by Ann de Forest

As a child, Adan Mairena dreamed of being a filmmaker when he grew up. Second on his list was becoming a singer (“Doesn’t everybody dream of that?” he jokes). Instead, the Honduras native followed in his parents’ footsteps and became a Presbyterian minister. As pastor of the West Kensington Ministry at Norris Square, Mairena is living an even grander dream, forging a dynamic arts-based ministry in a community ravaged by unemployment, poverty, and violence.

Focusing on “community, youth, and fellowship,” Mairena has transformed a 150-year-old red brick Presbyterian church into a place of healing and renewal, a house of worship that is also a fledgling arts center, offering programs that often blur the distinctions between the two. The parish hall, decorated with paintings from Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, has been fitted with a stage, complete with a sound and light booth (which doubles as a recording studio), and a TV studio. Sunday School classrooms house after-school programs in mural painting, guitar, and digital photography. Every Friday night the church holds a Youth Open Mic night, where aspiring spoken word artists and hip hop musicians perform in front of a life-size mural of Jesus hugging a young man in baggy jeans and Timberland boots, a gun at his feet.

Like North Philadelphia’s Art Sanctuary [see Sacred Places Fall 2010, p. 8], the various arts programs at West Kensington Ministry provide the young people of the neighborhood a safe haven, an outlet for personal expression, and a means for developing skills and confidence. To further his vision, Mairena has drawn on a long history of community activism in this predominantly Latino neighborhood, collaborating with various civic groups and officials, as well as a core population of artists living around Norris Square. For two years running, Mairena has invited local painters, poets, sculptors, and dancers to design Stations of the Cross for a Good Friday procession that, true to the ministry’s approach, is a lively mix of traditional liturgy and outdoor arts festival.

When Mairena first came to Norris Square from a pastoral residency program in a Philadelphia suburb, his charge was to revive the congregation as an anchor of its West Kensington neighborhood. Now, under Mairena’s energetic leadership, the church is a burgeoning hive of activity – and a potent force in the community’s revival.