Fanning Revival in Pittsburgh

By Matthew Nickoloff

The first of six planned Episcopal Revivals opened in Pittsburgh on Feb. 3, not with ecstatic crowds in sold-out stadiums, but with Christians on their knees.

More than 200 Christians, led by the heads of 12 churches ranging from Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, African Methodist Episcopal, and several stripes of Baptist, joined in praying these opening sentences in the chapel at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary on the first night of the revival: “We know that God will not heal a divided world though a divided Church, and so we seek, tonight, a new beginning in God’s forgiveness and healing for our brokenness and partisan spirit.”

Bishop Jim Hobby of the Pittsburgh diocese of the Anglican Church in North America was also in attendance.

This confession, and the following days’ events, reinforced Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s message that evangelism and reconciliation are inextricably tied.

“I am moved by the litany of confession not to want to shout, but to say, Lord have mercy on me,” Curry preached. “But indictment leads to repentance, and repentance leads to new life. And that turning — not a groveling in our sin — might be the right calling in this time, this moment, this culture. We may be called to a deeper repentance, a more radical reconciliation: God’s, not ours.”

Worshipers left the chapel singing Hezekiah Walker’s gospel anthem “I Need You to Survive” (“I need you, you need me, we’re all a part of God’s body”).

The call to repentance and reconciliation flowed through the weekend’s events like Pittsburgh’s three rivers. Saturday morning found Bishop Curry leading the pilgrimage to the Church of the Holy Cross in the struggling neighborhood of Homewood South, down the hill and across the tracks from the trendy up-and-coming locales around the seminary.

Just blocks from the church, Vada Dobbins, chef and owner at Soul Food on Hamilton, spent the morning cooking Southern specialties like shrimp with grits and chicken over waffles. Mimi — his wife, co-owner, and waitress — had not heard that a revival was meeting in honor of Absalom Jones, the first African American ordained in the Episcopal Church.

She lamented that her diner had been forced to discontinue its late-night hours due to increased gun violence outside the dance club across the street. The struggle in Holy Cross’s neighborhood was visible, too, in boarded-up row houses, overgrown lots, and decaying homes.

In the incense-filled sanctuary presided over by a mural of a black Jesus surrounded by a cloud of African American witnesses, the Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell, Bishop of Pittsburgh, welcomed Curry to a pulpit he said “has been waiting for you for 300 years.”

The presiding bishop spilled over the edge of the pulpit as he recounted the witness of Jones to a diverse gathering of Episcopalians from across the diocese: “Oh, we need a revival, like we have seen in Jesus, a revival that doesn’t just stay in the church but spills out into the world, so that justice flows like a mighty stream.”

Melinda Perkins and Carol Wilds had come with their children to the service at Holy Cross. Both had worshiped at the church since they were children. Although much of the revival emphasized renewing lay leadership in the church, they said they hoped the event at Holy Cross would help show McConnell that the parish is still growing and thriving as it seeks a new priest.

Perkins said Holy Cross has previously hosted many community-based activities and was a hub for the community, “where people can be blessed and show them what Christianity and the right walk should be.”

Church leaders chose Pittsburgh, Homewood South, and the next day’s venue, the hard-luck Mo River Valley town of McKeesport, as the pilot and laboratory for revival in the Episcopal Church.

“One question we’re asking each group that’s hosting a revival is, What does good news look like here?” said the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism and reconciliation. “In Pittsburgh they were immediately like, What sounds like good news is racial reconciliation. It’s connecting people across the lines, inviting people to cross boundaries to follow this revival pilgrimage.”

The Rev. Eric McIntosh of St. James Church in Penn Hills affirmed this direction. “The city is still very divided in terms of communities” the priest said, “and unless folks start getting some more blending on Sunday morning, become intentional about leaving those churches to actually affirm the realities of African Americans around them, it’s going to be tough.”

In addition to bitter racial and political divides, many in the Diocese of Pittsburgh still feel the trauma of separation from a decade ago, when large portions of congregations and whole parishes left the Episcopal Church to join the Anglican Church in North America.

“We lost something like two-thirds of our congregation,” said Jason Togyer, vestry member at St. Stephen’s in McKeesport, which hosted Sunday’s final commissioning service. “One Sunday we went from 100 something to 30. It was devastating, and there are still people and families who are not speaking to each other.” Togyer said some parishioners who changed their affiliation to ACNA continue to worship at St. Stephen’s, as there is no ACNA church nearby.

Like Homewood South, McKeesport has struggled with violence and the painful decline of its once thriving downtown. “If you were to build this church today, you wouldn’t put it on this corner,” Togyer said. “There’s this perception that we have to fight in our congregation, that people won’t travel here, that it’s somehow dangerous … but we just keep trying to throw the doors open. We have to get more engaged in our local community. We’re the only mainline church, one of the last of any churches left.”

Togyer hoped that Curry’s visit would be a catalyst for those who left the diocese to come back into the

building and hear his persistent message that God is love. Redefining people’s perception of Christianity was a theme of the weekend.

Regarding the word revival, Spellers said, “We’ve been catching some folks saying, We need a different word for that, but actually, we want to do the deeper work of redeeming it, taking evangelism back, taking revival back. So yes, it could be manipulative, all mountaintop and no follow-up … or it could be catalytic, and about a whole community, and it could be as much about our own conversion as about converting our neighbors.”

Future revivals will focus on dioceses committed to the hard work of repentance and renewal. “Notice we didn’t schedule any in New England or New York,” Spellers said. “Part of it was, let’s get out from even the center of where we think the Episcopal Church is, and let’s go to Georgia, and to Atlanta and outside Savannah and see what God’s doing there.

“And I think, frankly, if you look at the list of dioceses, it’s a lot of dioceses that are continuing, that have hung in there through the divisions throughout the church. And I think we wanted to send a signal: we’re with you, and God is with you, in Pittsburgh, in San Joaquin. These are resurrection dioceses, and the fact that they are here, that folks have stuck it out, have had to hold on to their identity and hope in faith, we wanted to say, thank you, thank you, and God bless you for that.”

As 320 participants were commissioned at St. Stephen’s with the gift of red cross-marked scallop shells, the ancient symbol of pilgrimage, hopes remained high that this revival would catalyze a more united church for the hard work ahead.

“I’m hoping that the laity feel empowered,” said Kimberly Karashin, canon for mission in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. “That when they see something that they can do in the community, when there’s a need, that they can look at it spiritually and say, Let’s address this, we can do this, we don’t have to wait to do this, and then just crossing the street and starting to work.”

Togyer expressed similar hopes. “Forget for a moment that this used to be a 600-person church,” he said. “If you went to the bishop today and said, We have 25 Episcopalians who want to be church in this place, you’d be thrilled. And there’s a muscle memory of when this was a much bigger town. Partly what people are looking for is leadership. God is not attached to this church building. God is in the people, and it’s about finding out how to connect with them.”

While the work of revival in greater Pittsburgh remains, the presiding bishop’s visit seemed to leave behind a less divided, more hopeful church. As McIntosh said, “Revival’s got to be within, and we have got to put down our American Dream stuff, ’cause if we’re the church, what about God’s dream, the kingdom of God dream stuff?”

“Imagine City Hall or your next parish meeting, our school systems, our educational systems, our healthcare, what we would say to the immigrant and refugee, what America would say to the rest of the world, what the rest of the world would say to us, if that way of love became our way,” Curry preached. “Don’t be afraid to be a people of love. Don’t be afraid of being a people of Jesus. Don’t you be ashamed to claim this faith, and don’t you be afraid to call yourself Episcopalian. Don’t be afraid!”

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