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Ecumenical leader to become missionary

Monday, July 01, 2002

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Rev. Gregory Wingenbach, whose path has taken him from the Catholic Church to the Greek Orthodox and from the Peace Corps to the priesthood, is leaving Pittsburgh's premier ecumenical agency to be an Orthodox missionary in Montana.

The Rev. Gregory Wingenbach, executive director of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, is leaving Pittsburgh's premier ecumenical agency to be an Orthodox missionary in Montana. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

During his 4 1/2 years as executive director, Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania has refocused its vision to serve 2,400 congregations from 24 denominations and has forged new partnerships with evangelical and independent churches. Christian Associates officially represents the Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant and historically black churches in this corner of the state.

"This is a unique ecumenical agency," Wingenbach said as he sat amid boxes packed with books in his Lawrenceville office. "There is no other across America where the consensus is so deeply developed and where Catholics of different jurisdictions, Eastern Orthodox and Protestants of all jurisdictions and institutions come together to work for common ministries and common witness."

Wingenbach, 64, is not a stereotypical Greek Orthodox priest, as his name testifies.

His father's ethnic heritage was both Russian and German, and the family had alternated between Russian Orthodoxy and Byzantine Catholicism for generations, depending on which tradition was politically ascendant in their homeland. When Wingenbach's grandfather came to America in 1849, he found no Orthodox or Eastern Catholic church, so the family became Roman Catholic but kept the Eastern traditions at home.

One of Wingenbach's spiritual mentors was an Episcopal priest, who challenged him to explore his Eastern heritage. He did, and eventually became Orthodox.

Meanwhile he worked as a reporter for the Washington Star and New York Herald Tribune. The Kennedy administration recruited him to help set up a task force to launch the Peace Corps, for which he eventually went to East Africa as a troubleshooter. The Johnson administration brought him back to Washington to coordinate the efforts of various government agencies that worked with the Peace Corps. He left during the Nixon administration to do similar inter-agency coordination at the atomic energy complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

There the Greek Orthodox bishop convinced him to seek ordination as a deacon to serve part time in a parish. But working 60 to 80 hours a week for the government and 20 to 40 hours a week for the church became too much. Wingenbach, with the support of his wife, MaryAnn, sought ordination as a priest to work full time for the church. He was sent to study for two years in Greece and Turkey.

He would later play a key role in bringing a group of influential converts into the faith when some staff members of the evangelical Campus Crusade for Christ became interested in exploring Orthodoxy. The group representing all of the Orthodox bishops in the Americas asked Wingenbach to serve as a mentor to the evangelicals, who eventually affiliated with the Antiochian Orthodox Church.

In the early 1980s he served in the Mon Valley, where he first became acquainted with Christian Associates. That played a role in the invitation to return as executive director.

"One of the things that attracted me, a major positive point about Western Pennsylvania, is the adherence of the majority of the Christian churches, the people in the pews and their pastors, to what I call core Christianity. It's centrist. You don't find the extremes of the left and the right here," Wingenbach said.

He attributes that partly to the influence of stable ethnic neighborhoods, where family, community and tradition are prized values. It was reinforced by the collapse of the steel mills, when young adult Pittsburghers stayed under the same roof with their parents and grandparents, absorbing strong doses of faith and tradition in an era when their peers elsewhere were cutting ties with organized religion.

Because he had been both Catholic and Orthodox, and was actively involved in formal dialogues between the Orthodox and various Protestant groups, Wingenbach brought a unique breadth of perspective to Christian Associates, said Lutheran Bishop Donald McCoid, who chaired the search committee that recruited him.

"He understood each Christian and religious tradition. I think he was very sensitive to respecting and enhancing the ways in which we can cooperate," McCoid said.

During his tenure Christian Associates has developed several key initiatives with the goal of bringing churches together while providing practical help to local congregations.

A major development was a statement and pastoral guidelines on marriage and family life that encouraged congregations to require pre-marital counseling for any couple who wanted to be married. Both Duquesne University and Pittsburgh 2000, an association of evangelical churches that grew out of the 1993 Billy Graham crusade, were closely involved with that effort, allowing Christian Associates to build relationships with churches that are not ordinarily part of the ecumenical movement.

Christian Associates also worked with Carlow College to create the Ecumenical Institute on Racism, which provides resources to churches that want to address racial issues within their community and congregation. In partnership with the Allegheny Valley Association of Churches, which covers four counties east of Pittsburgh, Christian Associates developed a CD-ROM that pastors could use to find help for troubled parishioners.

"You put the CD-ROM in and, if a pastor has a family that is looking for housing in a particular area or for marriage counseling, you can immediately plug them into the resources that can help," Wingenbach said.

Christian Associates may be best known for CATV, a cable channel seen mostly in the immediate Pittsburgh area. Most of its programming consists of church services. Plans are under way to expand both the type of programming and the region of coverage, but first the studio at Carlow College underwent a $150,000 overhaul to bring its antiquated equipment and facilities up to date.

In August Wingenbach will return to the Church of the Annunciation in Missoula, Mont., a mission parish he helped to found. Services in English, Greek and various Slavic languages are held in a former Mormon ward building that has been retrofitted for Orthodox worship.

"I will be able in my pre-retirement period to repay the church by serving as a missionary priest here in America, where I think the need is at least as great as overseas," he said.

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