believe that our name is not only a tag but is indicative of mission here,” said Pastor Richard J. Waller Jr.
Historically, Mount Hebron was a place of refuge for the those seeking sanctuary, said Waller. It was a place where those who have made mistakes, including crimes, and who have been outcasts could go to find safety and comradeship.
“We think that spiritually that God preordained that this be a place where people of all backgrounds and walks of life can come and find forgiveness, deliverance and the love of God here in our church in Jesus name,” said Waller.
The pastor describes the church as “an old, traditional Baptist church” trying to walk the line between the old and the new.
“We don’t want to forget our traditions, but we realize that God said he will do a new thing in us,” he said. “So, we have some growing pains in that regard, but we have decided to work it out in love.”
Waller has now shepherded Mount Hebron Baptist for nine years and throughout that time has seen some positive changes.
“There has been a big change. More of the old are more accepting of more of the new and more of the new are more accepting of some of the old traditions so we’re trying to find where God will have us,” he said.
Waller acknowledges that he doesn’t know how to navigate the two but it’s not his job to know. His job is simply to do the will of God and allow God to have his way and to do His will, the pastor said.
“We’re just all trying to yield ourselves to His [God’s] leadership and He’ll show us what it’s supposed to look like,” he said.
External changes are also challenges confronting the church.
“Gentrification is affecting us in a very devastating way. It is hard to get parking in South Philadelphia on any day but also this used to be a neighborhood where you didn’t need parking,” Waller said.
The pastor said he could remember days as a young man attending service at the church where it was standing room only and everyone went to church. In those days, says Waller, Jr., even nonbelievers went to church. Things changed over time.
“Now sometimes you have to even beg Christians to come to church in the days that we are living because people are so busy with the pursuits of life.”
“So, the gentrification and the challenge we have now is to try to make ourselves, while still keeping our traditions, inclusive of other backgrounds,” he said.
Apropos to this, Mt. Hebron opens its doors and share its facilities with a Hispanic ministry Thursday of each week and Pastor Waller, Jr. says that he is looking forward to having people of all backgrounds ministered to at the church.
Marian Ladson has been a church member for 70 years and has served as deaconess for 23 of those years and an usher for more than 60 years. She describes Mount Hebron as the “greatest church on God’s green earth”.
“God has been blessing us, and we just want to get even closer and do God’s will so that we can glorify God, edify our people and terrify the devil,” said Ladson.
Ladson said that she began attending the church with her mother as a young teenager and since that time never left.
“What keeps me here is the loving people,” she said. “I believe that God is really in this place and HE is using us, and I want HIM to use us for his glory.”
Ladson said that there was a number of others at Mount Hebron who joined 50 to 70 years ago. She also noted that there were a couple of centenarians who still faithfully attended services.
Rodney Bincent, who serves on the deacon board, calls the church a beacon in South Philadelphia. As a child, Bincent said he attended the Boy Scouts at Mount Hebron, and his family has deep roots at the church, where his grandfather was a trustee and his grandmother served on various ministries.
“We’re just looking to make a difference here at Mount Hebron,” said Bincent. “A lot of churches are closing down here but the Lord has blessed us to stay open.”
Bincent said that any church a hundred years or older should not have to even consider being torn down or closing its doors. He hopes to reach out to local politicians to see what can be done.
“What God has built no man should be able to tear down,” he said.
Bincent says that parking in the area is challenging, but Mount Hebron is fortunate to have access to a nearby school’s parking lot. However, he isn’t sure how long that will continue.
“This is my home church and I will always be here and just pray that God will continue to lift this place up,” he said.