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Liberal pastor retires after long run in city

Sunday, May 04, 2003

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Rev. John McCall was planning to quit the ministry when, to please a friend, he agreed to interview for the pastorate of Sixth Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill.

Rev. John McCall served 33 years as pastor of Sixth Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

Today, 33 years later, McCall will preach his last sermon as pastor of Sixth. The soft-spoken, unassuming McCall, 65, is retiring from the church he built into a liberal outpost at the heart of one of the most conservative presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

In a typically self-effacing statement, he doesn't attribute his long tenure to his own skill or vision.

"This is a wonderful church to serve, and it has been very good to me," he said. "We have grown together."

It is a church that hosts guest speakers such as the skeptical New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan and a church where members of a Sunday morning Bible study work from the Hebrew and Greek. It also is one of only two More Light Presbyterian churches in Pennsylvania -- meaning it has pledged to welcome members in same-sex relationships.

That might not have been predicted from McCall's conventionally pietistic upbringing in Youngstown, Ohio. But at Princeton Theological Seminary he was deeply influenced by liberal scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich, who treated the biblical text more as meaningful myth than as history.

His first and only other call was as associate pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Shadyside. But he was dissatisfied and was pursuing a doctorate in English literature so he could switch to teaching. In order not to disappoint some friends at Sixth, however, he agreed to meet with their search committee.

What he heard that night fascinated him. Sixth ran a Friday night coffeehouse for neighborhood teens. It hosted a Korean congregation. It had just purchased land adjacent to the church with the goal of using it to serve the community. McCall saw a congregation that was focused on serving outsiders in creative ways. When Sixth called, he couldn't resist.

He became active in interfaith projects, working with rabbis to address the volatile issue of busing for school desegregation.

"We would discuss the situation among ourselves as clergy and then try to defuse the situation in our congregation by taking a stand for school desegregation," he said.

"We tried to bring some healing and reconciliation and peace to the situation."

For his three decades of work to improve Squirrel Hill, McCall will receive a "Citizen of the Year" award from the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition on May 14.

Many of Sixth's members come from academia, which helps explain the Hebrew-and-Greek Bible study. It also meant it was not hit as hard as many other churches by the collapse of the steel industry, and the size of its congregation has remained relatively stable during McCall's tenure.

The late Rev. Fred Rogers, host of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, was a fixture at the church. He did not technically belong to Sixth because clergy belong to the presbytery rather than a congregation. But he attended with his family, and McCall preached at his funeral.

Rogers' "spirit and his counsel and his friendship have been a big influence on me," McCall said.

McCall's low-key style brought Sam Newbury to Sixth in 1987, after his father's death prompted him to reconnect with a spiritual community. Other pastors had showered him with so much attention that he felt pressured. McCall was welcoming, but unaggressive.

"He opened a door and said, 'We'd love to have you here, but come at your own pace," Newbury said.

Newbury now kids McCall about his evangelistic technique.

"Someone will say, 'I really want to join the church' and John will reply, 'Have you been to Waverly [Presbyterian Church]?' We give him the what-for about that," Newbury said.

"But it is part of that wonderful, welcoming, very enabling personality. He says, I'm going to respect you enough to know that you can make the decision to be as involved or as noninvolved as you want to be. He also shares in the sense that this is a journey and a searching, that he doesn't know all the answers but we can talk together."

Such conversations led McCall to the cause of gay ordination.

"It wasn't really an issue for me. I hadn't thought about it much until the mid-'70s, when it started to surface in the church," he said.

In 1978 a denominational committee produced a report affirming homosexuals. It concluded that there was no reason to deny ordination to a person solely because he or she was in a same-sex relationship. Congregations were asked to study the report, and Sixth did so.

"Our consciousness was raised. At that time I was certainly leaning toward the full inclusion of lesbian and gay people," McCall said.

He was disappointed when the General Assembly adopted the report without the recommendation to ordain sexually active gay people. But Pittsburgh Presbytery then appointed him to a newly formed Committee for Ministry with Homosexual Persons, of which he later became chairman. As a result, he testified before City Council in the late 1980s, advocating the inclusion of sexual orientation in the city's anti-discrimination statute.

"I think that attracted some gay and lesbian folks to come here for worship," he said. "Some of them became active members of the church. And they showed all the signs of the Spirit."

In the early 1990s the congregation began to consider becoming a More Light church. It is a formal designation which, at that time, meant that the congregation pledged to ordain qualified gay members to church office. Later, after ordinations of sexually active gay people were made unconstitutional in the Presbyterian Church (USA), congregations were asked only to promise to work for the goal of such ordinations.

The congregation took more than a year to consider the decision. Previously only one couple had left over his welcome to gay people and there had been no grumbling from those who remained. So McCall was surprised when some members balked at becoming a More Light church.

"They were not against gays and lesbians as such. They didn't disagree with me on that. But they didn't want us to become identified as a gay church," he said.

The congregation's board voted 17-1 in favor. And Sixth continues to attract families of all kinds.

Although gay ordination is the most rancorous issue in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and Pittsburgh Presbytery overwhelmingly opposes it, McCall has drawn little or no animosity from colleagues.

"I've never found him to be one to try to stir up contention," said the Rev. Doug Pratt, pastor of Memorial Park Presbyterian Church in McCandless and a vocal opponent of gay ordination.

"I sense in him an integrity and sincerity. I have nothing but admiration for him personally."

McCall doesn't believe in maligning those he disagrees with.

"I've always cautioned people who are my allies in this cause that the other side is not the enemy," he said.

"I'm wary of using the term homophobic toward those who disagree with us on this issue. For many of them it is a biblical issue. I know that some of my friends who disagree with me have honest disagreements and struggle with it. They are as concerned about the pain that gays and lesbians are going through as I am."

Active membership at Sixth has held steady despite a rigorous cleaning of the rolls that brought the official tally down from 280 to 180. But worship attendance is growing, and now averages 125. Several years ago a century of grime was blasted from Sixth's stone exterior, and a new pipe organ is due to be installed this summer.

McCall's wife, Diane, has spent the last year refurbishing a former one-room schoolhouse in Clarion County for their retirement. After a summer sabbatical McCall expects to serve churches as an interim pastor.

He also hopes to catch up with his two grown children and four step-children.

"I hope that in retirement, my professional life will revolve around my personal life, rather than the other way around -- which it has done to this point," he said.

And while he will respect the distance that former pastors are expected to keep, he will not be a stranger at Sixth.

"They made me a pastor emeritus here, so I will be coming back."

Ann Rodgers-Melnick can be reached at arodgersmelnick@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.

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