David Apple serves as the director of mercy ministries at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, and from this “urban lab” he has spent 30 years helping members of Tenth Church tangibly love the spiritually and physically impoverished neighbors around the church. In a community like downtown Philadelphia, where the down-and-out and up-and-coming live side by side, opportunities for mercy ministry abound.

Apple oversees six ministries and a team of 200 volunteers. Those ministries include two nursing home ministries, two Bible studies for homeless individuals, a Bible study in Philadelphia’s Federal Detention Center, and a cross-cultural communication ministry to foster healing from past racial sins.

Apple laughs with guests at a Sunday evening dinner at Tenth Church

On a given day Apple might help with any number of mercy-related activities. On Mondays he is on call, so anyone who contacts Tenth Church for assistance speaks to Apple. He might walk down to one of the parks in downtown Philadelphia and sit with “one of our homeless guests,” as Apple calls them.

His job also involves working on the health of the church’s mercy ministry. He keeps in touch with ministry leaders, recruits and trains additional volunteers, and helps cast ministry vision. And Apple makes time to meet regularly with individuals battling problems ranging from addiction to mental health struggles.

Apple also speaks at national conferences and provides deacon training and church consultations across the nation.

Apple wants believers to see that everyone is called to diaconal work because Jesus is our example.

Jesus as the Divine Deacon

Apple wants churches to see diaconal ministry as more than caring for the church building, and he wants believers to see that everyone is called to diaconal work because Jesus is our example.

“If Jesus was called the Divine Deacon and He showed what visitation and compassion are like — and we are to imitate Him — then everyone has gifts that can be used,” he said. Mercy ministry isn’t simply one aspect of church life; for Apple it is an essential element of discipleship.

Because Christ has shown us mercy, faithful discipleship means examining the call of Scripture to be merciful as we have been shown mercy. “What does it mean to follow Christ? If you’re a disciple, it means you’re an apprentice learning from the master. Christ showed us mercy. If someone is being discipled and there is no teaching about mercy as they are learning to be believers, there is something missing,” he said.

But a merciful heart does not weaken the backbone. Carroll Wynne, minister of pastoral care at Tenth Church, said that Apple is a master at saying “no” in a way that keeps the asker engaged.

Volunteers serve Sunday dinner at Tenth Church

“When David came [to Tenth Church], he came with the understanding of tough love. He knew how to say no in a way that people wouldn’t give up, but would drop the pretense,” Wynne said.

Apple’s tough-love approach prompted the late James Boice, former senior pastor of Tenth Church, to give Apple the tongue-in-cheek title “The Unmerciful Minister of Mercy.”

Within two years of Apple coming to Tenth Church, the con artists who scammed churches for money had spread the word that Tenth Church does not give help for free. In a few more years, the word had spread that Tenth Church is the place to go for real help because Tenth Church treats people with dignity.

A Life of Hard Knocks

Apple shares his compelling life story in the introduction to his 2014 book, “Not Just a Soup Kitchen: How Mercy Ministry in the Local Church Transforms Us All.” When Apple was 5 years old he chased a ball into the street and was hit by an oncoming car.

He sustained a traumatic brain injury that left him severely disabled. He spent 15 years in physical and occupational therapy to gain back the use of his left side. After years of therapy, he gained back these abilities, but during this time he also suffered sexual abuse by a relative. Apple hid the abusive experiences for 30 years, but the secret took a toll on him.

“Because of the abuse, I was not only physically crippled, but felt emotionally crippled as well,” writes Apple, “with scars that would not heal for years and years. I felt broken with no hope of ever being healed.” At age 16 Apple was able to stand up straight and walk for the first time since the accident.

Further events — random and tragic though they felt at the time — continued God’s plan to call Apple to Himself.

Cheryl, Lanera, Hercules, Kevin, and Tennyson

God brought Apple into friendship with believers, particularly African-American believers, who shared with him their radiant hope in Christ. Apple grew up in a nonreligious, socially conscious Jewish home, so while he rejected the claims of Scripture, he was intrigued by what his friends told him about their interracial, inner-city church in Paterson, New Jersey. And Apple began reading the Bible and attending worship with his friends.

But one day, while driving down a narrow road on his way to talk with his pastor about his belief in Scripture and desire for baptism, Apple struck a child who ran in front of his car. Horrified, Apple followed the ambulance to Patterson General Hospital, the same hospital where he had been transported as a child under similar circumstances.

Just as God was merciful to young David Apple, God spared the life of the young boy struck by Apple’s car. Apple was overwhelmed with gratitude.

Spurred on by Apple’s powerful testimony of God’s redemption, Tenth Church’s mercy ministry is shining light into its neighborhood.

“Just as God had saved Edwin’s life just then, I knew He had saved me from physical death many years before,” Apple writes. “More importantly, I also knew that God had saved me from eternal death as well.”

After college Apple became a social worker among the poorest citizens of Paterson, striving to integrate his faith and work. This task proved difficult because of his supervisor’s anti-religious beliefs, and Apple was asked to resign from his job over his insistence on talking about his faith with clients. Around the same time, Apple’s marriage to his first wife disintegrated. God saved Apple from his feelings of despair and his use of alcohol to cope with depression.

Yet another setback forced Apple to change course again. A rear-end collision at age 36 left Apple with so much back pain that he had to abandon his work running his father’s print shop. As he wondered what God had in store for him next, Apple took a class on biblical counseling through the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF).

Finally, the pieces began to fit together. Apple’s personal testimony of God’s mercy in his life, his time worshipping at an inner-city church, his experience in social work, and his counseling education uniquely positioned Apple to direct mercy ministry at a church.

In 1988 Tenth Church hired Apple to oversee its Active Compassion Through Service (ACTS) ministry. The purpose of ACTS is to make the church a safe and inviting place for people on the margins of society, or people who have been ostracized by the church.

Though Apple’s life seems unusually fraught with hardship, he sees God’s redemptive purpose through it all. “Because of God’s redemption and healing in my own life, and with the help of the church, I have been able to bring the same mercy, compassion, and hope of God to others with the goal that they too might be drawn to Jesus,” he writes.

The Impact

Spurred on by Apple’s powerful testimony of God’s redemption, Tenth Church’s mercy ministry is shining light into its neighborhood. The church is developing relationships in the community and becoming the place where unchurched neighbors turn in times of crisis. Apple has a gift for listening to these people with compassion and helping them see that they have deeper needs than whatever has brought them in for help, according to Wynne.

“People would meet David and tell him their needs, and he would say, ‘I can’t help you with that, but are you sure that is what you really need? Maybe you want what I’ve found.’ And then he would share his testimony. They were so intrigued by his story and relationship with Jesus that he would draw them in,” he said.

He uses that same relational bent in Tenth Church’s ministry to the Philadelphia Federal Detention Center. Its Bible studies in the prison and with the homeless are challenging studies. But Wynne said Apple promotes a Bible study model that emphasizes growing together as disciples in addition to obtaining salvation.

All these works require patience, and Apple and his wife, Kate, model patience in ministry, says Wynne.

“David’s presence is a reminder of what I am supposed to be as a Christian,” Wynne said, “combining Word and deed in mercy and grace in order to care properly for people inside and outside of the church.”

Perhaps it was years of re-learning how to walk that prepared Apple for a life of teaching people to walk with God. As he walks with his neighbors in love and mercy, Apple’s physical scars and spiritual testimony point to a God who uses all things to bring the lost into relationship with Him.

MEGAN FOWLER tells the stories of people using the gifts God has given them to faithfully serve Christ’s kingdom. She and her husband have three sons, and they live in Grove City, Pennsylvania.