Neighbors strolling on Richmond Street in Bridesburg recently might have seen work going on inside the former masonry warehouse at the corner of Buckius Street. Teams of volunteers inside are working to install new insulation, construct staircases and nail wooden frames together inside.
This project is soon to be the new home of Bridesburg’s Realife Church, a non-denominational Christian church based out of the former Realife Café right across the street.
“We think this new place will serve us great,” said Rob Burns, a Realife pastor, inside the building, currently under renovation.
With its zoning approvals for religious assembly usage at the new location having been granted over the summer, Realife Church will begin holding weekly services there as soon as its team of church members and volunteers can finish fixing up the building.
But in historically Polish-Catholic Bridesburg, not a lot of neighbors know much about the new church next door. The first question asked by a lot of locals who Star talked to about Realife Church was, “What denomination is it?”
“If you don’t connect with a Catholic church in Bridesburg, there’s not really a lot of options,” observed Brian Weber, a pastor from Grace Point church in Bucks County, who has known Burns for years.
But with the upcoming opening of the new building, Realife Church may become more prominent in the local community. They will be changing their name to Soma Philadelphia, according to Burns, as part of the nationwide Soma family of churches.
“I’m very excited about the fact that the church will be in the community with a visible building and a visible place,” said church member and Bridesburg resident Kileeo Wideman. “As a church, we are still figuring out what it means to be us, and to be a new young church in this very old neighborhood that has such rich history and heritage.”
Burns, a resident of Bridesburg and father of four, said that while the neighborhood has a reputation of being populated by mostly older folks, there are many young families there too – and more are coming.
As far as his ministry, his message is: keep it simple.
“We just keep it basic — trying to help people, and serving the community,” Burns said of the church’s mission. “We look at the life of Jesus, and that’s what he spent a lot of his time doing.”
Burns got started in Philadelphia by running a window company in North Philadelphia. Burns opened up the Realife Café in Bridesburg as a fully operational coffee shop, but also as a place for kids and teens, away from home or school, to just hang out, instead of being on the street.
“That’s how it all got started, just kids having cookies and cocoa,” Wideman recalled.
Realife Café was open for three years. Then it was turned into a thrift shop for two years.
Slowly, Burns, who has a degree from Philadelphia Biblical University — now known as Cairn University — realized, while connecting with the Bridesburg community through the café and thrift shop, that spreading a Christian message was the work he most wanted to do.
“What we believe helps people is faith. We were doing community service work. We decided, why not be a church?” Burns said.
As a community hub, Realife is the meeting place of the Bridesburg Civic Association; it’s also a meeting point for the summer service trips in the city that Weber organizes. However, it is not a large enough space for the current size of the congregation – about 100 families — and the church holds its weekly services at Richmond Hall, in Port Richmond. That’s why the new building became necessary.
Burns said he hopes the larger meeting space will allow the church to provide more community service projects to the community, as that is a large part of the church’s mission.
In recent years, Realife has worked with Weber to host Grace Point’s weeklong “kids’ camp” of service activities, which took place this year in July. As part of one project, the Grace Point kids cleaned, cleared and re-landscaped the entire backyard of a West Kensington homeowner.
Other service projects Realife Church has led include repainting the wrought-iron fence behind the Bridesburg Recreation Center, which is still a work in progress. Also this summer, they hosted their first-ever basketball tournament at the recreation center.
“They’ve had 40 or more kids here sometimes,” said Jackie DeSanctis, a volunteer at the Bridesburg Rec. “If they know we need something done, he says ‘Just give me a call,” she said of Burns.
Realife also sponsored Christmas gifts for kids attending Bridesburg Elementary School in recent years, and has done service projects service at the Bridesburg Boys and Girls Club.
“They have helped with some of our clean-up days and they’ve done odds and ends tasks over the years,” said Mare Toner, director of the Boys and Girls Club.
As Burns put it, “We just will go to any organization and ask, ‘What do you need? What can we do?’”
With that kind of volunteer service record, despite their unusual café location, Realife – or as it will soon be known, Soma Philadelphia – might have a very bright future in Bridesburg.
“Our church exists so that every man, woman and child will have an opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel,” Burns said. “It’s whatever we can do to help.”