The sound of basketballs dribbling on the concrete gym floor echoed from the recreation room in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown. The laughter of young boys filled the air — and so did the smell of slightly burned pizza and wings.
“I burn food for kids. That’s something I do well,” joked 42-year-old Christian Heyer-Rivera, coach of The Disciples, a church-sponsored basketball team composed of neighborhood boys between the ages of 10 and 14.
The team had just won the Christian Youth Basketball League championship and the boys celebrated with pizza and Gatorade. “I heard this is the diet of the Cavaliers,” teased Heyer-Rivera, referring to the Cleveland team that won the NBA championship last year.
A tall man with a neatly cropped beard and easy smile, Heyer-Rivera is director of Christian education at the historic church, an imposing stone structure near the corner of Germantown and Chelten Avenues in the heart of Germantown’s commercial district.
Two centuries old
The church traces its beginnings to 1809 — a time when the Greater German Township, as it was called, was inhabited by farmers and craftsmen of European descent. In the summer, Philadelphia’s elite – including the men who founded the country– vacationed in the rolling hills of the Germantown countryside.
Today, Germantown is a predominantly black, working-class neighborhood whose past is reflected in its house museums, cobblestone streets and historic churches like First Presbyterian. But many of its public schools have been closed, including storied Germantown High School, which once educated generations of Philadelphia teachers, lawyers, politicians and other civic leaders.
Faith in the future
Germantown’s churches, including First Presbyterian, have now stepped up to help fill the educational vacuum.
For Heyer-Rivera, that means not just coaching a boys’ basketball team, but also advising youth of all ages as they contend with the challenges of life in a low-income neighborhood and a society where racism is still a reality.
“We deal with a lot of different issues with kids,” he said. Among them, he explained, are how to build and maintain friendships; how to cope with divorce and separation within the family; and how to avoid the pull of popular culture.
“Kids kind of believe that their only way out of the neighborhood is through music, rap or through athletics,” Heyer-Rivera said.
He noted that not all youth are tempted by stereotypes about what brings success, but said he was concerned about the dwindling educational opportunities in Germantown.
The closure of Germantown High in 2013 was hard on neighborhood youth, he said. Working as a volunteer with the Germantown Clergy Initiative, he helped mentor students who were forced to transfer to other schools in Philadelphia.
Heyer-Rivera plays many different roles as a youth minister in the Germantown community — teacher, mentor and stand-in uncle, a traditional role in African-American families. “I do it because they’re like family,” he said.
According to parents and church staff, Heyer-Rivera’s work has had an important impact on young people.
Andrea Overton, a member of First Presbyterian for 14 years, called Heyer-Rivera “dedicated, high energy and intentional.” She said he’s made her 12-year-old son “accountable for his actions toward others.”
A spiritual journey
Heyer-Rivera’s ministry at First Presbyterian represents the fulfillment of a spiritual journey that began some three decades ago in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota where he grew up.
He was raised in a Christian household where his father was quick to anger and slow to forgive. At 18, he began to question his faith. “What does it mean,” he asked himself, “to pray in the name of Jesus?”
The answer came during a visit with a friend whose father had recently died. On the friend’s bookshelf was “The Grace Awakening,” a best-selling book by a Texas-based Christian evangelist.
Charles R. Swindoll, a popular radio-show host, wrote that Christians don’t have to earn God’s grace through their performance; rather, Christians are given God’s grace as an act of God’s love.
The book convinced Heyer-Rivera that there could be a loving and forgiving God.
Soon, Heyer-Rivera decided to enter the ministry. He enrolled at a small Lutheran seminary near his home in St. Paul, but was disappointed by the lack of diversity among the school’s faculty, most of whom were older white men.
“I realized I was very ignorant,” he recalled. “There’s so much more to learn from people who don’t look like me.”
The call to diversity led Heyer-Rivera to Palmer Theological Seminary, now a part of Eastern University in St. David’s. Although its student body is made up of many denominations, the seminary is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA and prides itself on its diversity and its commitment to the poor and social justice.
“I soaked it up,” Heyer-Rivera said.
Eventually, he migrated to the Presbyterian Church of the USA. “It was orthodox enough, meaning it was classically Christian enough, and it was also liberal enough,” he explained.
In June 2004, Heyer-Rivera took a summer position at First Presbyterian Church in Germantown. By the end of August, he was a full-time employee. “We love the neighborhood and what it encompasses,” said Heyer-Rivera, who is married and has two children.
This summer, Heyer-Rivera is headed to rural Maine to help rebuild homes and provide meals for low-income residents.
But come fall, he’ll be back in Germantown.
In addition to coaching the boys’ basketball team, he volunteers in the church’s Stop Hunger Now campaign, plans movie nights and beach trips for young people, and shares his talents with students at the Anna L. Lingelbach Elementary School at 6340 Wayne Ave.
“I would love to help kids and be one of those people who loved me and laid the groundwork for God coming through,” he said.