Christ Church: Not just for tourists

At Christ Church in Philadelphia the Vinegar Bible is on display. Timothy Safford, Rector, talks about the contents. ( Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer ) April 5, 2011. Editors Note: SBIBLE06 3/6

MORE THAN 230,000 visitors from around the world stopped in at Christ Church last year, most enjoying the storied structure just off 2nd Street in Old City while touring the city's historic core. Even more people stop by its burial ground, a few blocks away, if only to toss a penny through the fence onto Benjamin Franklin's grave.

And the question that the Rev. Timothy Safford hears most?

"Almost everyone who is visiting for the first time, if they aren't from Philadelphia or, actually, even if they are, they ask, 'Is this still a real church?'

"They think it's part of the tour," Safford said. "We like to say we haven't missed a Sunday in 318 years."

Who we are: Founded in 1695, Christ Church has been called "the nation's church" because of the Revolutionary-era notables who prayed here. Betsy Ross was a regular. George Washington and John Adams worshipped here when they were in Philadelphia. Franklin and six other signers of the Declaration of Independence considered Christ Church their home parish and are buried in its cemetery.

But while visitors might focus on the past, those inside the church are focused on the future, Safford said.

"We're a forward-thinking parish, even though we're in a historic building," he said.

"One of the things we say is we're a public church. . . . We're here for anyone, if they want to come to service or if they just want to come in and see the beauty of the building. Christ Church is here to inspire people."

Where we worship: The church is at 20 N. American St., just north of 2nd and Market. Sunday services are at 9 and 11 a.m. The church is open daily for visitors.

What we believe: "We are a Christian church that uses the historic faith to make Christ alive in a contemporary world," Safford said. Christ Church is considered the birthplace of the American Episcopal Church.

Old church, new math: The church has about 480 members; 200 of those worship regularly. In recent years, Safford has noticed a younger crowd in the pews. "There are lots of people in their 20s and 30s from Old City, Northern Liberties and Fishtown," he said.

"We've been challenged to make the church open to more people, and we have," he said. "But at the same time, it hasn't increased overall attendance and membership because those people attend church less. It's one of the most dynamic challenges we've had."

Opening doors: The church has an active LGBT community and ministry. Musical offerings come from around the globe. A recent Mass featured music from Indonesia.

Safford also tries to be inclusive by not always referring to God as "father" or "him." Alternatives include "God: Life-giver, pain-bearer, Earth-maker" or "God: our creator, our redeemer, and our companion."

The Holy Spirit is sometimes referred to as "she" because in biblical language, it's a more feminine word, he said.

Always room for a show: Christ Church makes its adjacent building, known as Neighborhood House, available to community organizations and theater groups. "We call it the Neighborhood House because we want people to use it. We don't call it the Church House," Safford said.

The EgoPo theater company recently staged "Gint," a reimagining of Henrik Ibsen's "Peer Gynt" set in Appalachia and featuring traditional tunes, and talking pigs. "They built an elaborate set on the fourth floor and installed a hot tub in the middle," he said.

Good works: The congregation is concerned about the state of the city's schools and their inadequate funding, Safford said. To that end, Christ Church has an active tutoring program for high school students.

Big social issues we're grappling with: Church members advocate for education locally, and Safford has traveled to Harrisburg to tell legislators that Christ Church approves of marriage equality.

A recent sermon on human trafficking - inspired by the abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria - was both important and historic.

Many of the church's earliest members were slave owners. While some congregants later became abolitionists, others did not. Those with opposing views worshipped here side-by-side.

"We can't bury our heads in the sand about slavery that is still going on in our midst," Safford said. "Human trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery."

A congregant you may not have heard of: Alice of Dunk's Ferry, also known as "Pioneer Alice" and "Black Alice." The child of slaves from Barbados, Alice was born in the late 1600s and is reported to have lived to age 116.

She generously shared her life's stories - telling of lighting William Penn's pipe, collecting tolls from people crossing the Delaware River on the ferry and riding her horse to church well into her 90s - and is considered the city's first oral historian.

A portrait of a middle-aged Alice, painted by artist Al Gury in 2009, hangs in Neighborhood House.

Ben and thee: The children's book Ben and Me, first published in 1938 and later a Disney film, tells the story of a Christ Church mouse named Amos and his contributions to Ben Franklin's career.

"Young kids ask if they can see the prayer book that the mouse ate," Safford said.

God is . . . "Love."

Words of hope: "Love is stronger than pain, hope is stronger than fear, and light will always overpower the darkness."