Holy Ground opens peace dialogue

Congregations bring neighborhood issues to forefront

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The aroma of barbecue wafted through Garfield from Valley View Presbyterian Church, where grills were smoking in the side yard. An interracial crowd of 200 mingled over food, and children climbed over each other to get inside a police cruiser where Officer Heather Copenhaver demonstrated the lights.

Building relationships between neighbors and among residents and the police were what Friday evening's Holy Ground gathering at Valley View was for. It marked a year sine the launch of the Holy Ground campaign, which involves more than a half-dozen congregations in Pittsburgh and Braddock. They identify serious problems in their neighborhood, then press residents and officials to fix them.

The Valley View gathering was about gun violence. Garfield residents have been victims or alleged perpetrators of deadly gunfire on an all-too-regular basis. Katie Bottoms lost her 23-year-old son, Timothy, in November, two years after another son was shot dead in Baltimore.

"I have to say, 'No more, no more,' " she told the crowd in church before the cookout.

"My heart exploded twice," she said. "We need love back in our community. I'm willing to die for our young people."

Other Garfield residents recalled a time when elderly people sat on their porches in the evening, youngsters treated them respectfully and everyone scolded everyone else's kids.

Diane Malrey spoke of patrolmen who walked the streets, knew everyone and stopped problems before they started. As a young adult, she fell in with a bad crowd.

When the officers saw her "doing something that wasn't right," she said. "They picked me up and took me to my mother."

Looking toward retired Pittsburgh officer Chester Walls, a Garfield resident who also spoke about the need for officers to walk the beat, she said, "Officers like you saved my life."

Zone 5 Cmdr. Timothy O'Connor was there to hear it all. Three children presented him with the community's requests -- backed by a petition to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl for funding.

As Cmdr. O'Connor listened, the children asked him to commit two patrol officers to Garfield, and make sure the community got its share of the new officers the zone had just received. Would he place security cameras near hot spots?

Yes, he said. He has a canine officer for each shift, and plans to have them walk the dogs in Garfield. New officers will be trained for bicycle patrol in the community and two security cameras are on order, he said. Each answer drew loud applause.

"You are not forgotten," he told the people.

Holy Ground began because its parent organization, the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, often took on national policy issues that many Pittsburghers found a bit abstract.

"One of the main purposes of the Holy Ground campaign was to get the people seated in our pews engaged in issues and actions as they directly pertain to the life of the congregation and their own personal lives," said the Rev. John Welch, president of PIIN and dean of students at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

In Schenley Heights, a Holy Ground mobilization solved problems that had frustrated residents for years, said the Rev. David Thornton, pastor of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church.

"This is coming from the neighborhood, from people who have lived here for years and years," he said. "They've told me they've been asking for these changes for 10 to 15 years, and they've never seen this much done."

On Aug. 31, 2009, about 100 Schenley Heights residents walked with officials from the city's Water and Sewer Authority and Department of Building Inspection, showing them a missing stop sign, a collapsed storm drain that could swallow a child and the enormously heavy junk that someone had dumped from an abandoned house onto a sidewalk. It's all been taken care of, said Mr. Thornton, who will soon lead his congregation in addressing a new set of issues.

"It's on us to sustain things, in order that we can accomplish more," he said.

"What we are trying to do is reestablish a sense of community. We want neighborhoods of which we can be appropriately proud, that are clean and beautiful and safe. We want equity in how they are cared for -- just like other neighborhoods in Pittsburgh."

Valley View hosted the first Holy Ground action a year ago. At issue were abandoned, blighted houses that lowered property values and provided havens for drug activity. The congregation wanted to rehabilitate the salvageable ones, but asked the city to condemn and demolish those beyond repair.

That has been done, said Darrell Warfield, an elder at Valley View.

"And we have seen other movement in the neighborhood, where they are tearing down other abandoned properties," he said. "We brought an issue to the city's attention, and I think they are looking at it a little more closely."

It's not just officials who stepped up, said the Rev. Chad Collins, pastor of Valley View.

"There is more community ownership and positive momentum," he said, noting that Friday's crowd was twice the size of last year's. "Sometimes it feels as if we are throwing a pebble into a giant lake. But I think that the momentum of people-to-people and neighbor-to-neighbor has been carrying us."

The church's summer-long Peace Cook-Outs are part of that. They bring people out of their houses to talk with each other as neighbors did before drugs and gangs moved in.

"We've had anywhere from 100 to 250 people sitting and eating together. Kids playing, no fighting. For two hours we have this picture of pure, holy peace," Mr. Collins said.

"That is nothing new. Garfield is rooted that way. We hear about the good old days and the way things used to be. We don't want to turn back the clock, but to highlight the things that were positive in terms of being more neighborly and being responsive to each other. We need to look at our community as belonging to all of us. The children belong to all of us."

He watched Cmdr. O'Connor and Officer Copenhaver chatted with children and adults at the cookout.

"The police aren't the answer to all our problems, but they play a role in our community. We want to make them more sensitive to our issues and help us to be sensitive to them," he said.

Among those who attended was Jay Gilmer, coordinator of the Department of Public Safety's Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime. He believes Holy Ground is coalescing with One Vision One Life and other programs to put an end to gang violence.

"Nothing works alone. The police don't work alone," he said. "All of these groups are cooperating and working together, which you don't usually see. That will be successful."


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


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