Running over the churches in Pittsburgh

The city should hold more big events on Saturdays

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The city of Pittsburgh has barred me from teaching my Bible class this Sunday!

No, Mayor Luke isn't meddling with churches in his waning months. But by closing two adjacent streets on the North Side for the inaugural EQT Pittsburgh 10-mile run, the city has prevented my congregation, Allegheny Center Alliance Church, from holding its 8:30 and 9:50 morning services. The race starts at 9 and runners will be trudging past ACAC twice, in miles 4 and 5, until 10:15.

I am not insensitive to the recreational and economic value of running events. Just two Sundays ago I attended a 6:30 a.m. Episcopal prayer service in downtown Columbus, then crossed the street to the starting line and ran the Columbus Marathon in 3:06:35, transferring $275 to that city's economy along the way.

Like Trinity Episcopal in Columbus, which has turned inconvenience into revenue generation by hosting a pre-race pasta party, ACAC already tolerates major disruption for the Pittsburgh Marathon each May, as do many other churches. In fact, ACAC has embraced the marathon, entertaining runners and onlookers with a concert on its front steps when it would normally be holding services. Since many churchgoers make financial contributions only when they see an offering plate, however, each lost service costs ACAC thousands of dollars.

The city depends heavily on ACAC to help sustain the North Side community. Beyond the spiritual support it delivers to more than 3,000 people, ACAC has purchased and shut down a nuisance bar on East Ohio Street; established a community health clinic, financial counseling service, pregnancy center and after-school tutoring program; and spun off the Urban Impact Foundation, one of the city's largest outreach programs for young people.

None of this mattered when the city approved a second annual Sunday morning race that stymies the church's operations. Not only was ACAC denied input, it wasn't even informed of the street closure until 10 days before the race.

Pittsburgh Three Rivers Marathon manages both races. Its executive director has profusely apologized for the lack of notification for the EQT run, but this still overlooks the core issue: Our church presumably can expect two disruptions per year from now on. Maybe three if the Rock 'n' Roll Half-Marathon, which had been scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 4 before the city withdrew its support over weather concerns, becomes a reality in 2014.

This is a strange way to thank a church that once contemplated relocating to the North Hills but instead dedicated itself to the inner city and is now a thriving interracial congregation.

Pittsburgh seems to think that every major event (marathon, triathlon, Great Race, Pedal Pittsburgh) has to happen on Sunday morning. But Akron, less than two hours away, has held its marathon on a Saturday for 11 years, with up to 15,000 participants -- three times the 5,000 expected for the Pittsburgh 10-Miler.

The Akron Marathon's decision not to interfere with the many churches along its route has worked out just fine. Akron boasts the nation's largest marathon relay, and the race's economic value surpassed $5 million by 2011.

Hopefully this year's fracas will ensure that (unless the course is changed to avoid impacting churches) the inaugural EQT Pittsburgh 10-Miler is also the last one conducted on a Sunday. Meanwhile, I'm recruiting a busload of Sunday school teachers to run with me in Akron on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014.

Bruce Barron is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Bethel Park (bruce.barron0@gmail.com).


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