Reverend Renee McKenzie believes her role at the Church of the Advocate goes beyond delivering a weekly sermon.
Four blocks from Temple University, her North Philadelphia congregation is suffering the longterm effects of racism and “white supremacy,” said McKenzie. Recently, she feels, the problem has started to get worse.
So on Saturday, McKenzie is launching the North Philadelphia Community Healing Project. The program will comprise weekly workshops and classes designed specifically to help people heal.
“I have gotten strong feedback from folks in the community about their interest in this,” McKenzie told Billy Penn. “We’re facing a lot of stress.”
Gentrification can be traumatic
So what does the stress associated with white supremacy look like?
In Philadelphia, a 2013 study explored the regional prevalence of adverse childhood experiences — aka potentially traumatic events. It found that things like feeling discrimination, witnessing violence and encountering stressful neighborhood experiences are all more likely to be felt in urban areas.
“And for us, the impact of gentrification would also be a stresser,” McKenzie said. “It contributes to the feeling of instability in the community.”
The study found that more than 37 percent of Philadelphians had experienced four or more adverse childhood experiences — which is “significantly more” than the general population.
After reviewing that data recently, McKenzie wondered: “What would it mean for a faith-based organization to adopt a trauma-informed approach, and what would be the impact of that?”
Healing a community
So McKenzie decided to have her entire staff trained in trauma-informed care, which basically teaches people to interact with folks who’ve experienced trauma without making it worse.
Beyond that, she partnered with a few Philly healing professionals, who will offer standalone workshops on Saturday. Some will continue the project with regular, eight-week courses every Saturday after that. The classes will teach residents skills like art, yoga, meditation, nutrition and caregiver support.
For children and teenagers, former social worker Mai Spann-Wilson will teach a class called Telling Your Own Story: A Workshop. It’ll use art and poetry to help young people learn to express their emotions.
West Philly resident Misty Sol will teach an Art as Healing class on Saturday. As a survivor of domestic violence, she found relief from her own trauma through painting and performance art. She’ll teach North Philly residents the same skills.
“My aim is to provide an opportunity and a space for that healing to begin,” Sol said. “I think we all have things we can heal from. It’s just about who’s ready to take the path.”
The new programming fits in with the Advocate’s history. The North Philadelphia church has long been a socially conscious institution. In 1974, the Advocate was the first Episcopal church in the world to ordain women. Before that, it was a pillar of the local Civil Rights movement, hosting two national black power conferences.
And in recent years, the Advocate has hosted meetings to advocate against Temple’s proposed on-campus stadium, and it has been home to a family taking sanctuary from deportation.
“It became really evident to me that a trauma-informed ministry was consistent with everything the Advocate has done in the past,” McKenzie said. “It should be uplifting.”