Homestead United Presbyterian Church finds new life


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Last year, the dwindling congregation at Homestead United Presbyterian Church was bitterly divided over worship styles and how to face the fact that it could no longer afford both its beautiful building and a full-time pastor.

"The church was really in despair," said Mary Solomon, 83, a member since 1959.

"Now we have so many young people. I'm so excited about what is happening in our church. I feel we could be a model for other churches that are struggling with conflict over contemporary versus traditional music."

The church recently won a national award from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia for some of its revitalization efforts. The Al Dimmock Award gives a $1,000 prize to a congregation that has achieved significant change through empowerment of older adults.

The Homestead church started a computer lab where younger members taught older ones how to use computers so they could email their grandchildren, research their family trees or access commentaries on the Bible. In the process, they gave new leadership and learning opportunities to the youth and helped to heal a long-standing rift between the age groups.

"It has had a unifying effect over the entire congregation," Mrs. Solomon wrote in a recommendation letter to the award committee.

Homestead is among several Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations in struggling communities that have found new life through ministries ranging from senior citizen luncheons to teaching business skills to teens, said the Rev. Sheldon Sorge, general minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery.

"All have this central feature: They are committed to doing new things in order to reach effectively and meaningfully into communities that have gone through a lot of difficult changes," he said.

"When [Homestead's] pastor moved last year to another call, the congregation chose to follow a bold new ministry model built around an ecumenical team of leaders who have already demonstrated a deep commitment to addressing their community's needs."

Homestead, like many other river valley communities, is a once-prosperous town that became desolated when the steel industry collapsed 30 years ago. Many church members or their children left for jobs or better schools. New residents were often of a different race with different church traditions and rarely gravitated to the established congregations. While the borough of Homestead has experienced some renewal, the church continued to decline.

From 2001 to 2011, Homestead United Presbyterian's membership fell from nearly 300 to 184, with an average weekly attendance of around 80. It once had several full-time pastors, but could no longer afford even one. The magnificent stained glass Jesus gazed lovingly on increasingly empty pews.

Worship was split between two small, mutually resentful services. Morning worship drew older adults for hymns and organ music; the evening drew young people for drums and contemporary praise songs.

The conflict drove some members away, and death took many others. By summer 2012, the church was in financial crisis.

One faction wanted to sell the property and use the money to create new ministries in a West Mifflin social hall. Others were deeply committed to the historic building, even if it meant reduced ministry.

"I was one of the ones who wanted to move," said Brad Pietryga, a recent graduate of Grove City College. His family has belonged to the church for generations and his parents met in the youth group. But "would you rather spend $1,000 to repair the roof or spend it on ministry to the community?" he asked.

A majority voted to stay put with a part-time pastor. But the minority also chose to stay and commit themselves to renewal.

Newly decorated cafe tables made the social hall an appealing place to linger. Mr. Pietryga gave the church an online presence with www.homesteadupc.org and a Facebook fan page. He was glad to see Mrs. Solomon posting on the Facebook page and asked her why other older members weren't doing so.

Mrs. Solomon, who had gained computer skills as the longtime secretary to the presidents at Chatham University, explained that most of her peers thought a mouse was a rodent and a hard drive involved pot holes. Mr. Pietryga and his father, Frank, a church elder who teaches electrical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, started to think about outreach through computer instruction.

The Christian education director already harbored a similar dream, but couldn't afford computers able to handle high-speed Internet. With Mrs. Solomon's husband, the church's treasurer, they sought outside grants and donations.

In July a Homestead store, Computer Goo-Roos, gave the church two older desktops capable of streaming video. Frank Pietryga bought two more discounted machines and networked all four with a wireless router and a donated printer.

Younger members began teaching older members how to email and search the Web. Reserve funds were tapped for video equipment. A girl in the youth group now films and edits services for the congregation's new YouTube channel, allowing shut-ins to view them.

"We wanted to find a way to get the older people in the congregation more engaged in the ministry, and technology was the crux of it," Frank Pietryga said.

The church subscribed to RightNow Media, which offers streaming video Bible studies by popular teachers such as Philip Yancey. Tech-savvy members can view them on their smartphones.

"The youth Sunday school classes are using that technology," he said. "The young adults have used the studies here also."

The Pietrygas hope to offer Sunday morning video conversations via Skype with overseas missionaries that the congregation supports. But while all that was launching, their longtime pastor left for a full-time position. A search committee approached the Rev. Keith Kaufold, who ran a nearby Christian coffeehouse, even though he wasn't Presbyterian but United Methodist. His Eighth Avenue Place sometimes used the facilities of Homestead United Presbyterian for larger social events.

"No way," Rev. Kaufold thought at first. "But the more I pondered and prayed about it, the more I felt God leading me that way."

After consulting the Rev. Erwin Kerr, a retired United Methodist pastor who knew Homestead well, and Josh Fisher, a Pittsburgh Theological Seminary student who had volunteered at Eighth Avenue Place, he made a counter-offer. All three would share the part-time salary that had been offered to the Rev. Kaufold alone.

They ranged in age from their 20s to their 60s. Rev. Kaufold would lead worship while Rev. Kerr provided pastoral care and Mr. Fisher focused on teaching and youth outreach.

"We were so blessed to get this trio of pastors," said Frank Pietryga, whose family commutes to church from Plum. "We had been trying for years to find ways to minister to the local community, and Keith has those ties."

Rev. Kaufold was impressed with the congregation's willingness to change.

"So often we get formed in the way that we think church should be. Then, when the situation or the community changes and people don't fit into that mold anymore, many congregations would rather die than implement change," he said.

The congregation reluctantly moved to a single service that uses both organ and praise band. Mrs. Solomon said that some who are the most irritated by drums stopped complaining because they're happy to see children.

"Our young people are staying now," she said.

The blended service works "because they're not coming here for music, they're coming here to do God's mission. It's become a lot more mission-minded and less method-minded," Brad Pietryga said.

"That's what the younger contingent wanted. The people who wanted to leave this building but who stayed here after the vote are now seeing the fruit of their ideas."

It often takes a crisis to force mainline Protestant congregations to grapple with what God calls them to do, Rev. Kaufold said, but Homestead's response was exceptional. Typically, the building closes and is either sold to an independent congregation or is redeveloped by a wealthy suburban church that wants to sponsor inner city ministry.

"I hope that we will experience revitalization from the existing people," he said. "The mantra in the Steel Valley is 'We just want it to be the way it was.' But I'm hearing less discussion in the congregation about making it the way it used to be. Now people are talking about the way that it could be."

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Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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