There's a tune floating out of Philadelphia's West Kensington neighborhood and it sounds like...Justin Bieber.
Rev. Adan Mairena is standing on a sidewalk nearby, in front of West Kensington Ministry at 2140 N. Hancock St. Mairena's kind of a big deal around here. He's the man who makes these open mic night gatherings in Norris Square Park happen. Nearly everyone who passes by pauses to offer a wave and a kind word. He was born in Honduras, raised in Chicago and Texas and a few years ago, left a church in Bryn Mawr, Pa., for the challenges and energy of this gritty Philly neighborhood. He says his goal is to "offer a safe haven."
Each week, Mairena hosts the Friday Open Mic Nights. Sometimes they're in the church. Other nights, the group gathers across the street in a corner of Norris Square Park. Mairena says some kids bring original material; otherwise it's basically karaoke. As dusk falls, the pastor slips back and forth to the church, helping the kids set up a computer and some speakers. He says this is about more than singing and having a good time for the kids, whose ages, schools and languages vary. "When they come here, it's not about how different they are. It's about, we all like to sing and dance and maybe it's the only time they have to be children. Just be kids, be safe."
The light's fading on this particular Friday evening. A few girls pull up chairs near the mic while younger kids run and tumble around in the grass nearby. A few minutes later, two teenage girls step to the mic with endearing shyness and sing along. One of the girls, 14-year-old Alexis Avent, is wearing big silver hoop earrings. She comes here because she likes to sing. If not for Open Mic Night, she says she'd be at home on her PlayStation. Instead, the teen's here with her twin, Mercedes, to sing some of their favorites by Justin Bieber, Jordin Sparks, Chris Brown, Beyonce and Taylor Swift.
The twins agree the open mic nights are good because they keeps kids off the streets.
A group of teenagers lingers farther back in the shadows in the park. Wearing camoflouage shorts and a sleeveless white shirt, an 8-year-old named Victor Serrano helps set up a light. He says says he does not sing, he just helps with the sign-up sheet. This is a DIY operation and Mairena's running an extension cord out his own front door across the street to power the set-up here in the park.
It's a world away from the one Mairena left in Bryn Mawr. But kids everywhere just want someone to talk to.
Mairena gets a smile out of plenty of adults and little kids in this neighborhood. He even softens the tough, hardset expressions of some teenagers with his warm, friendly greeting. Eleven-year-old Jiana Agosto says the man of God is "very cool, fun and funny." Agosto says if she had a problem or a question, she knows she could ask Mairena for help. "He's the person that will solve any problem for you without gettin into a commotion." Next to her, 12-year-old Jose Rivero agrees. He recently moved to Philly from Puerto Rico and says, "when I was new to the neighborhood, I didn't know nobody and my first friend was Adan."
Mairena is protective of these kids. Someone says that there's a fight around the corner and Mairena's first instinct is to run toward the feuding kids. After helping break it up, he's back to the crowd clustered around the microphone calling for the energetic group's attention.
"We need to take a break, guys. We're here for a reason." Mairena calls a young woman to the mic and asks her to explain to the group the point of the gathering, in addition to singing and dancing. Fourteen-year-old Tamera Ransom explains that the goal is "to create an environment to keep ya'll out the streets so ya'll can come here. Ya'll can have fun, ya'll have some place to go if ya'll ever bored. Y'all need help with something, ya'll can always come here and we're here to create peace and tolerance." Ransom lives two blocks away and is one of the kids who already has a big smile on her face long before Mairena greets her. She says she's brought friends along to the Open Mic Nights and they've had fun. Otherwise, she says, they'd probably be off doing something they're not supposed to.
There's a sobering moment when the kids are asked to raise their hands if they've lost someone to violence. Most of the little hands fly up.
Madeline Neris, a mother of five, lives across the street and is also a fan of the Open Mic Night and Mairena.
"Reverend Adan is amazing," she said. "We have the drugs, we have the poverty, we have so much blight. There's just so much going on that it's hard for anyone in this area, in this community. But Adan kind of brings it back to the kids and gives them this little safe place for them to come, to be themselves."
Despite being a shoe-string operation, Mairena says his ministry is struggling. "We didn't have money for this year. Luckily we had some in our savings account and our partner churches really came through, like bailed us out. So we have enough to get through this year. But right now, we're like organizing fundraisers, anything to raise money."
Mairena says people can support his work by buying shirts from their silk screen business or by donating their time to keep programs like this going. "We need money to keep the doors open and going so like we do this, we got the silk screen, we got the recording studio, we got this program called Sunday Suppers where families come together and learn how to eat in a more healthy and nutritious way, they learn how to cook. If folks see that we are doing something good and positive, we definitely are worth the investment. We need their resources and it's really just to keep us in operation, to keep the doors open. Right now we've got what — 50-60 kids here. Earlier we had, I don't know 40, we're doing some great stuff. I'm excited."
There's a neighborhood tale about how men in prison sell cigarettes or socks to get one of his business cards. So that when they get out they can find him and ask for help looking for work and rebuilding their lives. Mairena says he's doing all this to help the neighborhood get better. He knows many outsiders hesitate at the prospect of coming here. But he says popular destinations like the Piazza and Fishtown are really close. He says if only people would come here and meet all the great kids they would realize the potential. "People are scared to come into West Kensington. They come to the the Piazza and Fishtown and we are like half a mile away from that. If they come here they'll see what we're doing and they'll love it." Mairena says he's sure that once people come meet the kids and see what this neighborhood and tis residents are really like, they'll want to chip in and help.