Fighting the Good Fight of Faith at Kensington’s Rock Ministries
While Rock Ministries’ boxing gym might seem like it would stand out on the 2700 block of Kensington Avenue, but surprisingly, it blends in. In fact, I wouldn’t have known that the gym existed if the establishment’s founder, Pastor Mark “Buddy” Osborn, hadn’t given me the address. Situated just “35 feet away” from what Buddy later pointed out to be the biggest heroin-dealing corner in Pennsylvania, the gym’s façade is no different from that of the other residences in the vicinity.
I was fortunate in finding parking close by and thus didn’t have to walk more than a few feet to The Rock’s doors, but the walk still left me with ample time to build up some nerves. Though I’d been to Kensington before, I’d admittedly only been to the “up-and-coming” part of the neighborhood, which basically means that I’d only set foot in the areas packed with hipsters and gentrified warehouses-turned-bars.
“The Rock” is situated closer to the heart of Kensington, a fact made clearer by the many people that quickly walked past me sporting the hardened, weathered looks that often accompany rougher circumstances. As several nearby onlookers strained to get a glance at the new face on the block, I questioned whether I should have just rescheduled my meeting with Buddy. Thankfully, my irrational fears were quieted as soon as I stepped through the gym’s doors.
The first room in The Rock is a large space with bright lighting and colorful walls. Stepping over the threshold, I immediately felt more comfortable and undeniably safer. As my eyes swept over the area, I noticed a boxing ring on my left and weights, gloves, and punching bags towards the back of the room. Though I wanted nothing more than to walk around the room and take in the environment, I was soon intercepted by a man named Joe: a worship leader with the ministry.
When I asked Joe if he could tell me a little more about the gym, he proceeded to give me a brief history — a story that was later elaborated upon by Buddy himself when I met him about fifteen minutes later. As it was explained to me, Buddy established the gym twelve years ago as a free after-school activity for local children. He was inspired to offer the service after spending time visiting with incarcerated youth and wondering if there was anything that could have been done to stop them from ending up in jail. I later understood that Buddy himself was once incarcerated and, after serving five years of an eight-year sentence, he turned his life around by increasing his dedication to his faith. In wondering how he could help others to choose the same path that he eventually found, he used his own past as an amateur boxer as motivation to create Rock Ministries: in his words, “a gym like no other gym.”
The gym’s model is simple. Starting around 4:30PM, kids between the ages of 7 and 22 begin to filter in. Once there, they are split up into A, B, and C teams based on their skill levels. At this point, they are offered free boxing, kickboxing, or grappling training from one of 12 volunteer coaches. After an hour or two, the lessons are followed up with optional homework help as well as a brief (but mandatory) bible study. Buddy is quick to mention that over 9,000 children have gone through the program since its origination and, out of that batch, many have followed their graduation from The Rock with college, a good job, and sometimes even a gig as a Rock trainer.
In speaking about the effectiveness of the program, Buddy explains that children are able to receive different benefits from both the physical and spiritual lessons offered. From the boxing training, boys and girls have the chance to get their anger and aggression out in a healthy way while also learning commitment and routine. Then, from the Bible study, children are taught about morality, character, and altruism. Buddy clarified that helping children to make better decisions in life is “not a sprint, but a marathon.” However, he was also happy to claim that he could take the “toughest kid in Philly,” break them down in 3 weeks with boxing, and then “build [them] back up with the gospel.”
The relationship Buddy hopes to create between God and boxing is evident in simply looking around the room. In one corner, a mural depicting an imprisoned man sadly gazing at a free man (sitting beside a cross and bible) is placed next to punching bags; a large sign reading “Jesus is my rock and my salvation” exists next to a grappling class; and, “fight the good fight of faith” is painted graffiti-style on the wall directly behind the red, white and blue boxing ring.
Beyond meeting Joe and Buddy, I was lucky enough to meet some of The Rock’s trainers and trainees. The first person I was introduced to was Emmanuel “Manny” Folly, a 24-year-old trainer who first attended the gym as a 13 year old. Manny mentioned that he did not have a lot of guidance growing up in Kensington, and it was Buddy that taught him discipline and how to be a man. Now, not only does Manny work at the gym in the afternoons, but he also maintains a day job as a Philadelphia police officer.
I also met another trainer, “Jimmy Gator,” a 71-year-old who happily tells me that he was employed by The Rock even when it was nothing more than an idea. I watched Jimmy train 12-year-old Jahmair, a boy currently in his second week at the gym, who has already graduated to the B team due to his dedication. While Manny wrestled a fellow coach in the ring, Jimmy showed Jahmair a favorite trick of his, undoubtedly stolen from The Karate Kid. I witnessed Jimmy attempt the trick with several students over the course of the afternoon, each time placing a quarter on a child’s flat palm and instructing them to try and close their hand as he then grabs for the coin. The rules are that if Jimmy is able to obtain the quarter, the kid will then have to complete 10 pushups (“and 1 more for Jesus”); if they maintain their grip, Jimmy will complete 12. As I walked around the room and eventually meandered to the adjacent area — where the A team practiced beside grappling lessons — it was evident to me from the smiles that abounded that the students really enjoyed their training and their teachers were happy to provide it.
As I left the gym, several hours later, I finally noticed a mission statement printed just to the right of the gym’s front door. It read: “our mission is to provide youth at risk in the inner city of Philadelphia with the gospel of Jesus Christ through mentoring, Bible studies, activities, and organized sports programs.” More so than anything I could craft, this sign succeeded in summing up the culmination of Buddy’s efforts over the years. Though I’m not sure how he can measure this, Buddy claims that 9/10 of the gym’s attendees are fatherless. Not only does Buddy provide local children with a free after-school activity, teaching them dedication and responsibility, but he also introduces them to the Father. With this in mind, it is clear that Rock Ministries is aptly named. While faith is a “rock” for many — a constant support system and source of hope — this gym is clearly a “rock” as well: a safe haven and opportunity for children in Kensington who might otherwise be heading on a fast track from the street block to the prison block.
Beyond The Rock, Buddy has also turned a former crack house into a safe house for women and is currently in the process of turning a second property into “Nehemiah House:” a residence where 14 boys will be provided with shelter and counseling and subsequently learn life skills such as working to pay rent. He also has a plan in progress to move a Christian missionary family onto every block in the Kensington ‘hood. •
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