Pastor clings to vision for Pa. church

Religion: Ann Marie Gore started as the janitor at an old stone church in West Philadelphia, and now she is its leader.

May 03, 2002|By Michael Vitez | Michael Vitez,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - For years, Ann Marie Gore cleaned the toilets and polished the pews of an old stone church in West Philadelphia. She was the janitor.

Now she is the pastor.

And the administrator of a 60-child day-care center at the church.

And the founder of a soup kitchen. Twice a week she cooks lunch in the church basement for 100 people.

Ann Marie Gore has blossomed from a janitor into a custodian, in the grandest sense of the word.

"Any way you can, come see Miss Ann," said Michael Newsuan, 52, a self-described alcoholic and Vietnam veteran who stood in line one recent Thursday for his plate of ribs, greens, rice, and yellow cake with chocolate icing.

`An icon'

"She is an icon in this neighborhood. We need her."

As with so many lives, it is hard to look at Gore's beginnings and predict how far she would go.

Now 49, Gore grew up poor in coastal North Carolina. She got pregnant at 15, dropped out of 10th grade, and married William Gore, who was nine years her senior. In 1970, when she was 17, they moved to Philadelphia, where he got a job in a steel plant.

They bought a small rowhouse at 56th Street and Willows Avenue in West Philadelphia, across the street from Sherwood United Presbyterian Church.

She got a job cleaning the church, and became a member.

Ann Marie Gore had four children. When her first, Jackie, now the manager of a McDonald's restaurant in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., graduated from Bartram High School in Southwest Philadelphia in 1984, Gore decided she wanted her diploma, too. She went to Bartram and graduated in 1985.

She enrolled at Temple University, getting a bachelor's degree in 1989.

In 1996, she graduated from the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wynnewood with a master's in divinity. She was ordained and became the Rev. Ann Marie Gore.

All along, she saw the need in her neighborhood.

In 1992, long after she'd stopped working as the janitor, she started a day-care center at the Presbyterian church across the street. Today there are 60 children. Most of the parents are single mothers. Some are former welfare recipients working as school custodians and hairdressers. Some are going back to school. The state of Pennsylvania helps to pay for their day care.

Gore crosses the street each morning by 6 to baby-sit the earliest arrivals.

Joy of the work

"Seeing these kids, and knowing they're in a safe place, that is one of the biggest joys I have," she said. "Seeing their parents come in, and knowing their needs are being met - I get my jollies from that."

If mothers can't pay, Gore takes their children in anyway.

In 2000, the Presbytery of Philadelphia decided to sell the church. Its congregation had dwindled. Gore wanted to buy it, but nobody would give her a mortgage. The Presbytery waited for months, but time was running out. A letter in the summer told them to remove everything - the church was to be padlocked.

"I felt all this work we'd been doing was for naught," she said. "We were being cast aside. I started questioning the Lord: `All our work - why was it coming to an end?'

"But it was a growing time, also. I had nowhere else to turn but my faith."

Providence - she is certain of this - finally led her to Jim Gross, a Center City lawyer. "I became enamored with the story, and committed to helping her," Gross said. He contacted Steve Broadwell, an independent mortgage broker in Elkins Park, Pa.

"Most [lenders] don't want to touch churches," Broadwell said. "They don't want to foreclose on a church or a day-care center."

After an appeal from Broadwell, First Union National Bank lent Ann Marie $132,000. On Jan. 11, they closed the deal. "It was a real magic act," Broadwell said.

"It was a miracle," Gore said.

She renamed the church Sherwood Christian Outreach Center, and made it an independent Christian church.

And now, there are so many things she wants to do: Get a piano, fix the organ, start a foster-care program, and build a youth program with basketball leagues, karate classes, drill team.

Many have helped her. Folks from the Wayne Presbyterian Church volunteer with the soup kitchen every week, and a couple from Wayne, Pa., donated, anonymously, a van to shuttle day-care children to school.

Problems remain

Gore still has her trials, at home and in church. Her husband has ALS, Lou Gehrig's Disease. Recently, as she was stirring the collard greens, a neighbor called in alarm: Gore's husband, who was visiting, had fallen. Gore had thought he was home. He was all right.

That same day, the church plumbing was clogged; the lights in the sanctuary needed replacing; and a leaky roof was being repaired. She winced when the roofer handed her the bill for $200.

She had only 30 people at Easter services. But that was a start.

"We want to see it packed to capacity," she said. "There's scripture in Proverbs that says when you have no vision, people perish."

She said: "We have a vision."

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