An industrial buzz flickers to life as haphazard fluorescent light bulbs splash the massive sanctuary of The Church of the Advocate in speckles of light. The sound of footsteps bounces off of the cold concrete walls, and shadows of towering stone pillars command the space’s Gothic style. But despite the stark appearance, Kemah Washington is noticeably at home.
“I remember my first time in here,” he said. “It was just so big and so huge…you hear echoes. I just told my mom, ‘Mom, I’m scared, I don’t like it here.’”
He chuckles at the notion, an irony given that he ultimately wound up spending his life in this very sanctuary. He has grown with it, seen it rise, fade, deteriorate and rise again. The son of the Advocate’s late pastor, the Rev. Paul Washington, Kemah knows the divine mandate that comes with the Advocate’s name, and the sovereign, profound mission it represents to its struggling community.
Nestled in between row homes at the intersection of 18th and Diamond streets, today, the looming shadow of the Advocate seems just slightly out of place, as if picked up from 13th century France and placed on a North Philadelphia corner. Its ornate stained glass and flying buttresses bear scars of its surroundings; many of its windows have shattered panes, and interior supports have been weakened by water damage.
Netting hangs across the massive vaulted ceiling, protecting visitors from falling debris, and caution tape creates a barrier between churchgoers and their tragically beautiful sanctuary. Inside, a green rusted gargoyle stands mounted on a pedestal, removed from the roof due to the danger of it falling on the streets below.
Despite all of its scars, the church is still standing.
The George W. South Memorial Church of the Advocate, officially named after the wealthy Philadelphia businessman whose estate funded its construction, was built between 1890 and 1897 in the Gothic Revival style under the design of the famous church architect Charles Marquedent Burns. The ornate stained glass windows were constructed by one of the leading English glass-making firm Clayton & Bell.
At the time, the church was centered in a predominately white, working class neighborhood, where it was intended to serve as the Episcopal Cathedral in Philadelphia and center of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. As the demographic in the area changed with the years, and the congregation dwindled, the church’s role in the community changed as well.
Today, students and neighborhood residents walk past its blue historical marker on Diamond Street, completely unaware that they are passing by the former anchor of Philadelphia’s civil rights movement, the site of the first female ordination in to the Episcopal Church and the home of beloved and admired Father Washington.
“They called this place the hub of the black power movement in Philadelphia,” Kemah Washington said. “Huey P. Newton, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver; you name it, they came through here…this was the place to be. [It was] just an amazing time.”
Known for opening its doors to anyone, the once-failing church was quickly turned into a thriving community of African-American empowerment through Washington’s efforts. Along with constant meetings and events, the church opened its doors for 1968’s National Conference on Black Power and the highly controversial Black Panther Conference in 1970. In 1974, 11 women were ordained at the church, the first in the world to do so a full two years before the practice was authorized by the Episcopal Church.
“It was the place that people looked to for leadership. That’s what Paul Washington did. He provided a kind of leadership,” said the church’s current Vicar, the Rev. Renee McKenzie-Hayward. “A lot of the great civil rights leaders in our country were from our city; Paul Washington was one of them.”
Having lived through the church’s heyday as a child, Kemah Washington easily recalls the racial tensions and fears that were a constant force in the neighborhood. Despite efforts from police, FBI and CIA to crack down on Black Panther activity, Father Washington pushed forward.
“My dad thought we had a right to defend ourselves. And he said that we have things inside our body that defend against infection, and disease,” Kemah Washington said. “So our body has a way of defending itself to stay alive, and he thought that we had to have that also. So he opened the doors.”
As Father Washington facilitated groups and events, there came a growing discontent throughout the church, a concern that was rooted in its fundamental architecture. The building, congregation members said, was built to appeal to white Europeans. Its congregation base had shifted, and demographics no longer related.
“During that period of time, people who came in to the church, as they looked around, they saw no stained glass window, nothing or no one with whom they could identify,” said Father Washington in a 1992 interview with the Rev. Ellen B. McKinley. “Everything was white, white, white.”
It was at this crossroads that Father Washington commissioned 14 murals for the Advocate’s sanctuary, pieces of artwork that would ultimately become an inherent part of the church’s personality.
The pieces, which are arguably the most well-preserved aspects of the sanctuary, depict the African-American experience in America and have been the source of wonderment and controversy for decades.
“My dad wanted this to happen…they just wanted [artists Walter Edmonds and Richard Watson] to express how they felt, how black people felt about the moment in our lives,” Kemah Washington said, reiterating that many have been shaken by some of the images’ graphic nature. “[But] it’s the way we felt. It was the way the world treated us.”
It is these murals that have helped the current church’s community form a relationship with more recent neighbors: Temple students.
Jennifer Zarro, a professor who teaches “Race, Identity and Experience in American Art,” has been taking her classes to the church to forge connections and admire its often forgotten significance.
“I’ve been taking students there every time I teach the class,” Zarro said. “Architecturally, it’s significant. Historically, it’s significant…it just fits in so perfectly with the gen-ed goals.”
The interest from university students has led the Rev. McKenzie-Hayward to explore new avenues in building restoration and preservation.
“Right now I’m in conversation with a professor from Temple, and she’s going to come and take a look at the murals,” the reverend said. “It might become a project for some of the students to restore and preserve the murals.”
For Kemah Washington, this restoration is personal. After his father passed in 2002, it’s been a painful process to watch the Advocate deteriorate.
“It hurts to look up and see the netting, flakes are falling down. The water damage that’s here. It just hurts,” he said. “Now that my dad is gone and I’m here, I’m kind of feeling the same way. I just can’t…I can’t let this happen. I can’t see it happen.”
In 1980, the church, widely considered one of the best examples of the American Gothic period, was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It is also on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and has been named a National Historic Landmark.
The church itself has seen numerous transitions over the past century, Kemah Washington said. His father was brought in during the 1960s to revive the faltering congregation, which he did, as evidenced by the church’s presence in the 1960s. Kemah Washington cited financial complacency, facilitated by an interim pastor, as a source for much of the Advocate’s current struggles.
“We kind of lost our way…We had some money, and we just kept drawing off of it. Now we’re at that critical point where we have to get ourselves together. Get our head above water. Get our resources back together, start raising some money,” said Kemah Washington, adding that an estimated $4 million would be required to make the necessary improvements. “Under the guidance of Pastor Renee, we’re getting to that point.”
Despite the rough exterior, both Kemah Washington and Rev. McKenzie-Hayward are confident in the Advocate’s mission: regardless of structure, the building still serves as a safe haven for all who need and want help.
“[The church] has always lived up to the name of being the advocate,” the reverend said, stepping out from the church’s busy soup kitchen hour for a brief conversation.
The church, she said, hosts youth basketball, summer programs, clothing giveaways and countless other ministries.
It’s this mission that, Kemah Washington said, will always keep the Advocate — his advocate — alive.
“On any given Sunday, you can find homeless people in the church, you can find somebody from the gay and lesbian community, white people, rich people, poor people,” Kemah Washington said. “I like to say that the same people that you found around Jesus Christ are the same people you find at the Church of the Advocate.”
After a lifetime spent in the church, Kemah Washington continues to carry on his father’s legacy, determined to restore the Advocate to its former glory. Watching his father’s lifetime of ministry has profoundly inspired his own life of service, he said.
“I know I’ll never be able to fill my dad’s shoes. But I can walk in the same footsteps as he did. And he walked in the same footsteps as Christ,” he said. “So if I’m walking in my dad’s footsteps, then I’m doing OK.”
Ali Watkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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