V&V Q&A: A History of Christianity in Pittsburgh

Editor’s Note: The “V&V Q&A” is an e-publication from The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. This latest edition of “V&V Q&A” is a discussion with author Dr. Gary S. Smith about his new book, A History of Christianity in Pittsburgh.

Vision & Values (V&V): Dr. Smith, your latest book has just been released. Please give us a brief overview.

Gary S. Smith (GSS): Christians have played a vital role in the history of Pittsburgh as community leaders, activists, athletes, and more. Their ministries have inspired many worshippers and improved the community. Leading Pirates, Steelers, and Penguins who have powerfully promoted Christianity include Andrew McCutchen, Clint Hurdle, Troy Polamalu, Mike Tomlin, and Dan Bylsma. A diversity of parachurch organizations and congregations, from Baptist to Presbyterian and Catholic to nondenominational, have shaped and advanced the faith. “A History of Christianity in Pittsburgh” tells the exciting story of their quest to, as Episcopal rector Samuel Shoemaker put it, “make Pittsburgh as famous for God as for steel.”

V&V: Why did you write this book?

GSS: Amazingly, despite the powerful impact religious groups have had on the Pittsburgh area since the 1770s, scholars have provided little analysis of the history of Christianity in the region. While Pittsburgh is known for its steel industry, sports teams, ethnic diversity, earlier deplorable social ills, and recent physical makeover and cultural renaissance, it is much less recognized as one of the nation’s most religious metropolitan areas or for its rich faith heritage. No one has written a book about the city’s religion in the last 60 years. Having spent most of my life in western Pennsylvania, I have been fascinated by religious events and developments in the Pittsburgh area and have observed some of them first hand.

V&V: What parachurch organizations do you profile?

GSS: I describe the ministry of four exceptional parachurch organizations—the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO), the Urban Impact Foundation (UIF), the Light of Life Rescue Mission, and The Pittsburgh Project (TPP). The CCO is an interdenominational campus ministry, headquartered in Pittsburgh, that strives to transform “college students to transform the world.” Since its founding in 1971, it has grown to involve more than 300 staff who work on 143 campuses in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Its ministry has touched the lives of more than a million college students by either introducing them to Christ or helping them grow in their faith.

Ed Glover and his wife Tammy founded UIF in 1995 to help youth become Christians and grow in their faith and to combat the problems facing urban communities, which they had witnessed firsthand as residents of Pittsburgh’s North Side and through Ed’s work as a pastor at Allegheny Center Alliance Church. UIF’s mission is to help fulfill “Christ’s Great Commission on the North Side of Pittsburgh by following His model of holistic ministry by investing in the lives of at-risk children, youth, and their families” to “develop responsible followers of Christ.”

The nondenominational Light of Life Rescue Mission has been ministering to a sizable number of homeless, transient, and indigent individuals and families on the North Side since 1952. It started as a soup kitchen and a refuge for transient men. The mission later created programs to also assist women and children.

Saleem Ghubri founded The Pittsburgh Project in 1985 as a summer work camp for suburban teens to repair the houses of low-income city residents. TPP gradually expanded its activities beyond home refurbishing and began providing tutoring, summer camps, and leadership training for North Side youth.

V&V: Which congregations do you profile?

GSS: My book features nine of Pittsburgh’s most influential congregations, primarily those that today have large numbers of parishioners and a significant impact—First Presbyterian Church, Calvary Episcopal Church, St. Paul Cathedral (the mother church of the Diocese of Pittsburgh), North Way Christian Community, Allegheny Center Alliance Church, The Bible Chapel, Victory Family Church, Mount Ararat Baptist Church, and Macedonia Baptist Church. One of these churches is located downtown (First Presbyterian), two in East Liberty (Calvary and Mount Ararat), one on the North Side (Allegheny Center), one in Oakland (St. Paul), one in the Hill District (Macedonia), one in the North Hills (Victory), and two congregations have campuses in several locations in the Pittsburgh area (North Way and The Bible Chapel). Four are non-denominational, two are Baptist, and one each is Presbyterian, Episcopal, Catholic, and Christian and Missionary Alliance. Mount Ararat and Macedonia are predominantly African American. Collectively they provide a good snapshot of the vibrancy and impact of Christianity in Pittsburgh today.

V&V: How did you research your book?

GSS: I spent considerable time reading books, newspaper articles, and archival materials. I also interviewed numerous Pittsburghers—leaders of the four parachurch ministries, the senior pastors of the nine churches, and numerous Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins chaplains and players. In addition, I attended services of the nine churches, which I describe in my book.

V&V: Why did you include chapters on Pittsburgh’s three professional sports teams?

GSS: Pittsburgh is well known for the success of its sports teams and the passion of its fans. The Pirates have won the World Series five times (losing only twice), the Steelers are 6-2 in the Super Bowl (the most wins of any team), and the Penguins have won five Stanley Cups (losing only once) since they entered the National Hockey League in 1967. A sizable number of Christian Pirates, Steelers, and Penguins have been vocal about their faith. Since the 1970s, many Christians have coached or played for the Pirates, Steelers, and Penguins, most notably Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, Andrew McCutchen, Mark Melancon, Neil Walker, Jay Bell, and Sid Bream, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, Jon Kolb, Donnie Shell, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Tunch Ilkin, Antwaan Randle El, Jeff Hartings, Troy Polamalu, and Ben Roethlisberger, and Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, Jordan Stahl, Matt Cullen, Eric Fehr, and Matt Cooke. The Pirates have been hosting a “Faith Night” after a game each year since 2013 at which thousands of fans have heard the testimony of various players.

V&V: What is your overall assessment of the role Christianity has played in Pittsburgh?

GSS: Resolutely and relentlessly, the city’s Christians have worked to exalt God’s name and spiritually revitalize their communities. Through hundreds of churches, dozens of parachurch ministries, and their vocations and families, countless Christians have worked energetically, enthusiastically, and effectively for more than two centuries to glorify God by saving souls and improving social institutions. They have created, funded, and staffed numerous organizations and agencies that have fed the hungry, aided the unemployed to find jobs, housed the homeless, clothed the ill-clad, improved accommodations for low-income residents, provided medical care, assisted children to learn more effectively in schools, helped individuals fight substance abuse, and combatted racial, ethnic, and sexual discrimination. Pittsburgh’s Christians have established numerous schools, colleges, and hospitals. Their multifaceted endeavors have had many salutary consequences, served as a model for other cities, and advanced God’s kingdom.

To view Dr. Gary S. Smith’s book on Amazon, please click here.


The Center for Vision & Values depends on the support of readers like you. Donate today.