Preaching To The Choir

For 118 years, the Mount Carmel Baptist Church in west Philadelphia has been serving the needs of its congregation. But those years have been hard on the neighborhood surrounding the church.

Decades ago, small businesses began closing their doors and families began moving out, heading for the greener pastures of suburbia.

The community that the church had served - and had vowed to serve - was dying.

Head pastor Albert Campbell says Mount Carmel considered pulling up stakes and following the crowd. But they knew if they did, those they left behind, those least able to help themselves, would suffer.

Last Easter, CBS News Sunday Morning looked at one special church's success at reviving the community they nearly lost, and the way they set about this rebirth: by helping one child at a time.

The Good Friday service at the Mount Carmel Baptist Church is a standing-room-only event these days. But it wasn't always.

The Rev. Vincent Coles has been a preacher at Mount Carmel for 20 years, and he has seen the neighborhood change.

"It used to be a blue-collar neighborhood where people worked," the cleric tells CBS News Correspondent Rita Braver. "Now it's not. You know, you're looking at abandonment of houses around the area; you're looking at drug problems. The biggest problem that we have now is that we are an impoverished neighborhood."

The church elders took a hard look at the empty streets and shuttered houses. And they thought perhaps the time had come for them to leave as well.

"There was a question whether or not we should pull up stakes, or they should just pull up stakes and move to the suburbs," recalls Rev. Coles. "And the thinking at that time was that, no, we should stay and be a responsible neighbor in the neighborhood."

Being a responsible neighbor meant not giving up on the families who stayed behind. But it also meant reaching out to a new wave of residents -- a more transient group who, too often, weren't staying long enough to put down roots.

And so Mount Carmel came up with a plan: They would try to bring back the families by bringing in the children. And that started with an after-school program, held at the church with help from volunteers of AmeriCorp.

Like many inner city churches. Mount Carmel is joining forces with whoever it can, scrounging for grants and donations to fill a void left by financially strapped public schools.

Explains Rev. Coles, "Basically, what has happened is, Philadelphia has cut back on a lot of extracurricular activities - you know: orchestra, some extracurricular sports, math clubs, science clubs and things like that. So it just seemed a natural thing for the church to pick those things up."

And it didn't take long before they picked up plenty. Here's a short list of the programs offered at Mt. Carmel:

  • Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts
  • Medical Explorers
  • Drill team
  • Track team
  • Bowling league
    li>Basketball team
  • Rights of Passage mentoring program
And Rev. Coles adds with a laugh, "We have probably some things I haven't mentioned that people are gonna be upset with me about!"

Two nights a week, with their parents looking on, 80 to 100 children gather for choir practice. The joy is obvious. More subtle are the lessons being learning: teamwork, pride, and accomplishment.

Says one mother, "For my daughter, it's the main place she wants to be. You tell her she's got to go to church, and she's ready."

And another: "It's not many kids in her age group that knows more religious songs than they know the rap."

For those kids who wanted something less traditional, the church started a drill team that is now one of the best in Philadelphia.

And after more than 800 children enrolled in more than a dozen programs at Mount Carmel, a funny thing happened: Church became a family affair.

One neighborhood kid, Kevin Mitchell, started helping with the after-school program and also joined the Mount Carmel football team and the drill team.

When his brother Corey joined the church basketball team, their father, Kevin Sr., began to wonder what was going on. Before he knew it, Kevin Sr. was coaching his son's team and ushering at services. His wife, Crystal, helped the choir and chaperoned youth outings.

"Our church is changing now," says Mrs. Mitchell. "There's more young people coming into the church now. And if everybody sees that a lot of young people is coming to the church, now maybe they'll open up their eyes and say, 'This is not a bad thing to do. Come on!'"

Says Kevin Sr., "He led me like a shepherd leads his sheep. I followed my son to this church... The world is changing so bad. That's why we need these churches, we need these community services, we need more volunteers out there, because if you want to turn your back to this world, it's terrible."

Whether they're aware of it or not, the Mitchell family, and many others like them, are fulfilling a promise Mount Carmel made 118 years ago.

"There's always been families like that, and we just look for others to step up and fulfill those roles," says Rev. Coles. "The more families that you have like that, the more places people have havens to go, and the word of Christ gets spread."

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