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Churches contend with Steelers

Saturday, January 26, 2002

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

There was a 50-foot "Go Steelers" banner hanging in the riverside windows of PNC's Operation Center on First Avenue. There was a pep rally in Market Square. There were pedestrians all over town sporting nothing but gold and black.

There was even a plan to fill Point State Park's fountain with gold-colored water, but the Public Works Department couldn't come up with the proper dye.

But that was all yesterday.

Today clergy across the area will be pondering a quieter dilemma:

What happens when God and Steelers football have conflicting schedules?

At 12:30 p.m. tomorrow, right when many church services are ending or are still in progress, the Steelers will be at Heinz Field, facing the New England Patriots for the AFC Championship.

Does that mean local clergy will be preaching to empty pews?

Not at all, says the Rev. George Wilt, pastor of St. Bernard Catholic Church, a large parish in Mt. Lebanon.

"We have nine Masses," he said, pausing to emphasize the word nine, which means his parishioners should be able to fit faith and football into their lives just fine. With that kind of flexible scheduling, the church's 4,400 average weekend attendance rate should stay steady, he added -- although the people attending the church's 12:30 Mass obviously won't be football fans.

"I won't be there, either," said Wilt, a 34-year veteran of the church whose seniority allows him to offer Mass at other times. "I'll be at the game."

A random survey of different churches around the area revealed little concern about the game's impact on Sunday services, sermons or scheduling.

Mainly, that's because many churches these days offer a variety of times for people to attend services.

At Macedonia Baptist Church in the Hill District, people crowded into an earlier service at 9:45 last Sunday, hours before the Steelers faced the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs, said the Rev. Jason Barr. The 11:45 service attracted only about 200 people, less than half the usual number, "but that's because most of them showed up earlier."

Barr is a football fan -- he went to the Super Bowl last year, courtesy of a friend who knew NFL coach Tony Dungy. But he has no plans to mention the Steelers during the service.

"There's enough of that already without having to drag it into church, although it's not as hyped as it was the last time. At least we don't keep hearing that song" -- his voice slowing to a leaden pace -- 'Here ... We ... Go,' as much."

The Rev. Bebb Stone, of the 100-member Presbyterian Church of Mount Washington, says her sermon won't deal with gridiron issues, either. While there's a great view of the stadium from the church, and her parishioners have been known to attend services wearing black and gold, "I'm not going to make it into a religious occasion, no. I don't see this as necessarily relevant to the worship of God and Christ."

Some churches with fewer services to choose from are confident their parishioners will show up in late morning, even if it means having to miss part of the game.

"There won't be a difference" in turnout, said Pastor Douglas Spittel of First Trinity Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Oakland. The church is celebrating its 165th anniversary tomorrow, and while the 11 a.m. service ends 15 minutes before kickoff, he expects no drop-off in numbers.

"Our worshipers are loyal Steelers fans, but they're Christians first."

And while the Rev. C.J. Williams is a football fan, his church, Providence Reformed Church in Brookline, discourages its parishioners from any football viewing at all on Sundays -- even when it's the AFC championship.

"One of the things we believe in and try to practice is keeping Sunday, which we call the Lord's Day, special and apart, to see it as a day of rest and worship," said Williams.

Then, there are the very special problems faced by Allegheny Center Alliance Church on the North Side, which is located near Heinz Field.

"We get Steelers fans posing as visitors to our church so they can park in our lot," said the Rev. Rockwell Dilliman.

The church frequently has to contend with traffic and lower attendance brought on by city events, and even has to close during the marathon, Dilliman said.

But a lower-than-usual turnout this Sunday will be OK with him because at least four of the church's members -- Jason Gildon, Troy Edwards, Rich Tylski and Chris Combs -- are Steelers.

"They have a good work-related reason not to be there," he said.

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