Banksville church's expansion is 31 years in the making

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In 1982, the Rev. Mike Gestrich arrived in Pittsburgh with his wife, two young children, a rented moving trailer and little else.

Last week, his church closed on a multimillion-dollar deal to double the size of its property.

"I always say our overnight success took 31 years," Rev. Gestrich said from his desk at Hilltop Baptist Church in the city's Banksville neighborhood.

The church sits at the top of a hill off Roseberry Street, not far from Banksville Road. Yet few of the many motorists who navigate the road each day have any idea the distinctive log-constructed church is there.

Rev. Gestrich aims to remedy that situation, which is part of the reason for the $2.2 million land purchase.

"We want to be right down there on Banksville Road, in your face," he said.

Plans call for construction of a new church, similar in design to the existing one, on the 11 acres at the intersection with Chappel Avenue.

A series of festive balloons have been placed along Chappel to designate the future site, which almost became the church's home in the 1980s.

The minister said he can give no dollar amount for building costs at this time. He and church leaders are just starting to meet with an architect and plan to hire a capital campaign company that works specifically with churches.

Rev. Gestrich said he was 23 and a recent graduate of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., when he decided to take his ministry to Pittsburgh. He and wife Carol are Butler County natives and brought their family to the city with not much more than faith and a mission.

They happened to turn onto Chappel Avenue, which has no outlet, then turned off onto Roseberry Street in an effort to get their rented trailer turned around. The minister said he liked what he saw and had this answer for the owner of the hilltop property when he asked if he could help:

"I would love to live on your property."

He and his family moved into what he described as a shack, and he began knocking on doors in Banksville, Beechview and Dormont, looking for people to help him start his church.

Rev. Gestrich thought he'd found the ideal location a few years later when he was asked by a developer, the late David Stevenson, if the church might be part of a complex he planned for 11 acres at Banksville Road and Chappel Avenue. The involvement of the church helped get the land rezoned from residential to commercial and work started on the site with the promise of a home for Hilltop Baptist.

The project, though, went bankrupt a few years later.

"We were devastated," Rev. Gestrich recalled. "I couldn't understand why God would permit me to go through all that at the bottom of the hill and then lose it."

His church met where they could, in various places around the neighborhood, until he was able to purchase the property on which he'd lived at the top of the hill. The permanent church, built to resemble a log cabin as symbolic of returning to basics, opened there in 1993.

Eventually, the church acquired 11 acres, including numerous rental properties that have provided Rev. Gestrich with a steady source of income over the decades. Fundraising efforts have begun in earnest to pay for the newly acquired property and the proposed new church building.

The recent purchase, from the owners of Kuhn's Quality Foods, did not come easy.

"I begged and pleaded for just the opportunity for a sit-down meeting," said Samuel Linton, Hilltop assistant minister, who helped lead efforts to buy the land. In the meantime, Rev. Gestrich set up a pulpit on the property and prayed for the transaction to take place.

Eventually, an offer was extended and accepted, and he and Mr. Linton went Downtown to complete the sale Sept. 30.

"The church was the one that got the land rezoned in the '80s, and we were just getting a little corner," said Rev. Gestrich. "Could it be that when God shut it down, he didn't want us to have a piece of the pie, but the whole pie for his work?"

Hilltop Baptist now has about 1,000 members, and the Rev. Gestrich hopes the increased visibility of a new church will help him fulfill his vision for Pittsburgh, the one that brought him here three decades ago.

"They've closed churches all over the city," he said. "We want to reopen churches all over the city."

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Harry Funk, freelance: First Published October 17, 2013 1:45 AM


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