Open doors: Pastor Beny Krisbianto makes a new home in South Philly

Pastor Beny Krisbianto SEM ’15 with wife Angelia and daughter Jesslyn at the new location of Nations Worship Center in an historically Italian-American neighborhood of South Philadelphia. (Photos by Jon Styer)

Does anyone know what’s happening with Paradise Gardens at 15th & Ritner? Various rumors flying ’round the neighborhood – none of them especially good.

… Posted on an internet site, that comment summed up many conversations of locals in the predominately Italian South Philadelphia neighborhood in 2012. Vacant for 12 years, the nondescript two-story building had been well used by an Italian-American civic association and the fraternal organization Knights of Columbus.

“A lot of people had memories of this place. Many life events were celebrated here,” said Pastor Beny Krisbianto SEM ’15, a native of Indonesia who leads Nations Worship Center. “So I understand their worries. The rumor was that Buddhists were going to make it a temple, and there would be statues out in front. Then we told them we were Mennonites, and we had to explain that in two public meetings. Three hundred came to the first one. Thirty came to the second one.”

On Nov. 20, that patience paid off. His congregation of about 120 Indonesian immigrants welcomed a host of guests, including neighborhood and city officials, to their celebration worship service of the new Ritner Street location. Among them were leaders from Franconia Conference, of which Nations is a part.

Krisbianto’s pastoral conviction, discovered as a high school convert to the Church of God in his predominantly Muslim country, has taken him on a long journey.  Fifteen years ago, he earned a scholarship to a Bible school in Iowa, where fast food restaurants closed at 6 p.m., he said, and “corn was all around.”

Later, called to minister to Indonesian Christian refugees escaping religious persecution in their homeland, Krisbianto came to find in Anabaptism an acceptance of the dignity of all humanity, and Christ’s call to love all. He worked for five years, often one class at a time, to finish an MDiv degree at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, gaining a strong theological basis for the emotional connection he felt with the displaced.

“My heart was touched,” he said, describing the confusion and frustration of recent immigrants who had suffered so much, “lost everything,” and could not communicate to find jobs, health care or education for their children. It was important that they have a safe space to come to, and someone to trust.

Mark Wenger, director of pastoral studies at EMU Lancaster, remembers Krisbianto “wrestling out loud about what to do with undocumented immigrants” in a class presentation on the Bible, the church and immigration. “He declared his insight and conviction from one of the Anabaptist authors he read that ‘the church must do what God calls it do,’ despite government pressures,” said Wenger, who preached at his former student’s ordination service.

“When you come to the doors of our church, we do not ask if you have a green card or if you are a legal resident,” Krisbianto says. “Our church is welcoming them, helping them, loving them.”

Though a pastor, Krisbianto says his primary job is as a social worker. In 2008, he wrote an essay for Franconia Mennonite Conference titled “The Indonesian pastor’s cell number is 911.” This is still true today, even as the flood of refugees has trickled off because new leadership in Indonesia has stabilized tensions. Many have returned to Indonesia but many stay.

Krisbianto’s congregation holds services in English and Indonesian. Two years ago, he returned to Indonesia to preach, meeting his future wife there. He and Angelia have a five-month-old baby, Jesslyn, one of the newest members of Nations Worship Center.