For Rock Ministries Pastor Mark “Buddy” Osborn, authentically serving this community is about more than just having a church in the neighborhood. “Everywhere a church is planted is a mission but when you look at the needs of people in the inner city … living below poverty levels, kids living without a father in the home, rampant drugs, crime, prostitution, it’s tough. You have to be called to this,” he says.
Osborn, 64, has pastored Rock Ministries since founding it in 2009. The church is located under the El tracks on Kensington Avenue, where passersby are often approached by dealers selling “works,” and church volunteers are called to clean up the needles strewn about the building’s entrance.
Osborn calls it his mission field. “I think urban ministry is completely overlooked as if it’s not a mission field,” Osborn says. “People go across the [world] to try to make a difference but sometimes I think it can be shameful to overlook the missions right here.”
“A menace to the community”
Part of Osborn’s burden for Kensington is because it was home during his formative years. Another is because he knows the power of redemption — beginning with his own.
One of nine children raised by his single mother, Osborn said he was such a handful, he simply “wore her out.” His mother appealed to Osborn’s father, who one day took him to a boxing match. He immediately fell in love with the sport. He would go on to compete, becoming a state golden glove winner at 19 years old. “When I think of my faith journey, that’s where it started,” he says. But that was only a beginning. “Boxing gave me a discipline and took me off the streets, but my propensity to violence never left me.”
Osborn became a roofer, and a union organizer for Local 30 of the Philadelphia Building Trades Union. “At 25, I was their youngest organizer. I loved the whole idea of fighting for the working man, earning a decent wage and benefits and job security,” he recalls.
“I was just so curious about why these people had so much peace and joy. I wasn’t getting that at home. That’s why I kept coming back. I felt love there.” — Alex Gonzalez
But in 1987, Osborn and several other union members were part of a federal RICO case in which he was found guilty of extortion, conspiracy, and other charges. He was caught on tape telling one non-union roofer that if he didn’t sign an agreement with the union, “you could get hurt and you could have accidents.” Osborn recalls being deemed “a menace to the community,” and he served five of an eight-year sentence.
Once he was released, Osborn went into the auto body business. After arguing over a repair with an insurance adjuster, the man — perhaps as a means of diffusing the situation or seeing Osborn’s spiritual need — gave Osborn a gospel track and invited him to a men’s breakfast at a church in Germantown. “I was the only White guy there, and this one guy asks me if I knew the Lord,” he recalls. “I had no idea what that meant.”
At a time when Osborn says his “life was spinning out of control,” he decided to follow Jesus. Not long after, he went on his first mission trip – to prisons in Siberia. “These were their most violent 13 to18-year-olds,” he says “I was giving them my testimony, but I really didn’t even know what that was.”
But he did know boxing.
“I started to ask myself, how can I be more effective on the street blocks instead of the prison blocks,” he says. At the time, Osborn was holding Bible studies for juveniles in detention, and giving boxing lessons at a friend’s gym. He began to think how he could serve his community through both those passions.
“The whole idea was to introduce these kids to their heavenly Father using sports,” he says. By 2003, Rock Ministries had its own building with a boxing ring, offering free lessons. The church, which started later, is directly adjacent to the gym.
“I felt love there.”
Although he doesn’t keep count, Osborn says thousands of young boys and girls have come through the Rock. Lessons are free and the ministry also covers any travel costs for competitions. Several have excelled in national competitions, including Junior Division National Champion Juan Rivera and undefeated pro Tyhler Williams. Trainees are required to remain for weekly prayer following their lesson and complete 12 bible studies before advancing to the next level of training.
For Osborn, boxing is the impetus. The bigger victory is seeing lives forever changed.
When Alex Gonzalez came to Kensington from Puerto Rico, his family thought the change of environment and living with his dad would straighten him up. Instead, the then 12-year-old still pursued the street life. Then his father started doing community service, heard about the Rock and suggested Gonzalez take boxing lessons.
Gonzalez straddled two different worlds for years before he made a firm decision to change his life. “I was just so curious about why these people had so much peace and joy,” he recalls. “I wasn’t getting that at home. That’s why I kept coming back. I felt love there.”
In 2018, he began a year-long program at the Rock in which he was provided meals and shelter while learning life and job skills like reporting to work on time and honoring your word, and studying the Bible.
The program for 18 to 24-year-old men, called Nehemiah House, is not for everyone. Gonzalez says some leave after just a few months, but he stayed focused. Now 24, Gonzalez is a boxing coach at the Rock and a bible teacher at Nehemiah House and is clear on his mission. “I know what it’s like to need guidance and wanting somebody to love me,” he says. “They can look at me as an example of how the Lord can change you.”
Dave McLaughlin says he also needed a change. At just 16 years old, McLaughlin says he was “doing about seven or eight Perc30s” — a slang name for an opiate-based painkiller — every day. His addiction led to an arrest for several burglaries, for which he served three years of a six-year sentence.
“I never once entertained walking away. This is where I want to finish my life.” — Pastor Buddy Osborn
Before his release in 2021, McLaughlin, then 23, needed a home plan. As a teenager, he had taken lessons at the Rock and even attended occasional services, but it was his father’s idea that McLaughlin name the church as his home. “I didn’t know it but he and Pastor Buddy had been praying for me before I even got out,” he says
That same year, at the church’s annual Rock the Block event, Osborn asked who was ready to give up the street life and give their life to Jesus. “I shot up there and I remember that hug and that prayer from Buddy,” he says. “It hit my heart. I had almost died a couple of times but this hit me even harder than that.”
McLaughlin is now a roofer and has seen “a lot of restoration” in his family. He still lives at the Rock with his father and a younger brother and is engaged to be married this fall to his longtime girlfriend. Gonzalez will be his best man.
Like Osborn, Gonzalez and McLaughlin say they are committed to Kensington, where they live and work, despite how hard it can be. “We have lost some people to overdose,” says Osborn. “And we see kids come and go, but rarely see kids go to jail, and when they come back we’re still here. They see a consistent safe haven. They have baloney meters and know who’s for real.”
Osborn hosts this year’s Rock the Block on Saturday, August 12th. It will be his 14th year holding the event. As always, it will feature live music, food, games, boxing and grappling exhibitions and prayer.
Although he recalls some hard and lean times, now, over 20 years later, Osborn has no regrets. “I never once entertained walking away,” he says. “This is where I want to finish my life. God hasn’t brought me here to be an activist, but to see the drug dealer come to truth. To see the addict transformed by renewing their heart and mind. To see one person at a time know that God has a plan for their lives. And that plan is not to see them waste their lives away in Kensington.”
MORE ON KENSINGTON FROM THE CITIZENAlex Gonzalez, Pastor Buddy Osborn, and Dave McLaughlin at The Rock Ministries. Courtesy of The Rock.