he year is 1957. You are walking down a busy street in the business district of a crowded city. You stop to enjoy a classy, inexpensive meal in a downtown diner while the sounds of Elvis Presley, a new singer from Memphis, flood the room. As you restart your stroll through the town, you see children mesmerized by street performers. Everybody is smiling. This is Reading, Pennsylvania.
Fast-forward five decades. Reading is in a state of decay. Statistics show a poverty rate of 38 percent among its 80,000 residents. The once-busy business district is now plagued by vacant storefronts, graffiti-ridden landmarks, and an aura of hopelessness. While city officials work to solve this issue with stimulus plans and relief programs, a native of a small Philadelphia suburb knows that money cannot fix Reading, but Jesus can.
Two decades ago, Joe Sclafani and his wife, Trisha, and their three sons—Kyle,
Ethan, and Zachary—moved from suburbia to Reading, and joined the Spring Valley Church of God. Soon, Pastor Robert E. Hinson asked Sclafani to head up the church’s evangelism team. The team had a lot of success getting decisions, but no success with discipleship.
“We would go out on the street and lots of young people would make decisions for Christ, but getting them to church was another story,” Sclafani said. “We assumed we could just bus them up to Spring Valley. Some would come, but for the most part, these kids weren’t into church.”
This is when a new idea was born. What if citizens of Reading were reached in their own neighborhood? The church began to look for a building to house such a ministry, only to find that the best location was right under their nose.
Spring Valley Pastor Robert Hinson said, “E. G. and Klara Smith, who were members of our church, once had a business in downtown Reading, but had relocated it. Thinking the building would be the perfect place for ministry in the city, they had donated it to the church. We had let other churches use the building, but it came available just when we needed it for this outreach.”
When he founded City Light Ministry (initially known as Life-Line Center) in 1992, Pastor/Director Joe Sclafani set out to create an urban outreach center, not a church.
“Reading has lots of great churches,” Sclafani said. “What Reading needed was a place where people could be ministered to at their point of need—a place where they could first find a place to belong, then let it become a place to believe.”
From its inception, City Light has been about the kids. “I didn’t think it was going to be a children and youth ministry,” Sclafani remembers. “In fact, I once said, ‘I’ll do whatever You want me to do, Lord, but I won’t work with kids!’ I’m sure glad God didn’t take my advice!
Sclafani said, “While we were running around the neighborhood trying to reach adults, we noticed it was the kids that were following me around. The people I was trying so hard to reach were rejecting me, but I was practically tripping over kids. I once heard it said, ‘You fish where they’re biting.’ So I prayed, ‘Lord, if You want me to work with kids, just teach me how.’ Eighteen years later, I’m still learning.”
Today, City Light reaches impoverished children and youth in a variety of ways. There are after-school programs, summer camps, super-Saturday and teen-night ministries, and Sunday worship services.
“Of all the activities we do, the after-school program is my favorite,” Sclafani reports. “It speaks most to our mission. We feed the kids a hot meal; there is a homework center, Bible devotion, and lots of fun activities. It meets our kids at a point of need while it keeps them off the streets.”
A recent visitor to the after-school program said, “Because of the name, I assumed it was a church. They talked about God, but it’s different from a church. It was something like a Boys and Girls Club, but it wasn’t really like that either. All I know, it is one very busy place.”
This outside description of City Light Ministry pleases Joe Sclafani very much. He said,
“I tell people, ‘We are not a church.’ Hey, I believe in the church, I love the church, and I believe the church is God’s vehicle to save the world. But in an urban reality, we need to be more missional in our approach.”
There is another reason for this missional approach—money. “We would never survive if we needed to rely on a tithing base for support,” said Verlinda Armstrong, children’s and youth pastor. “The majority of our people live far below the poverty level; many are unemployed or on welfare. Being a missionary work gives us a chance to minister to those who are unable to give.”
City Light receives much of its support from its parent church, Spring Valley, and is sponsored by several of its members, many on a monthly basis. But that generosity is not enough. Sclafani said, “We have some churches that support us, a couple of foundations have helped us over the years, some people give annually or on occasion, but the majority of our support comes from sponsors giving an average of $25 per month. It’s really quite a miracle how God has provided over the years! We are so grateful!”
City Light’s vision is to have four urban outreach centers throughout the city. They currently have two fully operational centers—one on the northside, the other on the southside—and an after-school program (only) on the westside. In 2005, in an effort to reach children and youth more effectively, they began to target families. It began with free community meals and further expanded into small-group Bible studies and Sunday worship services.
Some surveys suggest Reading is the poorest city of its size in the entire country, but City Light is providing hope, working around the clock to minister the Word of God around the city.