Pittsburgh's Shepherd's Heart Fellowship, church for homeless, celebrates resurrection on Easter

New life has been 'breathed' into Shepherd's Heart Fellowship after an agreement between Episcopal and Anglican dioceses

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When Leonard Williams attends the Easter service today at Shepherd's Heart Fellowship, an Anglican church for the homeless in Uptown, like Christians everywhere he will be celebrating the resurrection of Christ from the tomb.

But Mr. Williams, 53, and others who attend Shepherd's Heart also will be celebrating the new life that has been breathed into their church after a recent significant agreement between Pittsburgh's Episcopal and Anglican dioceses. A long-running conflict in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh resulted in a 2008 split, with many of the churches leaving and creating the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, linked to the theologically conservative Anglican Church in North America.

Shepherd's Heart was originally founded as an Episcopal church by the Rev. Michael Wurschmidt. But after the split in the diocese, Rev. Wurschmidt switched his affiliation to become an Anglican priest. At that point, Shepherd's Heart became one of a number of congregations caught between the two dioceses.

While few settlements have been reached over parish assets, the Episcopal Diocese agreed in October to give Shepherd's Heart and its ministry to the homeless a clear title to all of its property and assets, despite its affiliation with the rival Anglican church. It is the lone case in which a parish kept all of its assets and its Anglican affiliation.

It's a move that positions Shepherd's Heart to continue to serve the city's homeless and to move forward with plans to add a residential program for homeless female veterans with children. Shepherd's Heart already runs a 15-bed temporary housing unit for homeless male veterans.

"This is one time when two groups of Christians behaved as if they had read the Scriptures," said George Werner, dean emeritus of Trinity Cathedral and president of the standing committee of the Episcopal Diocese, who was involved in crafting the agreement to turn over the Shepherd's Heart facility.

The church building is now officially owned by the Shepherd's Heart board of directors, which closed on its own mortgage on the property on Dec. 28, Rev. Wurschmidt said.

Shepherd's Heart congregants, like Mr. Williams, weren't made aware of the dispute that could have threatened the church on which they depend not only for their spiritual needs but basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter. But Rev. Wurschmidt spent nervous months wondering if the fellowship he founded in 1993 by searching the streets to find the city's homeless would have to move and regroup.

"The uncertainty was we were always looking for a Plan B. What would happen if we would have to move. It would have been a nightmare for everybody," said Rev. Wurschmidt. "The negotiations were difficult at times, but very honorable and very respectful and everybody worked hard to make sure that the poor and the homeless of Pittsburgh kept Shepherd's Heart as their building."

For Mr. Williams, that means he can continue to come to the Uptown church where he feels one with God and with the other poor and homeless.

"I've been to other churches. At other churches the deacon or pastor, when you tell them you are homeless, they send you to another program. But when I came here, Pastor Mike said 'we will help you here,' " Mr. Williams said.

Drop in, pray, eat

Shepherd's Heart holds a morning drop-in center seven days a week that offers a prayer service, breakfast, showers and laundry facilities to the homeless.

There is also a shuttle bus that makes several trips around the city each day taking them to medical and social service appointments.

The fellowship also serves as one of the county's severe weather centers, providing nighttime shelter on the coldest nights of the year. Other shelters don't open unless it is 25 degrees or lower, but Shepherd's Heart opens its doors on any chilly night people are seeking refuge.

On Sundays there is a church service at 5:15 p.m. that usually draws between 140 and 160 people, and it is followed by a hot meal provided by one of the 100 or so churches or organizations that support the fellowship. On cold winter Sundays, the homeless may come for the service, stay for dinner, to spend the night and for prayer service and breakfast the next morning.

Rev. Wurschmidt said sometimes the facility is so crowded, people end up sleeping on hallway floors. But, he said, he'd rather have them there than outside in the cold.

Mr. Williams said he was once homeless and had substance abuse problems but is now clean, lives with his sister and works at a warehouse on the North Side. But he attends daily prayer services each morning, support group meetings and Sunday Bible study and services at Shepherd's Heart. He was the narrator for the Passion at the Palm Sunday service, which drew about 200 homeless worshippers.

Mr. Williams described Rev. Wurschmidt as "the most gentle guy I've ever known and he needs his gentleness and humility to deal with us. When he gives us the word of God, he gives it so we can understand it. He makes it apply to our lives."

During the morning prayer on Holy Thursday, Rev. Wurschmidt told participants, many of whom were sitting beside bags of their belongings, "one of the reasons we have a church for the poor is because that's what God wants. This is your church." The group responded with a strong "amen."

After prayers, the pastor circulated through the breakfast crowd asking about the well-being of the people visiting his center and offering advice or private prayer with them.

Among the group was Evelyn Rosemary Akers, 62, formerly of the North Side, who found herself homeless a little more than a year ago. After bouncing around at various shelters, she found Shepherd's Heart. "I'm thankful they have a place like this. It has provided me with a place to sleep at night out of the cold, a shower where you can clean yourself up and breakfast food," said Ms. Akers, who lost her left leg after being hit by a truck at age 6. She uses crutches and a scooter to move around the city streets.

Rev. Wurschmidt said his ministry grew from his own experience. At age 35, he held a bachelor's degree in history from Colorado State University and was operating a business in Denver teaching computer skills to children in day care. But the business failed, he, his pregnant wife and baby daughter lost their home and were forced to live with another family for a time. Rev. Wurschmidt said his family spent "a difficult year" before he was able, through working a variety of small jobs, to move them into a small apartment.

"God radically altered my world view during that time," he said.

Just as his family was getting back on its feet, Rev. Wurschmidt was offered a consulting job with World Vision's Project Home Again, a program to help homeless families return to self-sufficiency.

That effort brought him to Pittsburgh in 1993, where he started to seek out and serve the homeless while he was pursuing a master of divinity degree from the Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge.

Shepherd's Heart was first located in a rented storefront in Oakland. From 1998 to 2005, the ministry was housed in the former St. Agnes Catholic Church. In 2006, the fellowship purchased a former Lutheran church building near Mercy Hospital that had been converted into medical offices. It marked the first permanent home for the fellowship, which is supported by more than 100 organizations and churches of various denominations and the Veterans Administration. Each Sunday, Shepherd's Heart holds a 5:15 p.m. service, which is followed by a hot meal served by one of the network of churches that supports the fellowship. Today, Easter dinner will be prepared by John Marshall Catering.

During services, a collection plate is passed. On a good week, maybe $25 will be collected. Sometimes pennies are all congregants have to offer.

Rev. Wurschmidt said the collections replicate the biblical story of the widow's mite, in which a widow is looked down upon by others because she donates just two mites -- the least valuable coin of the time. But Jesus lauds the woman because though richer individuals gave far more, the widow gave all she had, trusting that God would somehow provide for her needs.

Serving veterans in need

Almost from the beginning, Shepherd's Heart placed a special emphasis on helping homeless veterans. Rev. Wurschmidt said from his earliest days walking the streets of Oakland and other city neighborhoods reaching out to the homeless, he found military veterans made up a large portion of the population. Nationally, he said, 25 percent to 30 percent of the homeless are veterans.

On the second floor of its facility, Shepherd's Heart operates a temporary housing program for veterans who need help kicking addictions, overcoming emotional issues and attaining job training. The veterans receive those services while living at the facility and can remain there until they are employed and able to live independently.

Ray Webb, who once lived there and received the program's services, is now the supervisor of veterans' programs for Shepherd's Heart. He now owns a duplex, and lives in one half while renting the other half to veterans getting back on their feet.

He also serves as an example to those in the program like Claude Givens, 54, an Army veteran and native of Georgia who spent years living on and off the streets in his home state, and in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Now, Mr. Givens is working as a nursing assistant at Pittsburgh's Veterans Administration Hospital and attending Community College of Allegheny County part time to pursue a degree in social work.

He hopes to have a career helping others like himself and he is working on purchasing a home and possibly a car. "I'm still in therapy sessions and I go to NA [Narcotics Anonymous] meetings quite regularly. But I'm making some great advances in my life," Mr. Givens said.

Thomas Moore, a member of the Shepherd's Heart board of trustees, said Easter is the perfect time for the parties involved in securing the fellowship's future to reflect on its significance.

"I wanted to emphasize the role that Shepherd's Heart, the Episcopal Diocese and the Anglican Diocese play in being co-creators with God in creating second chances for homeless veterans," he said. "Easter was the greatest second chance in the history of the world."

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Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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