From tragedy, a church finds its place

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Founding and lead pastor Joey Furjanic (center), of the Block Church, recognizes the Port Richmond church’s summer interns. (TOM GRALISH / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

PASTOR JOEY FURJANIC didn't have time to shower the morning we met. He'd only slept a few hours, and even if his phone wasn't constantly buzzing with calls and texts from parishioners and reporters, he still wouldn't have gotten much rest.

His mind was racing from the night before.

He and his wife Lauren were relaxing in their Port Richmond home on May 12 with a few friends when sometime around 10 p.m. his phone started going off with texts from family and friends asking him about a train crash.

Train crash? Furjanic, 29, wasn't sure what they were talking about, but when helicopters started to fly overhead, everyone in the house rushed out to see what was going on.

The full impact of the Amtrak Train 188 crash - hundreds injured, eight killed - wouldn't be known for hours. But that night, as Furjanic and others from the Block Church saw the flashing lights and heard the whining sirens, they knew it was bad.

Afraid of getting in the way, they first formed a circle near the crash site and began to pray. But when a firefighter Furjanic recognized from the neighborhood passed by, Furjanic asked if there was anything they could do to help.

For hours, Furjanic and others passed out Gatorade and water and towels to first responders, and later at a nearby school where families of passengers assembled to get information about their loved ones.

It was an intense night, Furjanic recalled when we spoke the next morning. But in the midst of tragedy, the burgeoning church's mission was strengthened.

In the eight months since he and his wife moved from Illinois to Philadelphia to start a nondenominational Christian church, there were doubts: Was this the right time, the right place? They had originally planned to open the church in South Philly.

Furjanic, who has been a youth pastor in several churches around the country, grew up in the Philly area, and long dreamed of starting a church in the city. But it hasn't been easy.

Before the church began holding services at Richmond Hall, a catering hall on Indiana Avenue near Thompson Street that hosts wedding receptions and funeral luncheons, bible study was often held inside their living room.

One night Furjanic looked around at the handful of worshippers gathered and thought: "We still don't have a space to worship; we still don't have many people. I do not know how this is going to happen . . . what are we going to do?"

Slowly but surely, they began to grow their church and outreach. They have about 250 members now. On Thanksgiving, they fed hundreds. On Halloween, they passed out cider and candy. And on Christmas, they helped single moms with gifts for their children.

But something happened on the night of the derailment. As Furjanic worked alongside parishioners who rushed to answer the call for help he put out on social media - some of whom had lived in the neighborhood for years, others who moved there for the church - everything clicked.

"I remember thinking, 'I wouldn't want to be anywhere else right now.' I'm certainly not excited about a tragedy and I'm certainly not saying we did anything heroic, we did not, but this was why we are here, to serve.

"The church is not a building. It's people." he said.

Last Sunday, I took him up on his invitation to stop by the church. It was family service day, and the mood inside was celebratory as families posed for portraits and grabbed a free cup of coffee or hot chocolate before activities began.

Among the parishioners were Celia and Alexis Rivera, both 34. Alexis was out there the night of the derailment. When the couple recently moved to the neighborhood, they went looking for a new church. They settled on three and planned to visit each. But after visiting the Block Church, they stopped looking.

"It felt right," said Celia Rivera. "We walked in and just thought, 'Yes, finally - a place where we can be part of something bigger.' "

The Block Church has big plans. Their motto? "Reviving the city, one block at a time."

"Whether it's Amtrak or someone's house catching on fire or someone's roof caving in, we're just here to serve," Furjanic said. "That night spurred some energy for some of us. It was a reminder and it was an opportunity, and I think it illuminated our mission: If something happens in our neighborhood, it's our responsibility."



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