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A trio of female ministers helps Wilkinsburg through its troubles

Sunday, May 21, 2000

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Thelma C. Mitchell strides quickly through the halls in Wilkinsburg Baptist Church. In an oven-warmed kitchen, she stops and greets a roomful of workers, most of whom don't belong to her congregation. She calls each by name.

  Pastor Janet Hellner-Burris of Christian Church of Wilkinsburg, left, Thelma Mitchell of Wilkinsburg Baptist Church and Pastor Diane Shepard of St. Stephens Episcopal Church are reaching out to help change their community of Wilkinsburg. (Robin Rombaugh, Post-Gazette)

A black minister in a white church, Mitchell easily mingles with the racially integrated and ecumenical mix of volunteers who have gathered to serve pizza, vegetable soup and fresh fruit to the needy.

For the past few years, such steady flows of love have been a quiet undercurrent in this "city of churches."

Pushing positive change is not a new calling for the Wilkinsburg spiritual community, but a special friendship and mission among three female ministers there offer a much-needed balm to a borough struggling to heal from violence, economic downturns and racial tensions.

Mitchell, along with Pastor Janet Hellner-Burris at the Christian Church of Wilkinsburg and Pastor Diane Shepard at St. Stephens Episcopal , both of whom are white, have joined hands and hearts to resurrect the soul of Wilkinsburg.

As the borough's social fabric has shifted, each minister has inherited a community more black than white and much poorer than a generation ago.

In the late '50s, the rumblings of urban renewal pushed inner-city blacks into Wilkinsburg, a tidy borough of longtime residents that was a haven for the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. The migrations caused Wilkinsburg to go from being predominantly white in the 1960s to about 55 percent black by the mid-1990s.

The racial and economic tensions that followed have caused the female ministers to put their focus on the gospel of renewal.

Each has dared tweak long-standing church traditions to champion racial healing and ecumenical partnerships.

The people who didn't run from the changes, "brought all their gifts to the table," Hellner-Burris said.

Pam Sovich was one who stayed. St. Stephens is her church. Now a Monroeville real estate broker, Sovich grew up in and got married at the 118-year-old stone structure, which, with its highbrow music and all, was then "a pretty white church."

Come Monday night, St. Stephens is a different congregation, one that's mostly black and mostly young. That's when Sovich, 43, and other volunteers mentor teens from nearby neighborhoods.

Many of the young people and other black residents are starting to tag St. Stephens as their own. One evening, a street ruckus drew police and sirens. As the youths and volunteers went to investigate, a young black mother with her baby ran to seek refuge in the church.

That's a big change for us, Sovich said, because "in past years, our doors wouldn't have been open."

Women's day

Female clergy have pried open many new doors in Wilkinsburg's ministry.

In the past eight years, 10 female pastors have joined the 33 churches in the borough. Their presence has changed the face of the Wilkinsburg Ministerial Association, which once was made up of only white males.

And, for eight years, a woman --Vivian Lovingood -- has led the Wilkinsburg Community Ministry, a local nonprofit supported by area churches.

Typically, female clergy long have been handed the dead churches, those with crumbling memberships and burned-out ministries, and expected to bring the bones back to life.

Time has shown that urban and rural churches have called women ministers when others would not. Hellner-Burris believes God has sent so many female ministers to Wilkinsburg because it's a place where people need the "extraordinary gifts" they bring.

But making the church more involved in the local community hasn't been easy.

"We have been pushed by the spirit in us" to try things differently, Shepard said of their efforts to adjust years-old worship services, to pursue nontraditional outreach and build program collaboration.

"I'm taking some risks but I can't imagine not taking the risks."

Mitchell, Hellner-Burris and Shepard lunch and pray together. Occasionally, the camaraderie spills into their Sunday worship.

In what's become an annual event, Mitchell and Hellner-Burris have a Sunday dialogue, a joint sermon where they each reflect on contemporary issues.

In the past, the two have taken on such hot-button topics as sexual misconduct in the church and sexual harassment.

A one-way street is all that separates Wilkinsburg Baptist from the Christian Church. When one minister is on vacation, the other picks up hospital visitations and funeral care.

"Because of the way Janet and I love each other," Mitchell said, "our [churches] love each other. I don't feel like a visitor there. It's just amazing."

The road to Wilkinsburg

United now, each woman took a different path to the pulpit.

Serious and dedicated, the quiet-spoken Hellner-Burris came to Wilkinsburg a decade ago.

She had been in ministry for eight years. Though the Disciples of Christ church was born on the American frontier and emphasized an outreach that brought everybody to the communion table, it was still difficult for women in her generation to lead a church.

Now married with two children, Hellner-Burris was "born again" when she saw the church rally around her family after a brother died of cancer.

A professor at St. John's University stoked her spirit, and Hellner-Burris headed off to Princeton Theological Seminary.

\er plan was to go into hospital chaplaincy, but she soon gravitated toward preaching and worship.

After stints in Indiana and Minnesota, she moved to Wilkinsburg.

She adores the small church where she knows everybody's name.

Wilkinsburg born, Thelma Mitchell has been around the world. Her mother's ailing health brought her back home.

Mitchell grew up in the black church. In the '80s, her work with youth at Mount Ararat Baptist in East Liberty prompted her to enroll in Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Going there, she thought, was her decision.

But "God tricked me," she said of her seminary experience, using it to introduce Mitchell to other women in ministry and deepening her desire to preach.

She resisted, and the path was sometimes difficult -- after her early sermons, she'd run off stage and throw up.

But on she trod, eventually making her way to the American Baptist Association, where she worked on biblical justice, fighting apartheid in South Africa and rebuilding burned churches in the South.

A year and a half ago, she came home to Wilkinsburg Baptist.

The church is convenient for the graceful and animated Mitchell, who's quick to laugh. She's back in Wilkinsburg to help care for her elderly mother, who lives nearby, and because she was impressed by her congregation's determination to bridge different racial traditions in music, worship and outreach.

Building bridges has always been important for Diane Shepard. As a student at William & Mary College in the '60s, she felt deeply that she should act on her Christian faith.

So while her college was still grappling with desegregation, Shepard went to the nearby all-black Hampton Institute and began an interracial Christian fellowship.

This was decades before the Episcopalians ordained women, and Shepard thought the only way to advance her spiritual passion was to get a doctorate in biblical studies.

The road from campus to real life led Shepard to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and to ordination. Now in her late 50s, Shepard is white-haired and strong-willed. She is not afraid of urban problems.

Shepard was an associate rector at St. Andrew's in Highland Park and was invigorated by the mission at East End Cooperative Ministry.

Her move to St. Stephens in 1992 came at the height of a crime surge in Wilkinsburg, which made her membership feel helpless and detached from the surrounding community.

Shepard's challenge: Use her inner-city savvy to offer solutions.

A season of change

Each church took baby steps to turn things around.

St. Stephens grew tomatoes and collard greens behind the church. The garden cultivated friendly curiosity. Conversation started and neighbors got to know the church next door.

St. Stephens also worked with nearby Kelly Elementary School to develop a mentoring program and rented space to Narcotics Anonymous and its family support groups.

"These experiences," Shepard said, "allowed people in the suburbs to have a safe place to meet people with different life experiences. Friendships developed and we connected across the needs of people."

As the doors of the mostly white congregations welcomed younger, black worshippers, the transitions reached into the churches' core.

Before the race riots in the '60s and black migration into Wilkinsburg, the Christian Church of Wilkinsburg historically sought to break the color barrier.

Today, Hellner-Burris said, the church is "growing into integration."

There are black elders in the church and more than one-third of the congregation's 120 members are black.

Their numbers are quietly molding the worship experience also.

Worship for the Disciples of Christ has traditionally been sedate.

The heart of each service remains communion, but at Hellner-Burris' church, there's more clapping and using guitars and drums to appeal to younger generations.

Drawn from the black religious experience, there also is testimony, praise music and occasionally the church's youth choir offers gospel music.

All of this, and more, was a draw for single mother Carol Calloway, who is black and lives in Penn Hills.

Calloway considered looking for a black church, but it was the Christian Church that gave her children summer camp scholarships and access to male mentors.

"They really responded to my needs," Calloway said. She settled into the church four years ago, becoming a member in 1999.

"Pastor Janet is interested in having the church reflect the community," Calloway said. Occasionally, there are spirituals sung in Spanish and Swahili, and once the Scriptures were read in Japanese.

Thelma Mitchell came into a church with an aging congregation, but one whose members continued to give deeply -- financially and emotionally -- to support activities such as its Teen Mom and preschool programs.

But after more than two years without a minister, many were ready to move on.

Mitchell persuaded the congregation to stay the course, and during her time there has brought 20 people into the church. There are now about 109 members.

By simply showing up at Wilkinsburg Baptist, Mitchell stepped over racial barriers, and now her congregation views her ethnicity as an asset.

Her experience, they hope, can help close the racial gaps in Wilkinsburg.

It's been slow, said head deacon Bill Fish, 80. Blacks are skeptical of coming into a "white church," and the Baptist congregation has lost about five members as it has tried to expand its mission to attract more black worshippers.

"We're feeling our way," said Fish, who is white. "I'm encouraged about where we are. So far, it looks good to me."

Last year, members presented Mitchell with a Kwanzaa banner in celebration of her teaching the African-American cultural observance.

"I know our good works will translate into numbers and spirit," Mitchell said.

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