CHESTER, Pa. (AP) — The Eagles and the NFL might still be the sports favorites at Calvary Baptist Church, just outside Philadelphia. But many here are also rooting for a neighboring team which last year reached the championship game of Major League Soccer.
Their new-found fandom is all about location — and revenue from parking. The Philadelphia Union plays at Subaru Park, a stadium beside the Delaware River just a few blocks from Calvary in the economically challenged city of Chester. Its poverty rate is among the highest in the metro area.
As the Union continues to attract loyal fans and reach new heights, so have the blessings bestowed on this historic church where Martin Luther King Jr. attended as a seminarian.
It has been crucial. Like many other Black Protestant churches, Calvary Baptist struggled financially during the coronavirus pandemic. Attendance fell, and along with it, funding. But the church has transformed its parking lot to accommodate game-day fundraisers, with volunteers from the congregation staffing the lots and selling spaces for $15 per vehicle.
These days, the church raises up to $3,000 per game — about half of what goes into the collection plate on Sundays, said its pastor, Keith Dickens. The welcome influx of extra money is being used to pay for utilities, ministries and a new speaker system that will allow Calvary to reach a broader audience by broadcasting its services online.
“It’s been a blessing,” said Dickens, who on a recent game day proudly sported a Philadelphia Union hat. “Not only just to generate funding, but also to meet and minister to new people.”
Across the nation, houses of worship located near stadiums — from Boston’s Fenway Park to the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field — have opened their parking lots to legions of fans.
For churches offering parking near pro-soccer stadiums, their coffers recently received an assist from the world’s best active player, Lionel Messi who joined an MLS roster this year. All 250 parking spaces at the Calvary lot were full when Messi’s Inter Miami played the Union.
Jeffrey Scholes, co-author of “Religion and Sports in American Culture,” said churches like Calvary show a growing willingness to use “secular entities like sport for religious purposes” including, “continuing a ministry, feeding the poor, keeping the lights on, things that ideally churches do.”
In the past, Scholes said clergy might have preferred the “old-fashioned way” of getting churchgoers to donate while shunning the sports-fan parking business as too “worldly.”
“There’s just much more openness to different kinds of nonreligious tactics to perform the necessary functions of a church or synagogue or mosque,” Scholes said.
It also offers an opportunity to share with fans the history of congregations like Calvary, which was founded in 1879 by a group of formerly enslaved Africans seeking freedom to worship.
On a recent game day, fans decked in the Union’s navy, signal blue and gold colors pulled into parking spots in front of Calvary’s colorful mural that pays homage to King. The civil rights leader worshipped at the church from 1948-1951, when he attended Chester’s Crozer Theological Seminary.
Chester has a notable cultural and industrial history, but now has economic difficulties that make Calvary’s new parking revenue all the more appreciated.
“For us, if it gives back to a cause, it makes it all the better,” Abe Gitterman, age 37 and Jewish, said before he paid the parking fee. Next to him, his 6-and 7-year-old sons pointed to the mural and asked parking attendant and church member Lisa Lewis if this was the same man they had learned about in school. “Yes,” she replied, smiling.
“It feels good,” she later said, “to tell them the history about the church.”
It can also be fun. In Lubbock, Texas, Leslie Cranford, a parishioner at St. John’s United Methodist Church, said Texas Tech football fans have tailgated with RVs — taking up to four spots ($10 each) — in the church parking lot, near the Red Raiders’ Jones AT&T Stadium.
Sometimes, rival fans park at the church. “We tell them: we got to charge you extra!” Cranford said, laughing.
She introduced the parking program at her congregation two decades ago. On a good season, they make up to $2,000 per game. “Dwindling attendance is a problem,” Cranford said. “So, this helps us maintain our ministries.”
In Boston, the Christian Science Church opened its parking garage to the public in 2014. That includes Red Sox fans who can park for $30 — a lower rate than closer to Fenway Park.
Kevin Ness, manager of the Christian Science Committees on Publication, said the revenue helps cover the operating expenses of Christian Science Plaza, a popular tourist attraction which sits on top of the garage in the Fenway neighborhood.
“This in turn allows the contributions from members to directly support the worldwide healing mission of the church,” he said.
In Green Bay, Wisconsin, Bethany Church began its Packers parking program in 2010.
“We thought it would be a great avenue for outreach, and a way to get funds to help support the growing ministries,” Bethany’s administrative assistant, Jill Connerym said via email. The church doesn’t have a set charge, and instead asks for donation, Connery said, adding that “many people are very generous.”
Packers parking helps fund programs, including youth ministries, small group learning and building facility upgrades, Connery said. The church parking lot is often full on game days.
“We are known for our hospitality,” she said. “We had a volunteer who began giving rides to Lambeau from our parking lot, free of charge to whoever didn’t want to walk the .5 miles to the stadium. So, now we are known for our shuttle service, and friendly volunteers.”
Churches also have embraced other fans. Nashville First Church of the Nazarene offered their parking lots for three shows attended by thousands at nearby Nissan Stadium during the Nashville leg of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour. The parking program ($30 a spot) also is popular during Tennessee Titans games and has helped fund ministries in Nashville and missions in Haiti and Kenya.
“Every one of these dollars comes right back in to help people,” said its senior pastor, Kevin Ulmet. “When people hear that, they love that, they say ‘we want to be a part of that.’ And that, to me, is the classic definition of win-win.”
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.