Jun 25, 2024 | John W. Coleman

Shores of Grace Philadelphia

“Not all of us can do great things,” said Mother Teresa, “but we can do small things with great love.” 

With vastly increased funding and policing, Philadelphia’s new mayor is beginning to do great things in the beleaguered Kensington community, where rampant drug trafficking, tragic violence and daunting despair have long reigned. But a ministry operating out of Lighthouse Fellowship United Methodist Church in Glenside, PA, has been doing small things with great love outside of Kensington’s Hope Park for about eight years.

A small team of street ministry servants from Shores of Grace Philly shows up every other Sunday afternoon for just over an hour on Ella Street, outside the fence surrounding Hope Park. Under watchful eyes, they set up tables and boxes on the uneven sidewalk and give out food and other needed items while conversing with whoever comes by.

They used to set up inside the park. But even before the Covid pandemic it was fenced off—like a reverse prison—to keep out the unhoused, untidy denizens who once congregated on the grass there. Now it lies dormant and inaccessible when these visitors arrive.  

Nonetheless, a long line forms quickly each Sunday, as new and familiar faces greet these guests with humble grace and gratitude. Joanna and Todd Keim lead the small mission, offering healthy food—assorted sandwiches and chips, fruit, muffins, water and juices—all donated by members of Lighthouse Fellowship and other friends and supporters.

‘We want to give them our best’

In colder months their bounty at times includes hats, gloves, hoodies, coats, blankets, scarves and socks—not used but purchased donations. “We want to give them our best,” said Joanna, “because that’s what our Heavenly Father gives to us. We want them to know that we love them in the same way.”  

They also offer—or rather, exchange—prayers, generous hugs and words of encouragement.

“I prayed for a man we just met who shared that he is an alcoholic,” wrote Joanna in one of her many posts on the Shores of Grace Philly Facebook page. “We were able to share hope with him and connect him with some information about a great program. Afterward, he prayed for all of us and our ministry. So beautiful! We felt the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit and were able to connect with old and new friends.”

Lighthouse Fellowship and its pastor, the Rev. Cynthia Brubaker, support Shores of Grace Philly because of the great love it shows to the people of Kensington. It’s a love that flows both ways, the Keims have found. “Really, it’s not just about us giving them food,” said Joanna. “It’s about us showing up when they expect us, and for that hour being a part of their community. They look out for us and take care of us while we’re caring for them.”

School of the Streets

Shores of Grace ministry with street children in Recife, Brazil

Two brothers, Nic and Luke Billman, and their wives, Rachael and Alisan Billman, respectively, birthed Shores of Grace in Recife, Brazil, in 2010 as a call-from-God mission to rescue and restore abandoned children and youth living on the streets there. Many of those young people are exploited victims of prostitution and human trafficking.

In 2016 Luke and Alisan returned home to Pennsylvania with their children to start a Shores of Grace site in Philadelphia. They located it at the parish house of the former Servants of Christ United Methodist Church in Germantown, which closed this year.

Shores of Grace Philly offers experiential trainings, known as “School of the Streets,” which leaders of several Eastern PA Conference churches, including Lighthouse Fellowship, have taken. They teach lessons on how to connect heart-to-heart, in Christian love, with people living in difficult circumstances and how to step into negative environments and change the atmosphere by emulating Christ through prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Luke and Alisan invited their “students” to accompany them on weekly outreach visits to Hope Park, where they engaged, fed and prayed for the people, showed outdoor movies and did other activities. The Keims, who were new members of Lighthouse Fellowship, joined them. And when the Covid pandemic struck in 2020, they took over the Hope Park mission for the Billmans so they could continue doing this small thing with great love.

They showed up weekly despite the risks because other charitable groups had stopped coming. They also upgraded their menu from mere snacks to sandwiches, inviting healthy food donations from near and far.

The Shores of Grace Philly team prays for Kensington residents and their mission after distributing food June 9. John Coleman photo

The Keims’ careers alone are evidence of a couple blessed with caring hearts. Joanna has been a pre-school special education teacher for 30 years, nurturing children with multiple disabilities and complex needs. Todd, formerly a building remodeling contractor, is now a Registered Nurse at Jefferson Abington Memorial Hospital, where he coordinates patient care services in the Emergency Trauma Center.

Now, every other Sunday the two go to Hope Park with other church members, sometimes including their pastor and the Rev. Dan Roth and his wife Judy from Summerfield UMC in nearby Fishtown. They load up their truck and welcome whosoever will join them, starting and ending each visit in prayer.  

Residents show up as soon as they arrive, some helping to unload the truck and others lining up while conversing with one another, as they are reminded that there’s enough food for everyone.

‘Connection, love, kindness, support’

In early May Mayor Cherelle Parker dispatched city workers and police to clean up Kensington by dismantling the encampments of unhoused occupants and directing addicted persons out of the community and into treatment programs. The Keims asked for prayers that those addicted would find and accept treatment and that they also would receive “what addicts really need,” said Joanna: “connection, love, kindness and support, with recovery that involves long-term plans for their health and wellbeing.”

But Shores of Grace is determined to keep going there to serve and support people who need the love they are eager to share.

In February the Keims raised enough funds to visit the original Shores of Grace in Brazil. They spent a week learning more about doing street ministry there.

“The rescue home can only hold up to 20 children,” Joanna wrote from Brazil. “However, there are thousands of children on the streets. We prayerfully go to meet and minister to them where they are, through the love of God and the gospel of grace! The Light of the World consistently meets us in one of the darkest places we know.”

“One thing I learned from our experience in Brazil,” said Joanna in a recent interview, “is that I really want to be able to spend more time with people, talking to them, learning about them and praying with them.” The two share a heartfelt desire to dismantle not encampments but human barriers, as they seek to take their Hope Park mission farther and deeper—like a boat setting out from its shore.

“If it stays just the way it is now, that would be awesome,” said Todd. “But we believe God is calling us to do more.”

Their vision is to gain entrance back into the park, so they can set up chairs and tables for residents to sit, eat and talk together. Todd, who plays guitar in Lighthouse’s worship band, wants to play music, maybe have cookouts and offer some brief worship to nourish residents’ bodies and souls.

But if they are to create this new, fresh expression of church, they will need more volunteers to hand out food and help make that possible. And they always need contributions of healthy food and supportive funds, which can be donated online.

What the Keims heard and witnessed in their visit to Shores in Brazil—how it grew from a mustard seed ministry to something far greater—prompts even loftier visions in them of what Shores Philly can become, as it connects and uplifts more people in Kensington and beyond. They have seen God challenge them and then reward their obedience, sometimes miraculously.

“The way this seems to work is we try to do whatever God puts on our hearts to do,” said Joanna. “And then God makes it possible by sending us the support that we need.” They are grateful for all the love they get to share from the people who help them and from the people they help as well.


Those people are beautiful!

“Today was a great day at the park. Toward the end of our visit, I was across the street talking to some of the women who live at that corner. A young man walked up and gestured over to where our team was. He said, “Those people are beautiful!” Then he looked at me and said, “You’re one of them.” He reached out to hug me and held on for quite a while as he cried.

He said people just see them as dirty people on the street. People don’t realize that they are human beings who have experienced trauma and loss. He said that we treat them like human beings, like people who love and want to be loved. I told him that we just want to share the love we have been given, and that he is very loved. He hugged me again and thanked me for loving people.”

—A Facebook post by Joanna Keim, October 2023