A Fairhill church is redemption central for ex-offenders

Jeffrey Muldord an ex-offender embraced by Rev. Juan Marrero (right) during sermon where over seventy-five percent of the congregants are ex-offenders.. Christ Centered Church 627 W. Clearfield Street Philadelphia Pa July 2, 2017

Jeffery Muldor had a plan to take advantage of a church’s goodwill, without having to give up his heroin highs.

Arrested about two dozen times, he had spent 17 of his 53 years in prison, mostly for dealing drugs. He was out now, and as hooked as ever on his own merchandise.

Christ Centered Church, a Mennonite congregation in the heart of a rough North Philadelphia neighborhood once called the Badlands, offered temporary housing to troubled ex-offenders. Muldor figured he could finagle a spot in the program, get a roof over his head, and keep on using.  He was right, to a point.

The Rev. Juan Marrero picked him up to take him to his new digs, and headed south — straightaway to Gaudenzia Together House, an alcohol and drug treatment center on Spring Garden Street. “And he left me there,” said Muldor, foiled by, of all people, a man of God.

If the Rev. Marrero was wise to the games addicts play, he learned the hard way.  Before joining the clergy, he and his co-pastor, the Rev. Ron Muse, a chaplain with the Philadelphia Prison System, themselves worked the corners as dealers. They had their own bouts with addiction, and tangles with the law.

In other words, the pastors say, they are uniquely qualified for the mission they’ve chosen, as shepherds of redemption central.

Muse, 43, of Northeast Philadelphia, and Marrero, also 43, of Frankford, lead a congregation of 100 members with an experiential bond: incarceration. About 75 percent have served time. Many of the remaining 25 percent are their family members, who watched and worried from outside prison walls.

The sanctuary of Christ Centered Church is a small and spare 65-seater in a storefront at Clearfield and Sheridan Streets in the Fairhill section, more than packed on Sundays for sermons and Bible studies that empathize with the members’ challenges without excusing the life choices they’ve made.

“What good can come out of the Badlands of North Philadelphia?” Marrero, preaching in polo shirt and khaki shorts, roared during a recent service. The question echoed the Bible passage, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” asked by the disciple Nathaniel when told the Messiah was from an obscure village in Galilee.  It fit the tough-luck streets the congregants walk every day.

“God specializes in using people who’ve been marginalized for his purpose. You are brand new in him. Are there some transformed folks in here?” he asked, to applause and shouts of “Yes!”

Since the church was founded in 2011, he estimates, only 5 percent of the ex-offenders in the congregation have returned to prison — well below the nearly 60 percent recidivism rate for Pennsylvania prisoners within three years of release. When they do fall, Muse is there, ready with the next Bible study or counseling session behind bars.

There’s more to the ministry than sermonizing. It helps with practical needs such as housing, food, and employment; operates Allegheny House, a seven-room transitional facility; and partners with Kingdom Builders Construction, a Mennonite initiative that provides jobs to church members. Other assistance is offered via the Crossroads Community Center, on North Sixth Street, around the corner from the church. The center, where Marrero is executive director, has a food pantry and serves as home base for a prison ministry that he and Muse lead.

Both ministers grew up near the church in a mostly Hispanic and African American neighborhood. Today, 54 percent of the residents in Fairhill have less than a high school education, and nearly 60 percent live in poverty. For decades, the drug trade has robbed the community of its safety, and its potential.

Muse lived with his mom and stepfather on Sheridan Street.  At 17, he was arrested for selling cocaine and heroin, and spent 13 months at the Sleighton Farm School, a former juvenile facility in Glen Mills. For Marrero, drugs were in some ways the family business. His grandmother was a methamphetamine dealer, a legacy passed down. Both men struggled with addiction.

Yet a spark of religious faith, however dim, remained in their lives. As youngsters, they had gone to church. Marrero’s parents worked as sextons at nearby Second Mennonite Church. Muse’s family visited different congregations.  But back then, as young men, they believed that church had no answer for the poverty and violence that surrounded them.

“We had missionaries and they were good at baking cookies, but they couldn’t walk me through the trials in my neighborhood,” Marrero said. In the early 1990s, at age 18, he was arrested for selling heroin and sentenced to nearly four years of probation.

Eventually, the transformation that both men now preach began in their own lives.  Weary of his addiction and the drug deaths of friends, Marrero sought help from the Crossroads Center, which offered him a job as a youth worker.

“I began to sense my calling,” he said.

He kicked his addiction cold turkey and moved up to the executive director’s post. In 2013, he earned his master of divinity degree from Biblical Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

By then, Muse also had turned his back on drugs. After Sleighton Farms, “God started dealing with me,” he said. Seeing the drug-ruined lives around him, he thought, “Y’all got this,” and came back to the church.  He worked as a counselor at the Youth Study Center detention facility while holding Bible studies in his home.

The two men, acquaintances as kids, reconnected in 2007 when Marrero enlisted him to help expand the Crossroads Center’s prison ministry. Muse began volunteering to lead Bible studies at the Philadelphia Detention Center in the Northeast. He later became a chaplain, taking on added responsibilities, including counseling and scheduling worship.  He was ordained by the Koinonia Fellowship, a network of urban Anabaptist churches, and licensed in the ministry by the Alliance of Mennonite Evangelical Congregations,

Six years ago, the two men took the next step, founding Christ Centered Church. At first, services were held at Teen Haven, a youth ministry on Broad Street. In 2014, the congregation purchased the Clearfield Street storefront for $10,000, with funding from the Koinonia group and Marrero’s aunt Cecilia Velasquez, a drug counselor. The church moved into the renovated four-room building two years ago.

Among the regulars is Antoine Daniels, 34, of Germantown, who served a four-year sentence for selling drugs. There is Ada Marrero, the pastor’s aunt, who said she’d been using drugs “her whole life,” but has been clean for five years. And there is James Muldor, 48, Jeffery’s brother, who served eight years in Graterford Prison for robbery and is now a church deacon, a block captain, and a youth director at Crossroads.

The mission is not without disappointment. From time to time, workers don’t show up for jobs, construction tools go missing, and “tussles” break out at Allegheny House. But “over the years,” Marrero said, “we’ve gotten better at discerning who’s ready for an opportunity and who’s not.”

Last Sunday, Muse preached about losing connection to the gospel in an uproariously funny and candid sermon that referenced sex outside marriage (“Even Beyonce said, ‘Put a ring on it’ “); smoking cigarettes (“Pass the loosie”); and relying on government subsidies (“Where’s your job game?”).

Jeffery Muldor listened from the front row. After a 56-day stay at Gaudenzia House, he has been attending services, undergoing outpatient therapy, and, finally, living in the church’s temporary housing.

“It’s not like we’re around a bunch of bougie [bourgeois] people who don’t remember when they had their own problems,” Muldor said. “We understand where we come from, and we’re growing together as one.”

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