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Theology Thursday: Homewood's Bethesda Church Is Rebuilding Its Image As A Powerhouse of God by Ervin Dyer


In 1961, the all-black Bethesda Presbyterian Church moved from a crumbling edifice in East Liberty into Homewood, taking up residence in a magnificent brick church being vacated by white Presbyterians fleeing the rapidly integrating community.

Under the Rev. LeRoy Patrick, Bethesda's longest serving minister, the church became a powerhouse. In the late 1960s, it had 480 members and a church school of 167. It also created the Bethesda Community Center, a neighborhood outreach that rehabbed homes, educated hundreds of preschool children and at its height served more than 100,000 people a year.

Today, Bethesda struggles with membership and finances but is determined to move forward.

The church is "rebuilding" said the Rev. Eugene Blackwell, and trying to "stabilize itself as an active pillar in the community."

Now serving as supply pastor at Bethesda, the Rev. Blackwell grew up in Homewood but knew little about the huge church he saw on the corner of Bennett Street and Homewood Avenue.

A chemistry major at the University of Pittsburgh, he was called to ministry and graduated from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 2005. That's when his dean asked him to pastor the church. It was one of his first times in Bethesda.

There are challenges. The church is struggling financially and needs to be patched up. It has a weathered gym that needs a new floor, meeting rooms that go unused and a dusty social hall that echoes with emptiness.

Decades ago, the Pittsburgh Presbytery supported Bethesda's upkeep. It once paid $90,000 to put an organ in the church and had pipes sent over from Europe. Because of a new model of mission, the Pittsburgh Presbytery now asks congregations to be responsible for physical improvements.

Today, the church must ask a far-from-full congregation to fuel its outreach. There are 110 congregants on the roll, mostly seniors and youth and an average of 80 people show up on Sunday, in a sanctuary built for 1,200.

Moreover, the Rev. Blackwell must reach out to a community much more fractured by violence and drugs than the Homewood that the Rev. Patrick touched.

Bethesda was born in 1912 in an East Liberty storefront.

In its early history, a succession of highly educated ministers, backed by a congregation brimming with black professionals, turned Bethesda from a mission group into a well-oiled, purpose-driven body. At one point, it ran a daily Bible school, the first black church in the city to do so.

One of the brightest lights was the Rev. Patrick, a thin, erudite father of two who wore black-rimmed glasses, spoke in high polished tones, and had a passion for social justice. Beginning in 1951, he served the church for 35 years, the longest tenure of any of its ministers.

A civil rights enthusiast, the Rev. Patrick marched at the front of picket lines to desegregate Pittsburgh pools and lunch counters. He was stoned and jailed.

But perhaps his greatest legacy was in building the Bethesda Community Center, which he founded in 1965 and led for 30 years. It became a national model of outreach, one adopted by many mega-congregations today.

There are few in Homewood who don't remember the center. It fed children, rehabbed homes and soothed souls with psychiatric counseling, a service that predated the Allegheny County mental health programs.

"To do less," preached the Rev. Patrick, who died last year, "was to reject the Lord."

The center declined in the 1990s, when it became a part of the United Way, when presbytery funding declined and management problems ate away at its efficiency after Mr. Patrick retired.

In his wake came eight pastors in 22 years. The longest pastorship was served by the Rev. Louis Brown. Under his seven-year leadership, he fought with church elders and the church suffered a loss of membership, dropping to only about 35 people on some Sundays.

As it climbs back, Bethesda has a domestic violence program, teaches seniors to use the computer and has a safe haven program, which brings youth in off the street.

The Rev. Blackwell also has put drums in the church, a decision that has riled some members. Presbyterian worship culture is traditionally more staid and classical.

But he said his faith keeps him pressing on.

Bethesda was not the first black church in Homewood. That distinction belongs to the Homewood African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which was founded in 1871.

It sat on Tioga Street and drew mostly blacks who served in the surrounding mansions of the Pittsburgh elite.

The Bethesda congregation came about 90 years later, setting up shop in 1961 in what used to be Homewood Presbyterian. The church was built in 1917 and it served a white congregation until the change-over.

At the time, the presbytery supported the move and didn't want to lose its presence in an increasingly black Homewood, an area it saw as a mission field.

With Bethesda leading the way, it would extend to Homewood a ministry that offered wholesome recreation, education and spirituality to the economically deprived.

For most of his life, that's the same spirit that has attracted Floyd Coles, 81. An East Liberty resident, as a young boy, he left a Baptist church founded by his grandfather to join Bethesda.

"We were always one big family," he said. "Bethesda was dynamic. We believe we'll continue to be. Bethesda will be hard to replace."

Ervin Dyer can be reached at edyer@post-gazette.com. This article appears in The Pittsburgh Post Gazette.


Ervin Dyer

Thursday, February 15, 2007

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