Free boxing. Those two words led Johnny Rivera to the second floor of a building on Howard and Thompson streets. He had just turned 16 and already loved to fight, so he followed his friend to Rock Ministries Calvary Chapel of Kensington where he could get free boxing lessons. The Rock was run by Pastor Buddy Osborn and the catch was a 15-minute Bible study, the same Osborn gave to incarcerated youths prior to the start of Rock Ministries. All Rivera had to do was sit through the Bible study and then he could fight. So, he sat through it, laughing the whole time. Rivera was a “Kenzo,”born and raised in Kensington, and he had seen a lot. He grew up in the system, got into street fights and abused drugs. He wasn’t there for God, he was just there to box.
Now, 15 years later, Rivera is one of the boxing coaches at Rock Ministries, working with Osborn alongside several other pastors and coaches. At the youth practices, he holds his own short Bible studies and tries to help kids facing the same obstacles he did growing up.
“All these young kids are in the fight of their lives,” he says. “Everyday.”
Now located on 2700 block of Kensington Avenue, Rock Ministries has close to a hundred kids come through its doors each week to box. They hold separate boys and girls boxing practices and train kids as young as 6 years old.
For Rivera, it’s about helping kids escape the drugs, crime and poverty that he grew up in.
“You have so much crazy going on out there,” he says.
The City of Philadelphia’s curated Open Data site shows that since the start of the new year, the 24th District of the Philadelphia Police Department has responded to six crimes on the 2700 block of Kensington Avenue alone. Prostitution, aggravated assault with a firearm, and fraud are among the reasons for those arrests. In 2016, police had responded to 91 incidents just on the single block where Rock Ministries is.
Seventy-two year old James Sherman, a veteran boxing coach at Rock Ministries and was one of the original trainers that worked with Osborn, sees boxing as a way to get kids off the street and away from the crime surrounding Kensington. He describes boxing as “tool that God gave him” to help local kids.
He helped teach Rivera and when he saw the change it made in him, he started “pulling” kids from the corner, who he described as “not knowing anything else but the streets.” He would use coin tricks to get them to give him 10 push-ups, increasing the number every time. If a kid didn’t listen to Sherman, he would tell them to go home, but they’d usually drop and give him 10 instead.
“You get a kid wise to the street and it gives them a sense of discipline,” he says. “Most kids want to belong to something. They come here and they go to the Bible study and they learn that not everybody is nasty out there.”
For Sherman and Rivera, Rock Ministries is about giving back and teaching kids there is a better life out there for them.
Rivera draws inspiration from Proverbs 22:6, his favorite passage, “train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Of course his form of training is in the boxing ring.
When he reflects on his adolescence, he describes himself as a “silly kid.” But with a sober face he says, “I’ve been through a lot.”
“I’d be lost without the Rock,” Rivera says. “God used the Rock and boxing to grab me and pull me close.”
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