June 23, 2015

“Almost every week someone comes into the mending room and asks, ‘Can you mend a broken heart?’ ‘A broken life?’” Barbara Lappen said. “Sadly, the answer is, ‘No, we can’t, but you’re in the right place.’”

Although they can’t mend broken lives, Barb and more than a dozen other, mostly retired, women help begin the process of restoring wholeness by mending articles of clothing and other items for the homeless or hungry people served by Broad Street Ministry (BSM) at its Breaking Bread hospitality initiative in Center City Philadelphia. (BSM is an ecumenical Christian church with strong Presbyterian roots.) The women donate their time, talent, and caring to BSM Menders, which began four years ago when Barbara, newly retired from teaching and counseling, wanted to serve BSM and had a different kind of hospitality in mind.

Having enjoyed sewing since she was a child, Barbara thought she’d offer the guests, as BSM calls them, a same-day mending service: sewing on buttons, hemming trousers, duct-taping torn backpacks or ponchos—whatever was needed. She informally polled them and they liked the idea. Barbara immediately recruited help from her home church, Swarthmore Presbyterian Church (SPC), in suburban Philadelphia.

Said SPC member Helga Wells, a retired professor and early sewing collaborator, “BSM Menders owes its existence to Barb Lappen.” But Barb credits another source: “I really felt as though the Holy Spirit knocked on my door. Every woman I asked at SPC—about 10 of them—said yes. No one said no.”

Today, BSM Menders draws volunteers from a wider circle of churches. Of the 16 women who mend at least once a month, seven are from Swarthmore Presbyterian Church (Swarthmore, Pa.), three from Overbrook Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia), one from Oxford Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia), and one from Grace Presbyterian Church (Jenkintown, Pa.). Three menders are members of Germantown United Methodist Church (Philadelphia), and one mender is from Nativity BVM Church (Media, Pa.). They are former social workers, counselors, and educators. Several are actively working businesswomen. Three of the menders are married to retired Presbyterian ministers: Barb to the Reverend Jim Lappen, Helga to the Reverend Ken Wells, and Mary Eby to the Reverend Jim Eby.

BSM Menders fix hundreds of items a year. Every Thursday at 11:30 a.m., a line forms outside the mending room, and Barb quickly assesses how much work the menders can turn around in the next two hours. Those served are “dumbfounded” by the quick and attentive service. “People experiencing homelessness have to wait for everything,” Barb said. “That’s one of the reasons we commit to same-day service. It’s a gesture of respect and caring.”

Those served are filled with gratitude. One man who was among the last in line was asked to return the next week. But he asked Barb to please alter his ill-fitting trousers because he had a job interview the next day. Although his request challenged the menders’ ability to get the day’s work completed on time, she agreed. When he returned to pick up his suit, he tearfully thanked the menders for their kindness.

The menders, most of whom are in their 60s and 70s, say they’re exhausted after a day’s work at BSM. “Some of it is the commute, but a large part is due to the pressure to complete as many repairs in as short a time as possible,” explained Helga. “But each time we come away feeling gratified by the experience.”

Barb Lappen sees mending as a metaphor for the Christian journey. “Many times we come to Christ when we are broken. We see and serve many of those broken people,” she said. She and the other menders feel called to be on the front lines, serving people whose lives “are in pieces.” Thanks to them, the journey to wholeness for some begins with the repair of a frayed garment in the mending room behind the sanctuary of Broad Street Ministry.


About Broad Street Ministry

Broad Street Ministry, established in 2005, is housed in a former Presbyterian Church, built in 1901. Centrally located on the Avenue of the Arts, the church conceives of itself as a place where disciples, artists, and people who desire a more just Philadelphia can come together. Perhaps the most beautiful expression of this idea can be found in the main sanctuary, where worship services are held each Sunday. There, strung from the ceiling, are over 600 origami birds. Inside each is written a prayer.

Approximately 4 percent of Broad Street Ministry’s annual budget is contributed by PC(USA) congregations, and Presbyterians from throughout the greater Philadelphia area volunteer their time and talent. Broad Street Ministry serves as a ministry incubator for the next generation of Presbyterian ministers through its Pastoral Immersion Program, a residency program for recent seminary graduates seeking to serve the entrepreneurial church of the 21st century.