Historic Bella Vista church hosts baking bread sessions to spur social change

RISE, a ministry of Saint Mark's Church, bakes bread to unite communities in need.

RISE uses the art of bread baking to cultivate conversations about societal issues. RISE aims to bridge gaps in the Christian church’s outreach toward certain communities and demographics that, as some may perceive, have been neglected by the denominations. (Grace Maiorano/SPR)

“Bread needs patience, time and strength to make,” chef Amira Abdul-Wakeel told a small group of budding bakers convened at the Church of the Crucifixion, a defunct Episcopal site, on a recent Saturday morning.

Hands dusted with flour, the individuals, mostly in their 20s and 30s, keenly listened to her as she spelled out the ideal ingredients for bread and, perhaps, healing.

The workshop led by Abdul-Wakeel was one installment in a series of events known as RISE, a ministry of Saint Mark’s Church that hosts bi-monthly events at the Church of the Crucifixion, 620 S. 8th St., which is a historic African-American church in Bella Vista. 

Regarded as a fundamental recipe, RISE uses the art of bread baking to cultivate conversations about societal issues spanning from women’s rights to the LGBTQ community.

Coordinated through a collaboration with Saint Mark’s and Princeton Theological Seminary, RISE, which is supported by a grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc. and sponsored by The Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, aims to bridge gaps in the Christian church’s outreach toward certain communities and demographics that, as some may perceive, have been neglected by the denominations.  

“Part of my particular vision is to try and offer people what the church hasn’t always offered,” said RISE coordinator Gabi Machado, a native of London who’s working with Saint Mark’s as a Servant Year Ministry Resident. “…These are things that aren’t typically associated with church necessarily, but I think they should be.” 

RISE is a project of Princeton Theological Seminary’s Zoe Project, an “innovative hub of young adult ministry” taking place in 12 different congregations. 

Though the first version of RISE started two years ago, Machado, who studied Theology and Biblical Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, took over the workshops this year.

Machado, who also received a postgraduate diploma in education, focusing on religious, moral and philosophical studies, has helped to craft RISE’s current programming, which features different activists each session. 

The guest speakers discuss a scope of conversations related to social justice, including African-American oppression, inner-city food insecurity, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and spiritual healing related to mental health. 

“I think what we want to do is recognize that we live in a world that’s often ungenerous and oppressive to the people,” said RISE volunteer Flan Park. “We want to be involved in the work that undoes that and imagines a more loving and just world.” 

Every other Saturday morning, a group of attendees gathers around 11 a.m. for a service led by a priest from Saint Mark’s. The public is invited.

From there, the fellowship begins as individuals prepare ingredients for the bread. 

Then, as the dough rises, the group engages in conversations surrounding issues about that day’s specific theme.  

After the bread has completed baking, individuals distribute the loaves to local food programs around the city, including Broad Street Ministry, Saint Mark’s Saturday Soup Bowl and the Church of the Advocate.

“There’s this relationship that happens with you and your loaf that we’re hoping to encourage, because part of the idea as well behind this is – we want to meet people,” Machado said. “If you care about service, come, because you know that the bread is going to go somewhere good. You know that you can feed people. But, also, transformation can happen at your fingertips. Imagine, when you leave this place and you look to your community and you look to where the needs are.” 

Machado leads baking sessions for the majority of RISE events. 

However, she recently connected with Abdul-Wakeel, who is the founder of Amira’s Delites, which specializes in traditional, vegan and allergy-friendly pastries.

As an activist for accessible food to lower-income communities, Abdul-Wakeel was the ideal candidate to serve as a guest baker of RISE. 

“I’m also into real food, whole food, sustainability, how do we save our earth and eat well?” she asked. “How do we teach our children, so they don’t die in a sea of food? They don’t starve with food all around them because they don’t know it’s food because it hasn’t been processed yet?”

During her workshop, Abdul-Wakeel, who’s also a science teacher and social worker, discussed the process of community and personal gardening with the group, shedding light on concerns such as food deserts and processed produce. 

As the dough began to rise, participants curiously asked Abdul-Wakeel about tips on how to maintain their own garden of fruits and vegetables living in a city, and more so, how they can help to counter food insecurity among children in Philadelphia. 

“When we talk about bread – whether it’s a faith thing or a science thing, it’s kind of both in a way, because you have this lifeless flour and then you have this water and then you have these tiny flecks of yeast,” Machado said. “You put it all together, and it grows in your own hands. There’s life in front of you. So, if that can happen with bread, imagine what that can do in your life when you leave and go out and try to provide for your family, your friends.”

Whether referring to the body of Christ or a primeval form of sustenance, bread, in all of its physical and spiritual forms, holds a myriad of meanings.

For RISE, though, the bread symbolizes an opportunity to foster solutions while cultivating community where it’s most needed.

“I think bread, metaphorically, is a good picture of connecting to the invisible life that’s all around us,” Park said. “You join in sort of a collaboration of all of these microorganisms that are in the air and work on a really ancient process that has sort of evolved with humanity. As we evolved as cultures, bread evolved with us, and so we are reconnecting to an ancient tradition to help envision the world for the future.” 

If you’d like to attend a RISE session, visit www.saintmarksphiladelphia.org/rise to learn more.


Twitter: @gracemaiorano