Most of Jesus’ ministry didn’t take place inside a temple but outside among the people where he was healing the sick, clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.
The same can be said of True Gospel Tabernacle Church of God in Christ International at 1606 Mifflin St., where a vibrant congregation combines with active ministries to transform lives and serve those less fortunate.
“We started 33 years ago when the Lord had me to start a work and I started in South Philadelphia at 17th and Catherine (streets),” Bishop Ernest McNear said about his inspiration to establish the church.
A small storefront in South Philadelphia was home for 12 years as the initial congregation was a small group of family and friends. Over the years, the numbers began to grow.
“I called it the biggest little church in South Philadelphia,” said McNear. “We started school there and a day care, and then in 1997, we moved to this three-building complex.”
“When we moved in it was totally dilapidated,” he recalled. “We had to renovate this place from the top of the tower to the bottom of the basement.”
The renovation work was extensive, but “God is good,” McNear said in reflecting on the humble beginnings of True Gospel Tabernacle.
“God has given us some good people. I like to tell people that we’re not a mega-church but we’re a significant church. We have some very fine saints of God who work hard and have been here for years and do a lot of ministry,” McNear added.
To look at the building nowadays, one would hard pressed to find any signs of its previous condition. The transformation was a thorough one.
“One of the ministries that I am most proud of is our Philadelphia Freedom from AIDS campaign,” said McNear.
Since 2000, True Gospel has worked with the Philadelphia Fight Community Health Centers, whose many services include AIDS advocacy, in its continued effort to provide assistance and support in combating the AIDS epidemic.
“We have four different clinics and several other ministries to go along with that and I happen to be vice-president of the board and we do a good work, I must say,” the bishop said.
Along with fighting the HIV-AIDS epidemic and providing care and education for children, True Gospel Tabernacle also ministers to another vulnerable segment of the local population – former inmates.
“We work with people [who have] been in jail and with their children and their families. We work with them while they are in jail, and we see them when they come out to help them get reintegrated to the community, finding the skills and ways to become productive citizens,” said McNear.
There is also organ donor outreach efforts, which the church coordinates with the Gift of Life Donor Program.
“Many people don’t realize that African Americans really have a problem with the kidneys, heart and other organs, and we need to be supportive,” the church founder said. “We need to give people life. You know, even when we die, we can help people live,” McNear said.
Several church members can vouch for such undertakings, having had organ transplants themselves.
“I was waiting on a heart transplant and he [McNear] just prayed with me and assured me, and I received a heart transplant in 2003,” said Steven Sabb, a deacon at the church.
Sabb says he works with the Gift of Life organization, often traveling to help raise awareness about the importance of organ donation.
“This is a healing church. We have a real anointing here,” said Sabb.
“There’s people who have had cancer, then there’s myself and another deacon who actually had a lung transplant. Healing, helping and giving that’s what this ministry is all about,” he said.
So how is he doing today?
“It’s been 15 years [since his heart transplant] and it’s been a blessing because they only give you 10 years [life expectancy] with a heart [transplant] but I surpassed that so far – 15 years, 5 months.”
Deacon chairman Paul Collins started attending True Gospel Tabernacle 23 years ago after he was “dragged in by my wife.”
“She would say, ‘Why didn’t you go to church?’ So I went there, looked around and started being judgmental” said Collins.
Things changed during the fourth visit when the preacher spoke on a topic that hit a personal chord with Collins.
“I realized that that was the Lord, so I got saved and have been working for the Lord ever since,” explained Collins, who not only received a spiritual renewal but was also miraculously healed physically.
“I have had multiple surgeries, have been paralyzed for months, my pressure went down,” he said in recalling how a brain tumor had devastated his body and placed him in a wheel chair.
The tumor’s position was especially troublesome because it was located in the center of the brain. With surgery scheduled, that’s when something odd occurred.
“When they took the brain scan, they found out that the tumor that was there, didn’t exist a year later. So I said, ‘Lord thank you,’ ” Collins said.
Though physical complications remain, Collins says he can walk and live an independent life.
“I can walk straight, I can even walk to town if I want to. The Lord is good and the church is so spirit-filled. There is such an anointing that rests on this place,” he said.
Deaconess Adriane Medford, who attended another church before she joined True Gospel Tabernacle in 2004, talked about what drew her to the church.
“What attracted me to this church was the Institute of Bible and Ministry, amazing classes and the pastor had the vision for years before I even knew about this church,” she said.
“When my husband and I came, we learned so much about the Bible that it was insane. He grew, I grew, it made me want to learn about the Bible even more,” she added.
Medford later became an instructor and eventually dean of the institute.
“It’s been an amazing journey just learning the Word of God here and that’s what keeps me coming back,” she said.
Asked about the congregation, Medford described it as very supportive and loving.
“We really know how to encourage one another,” she said. “When you walk in, you just feel a spirit of love and it’s just something amazing. It just strikes me every time I come in.”