The Spire - October 2022

From the President's Pen
by Jon Colburn

Introducing Our Seminary Intern: Suzie Hager-Bellesis

Here is where we are. As of Wednesday, August 31, Rev. Doug Patterson’s pastorate with us officially ended. His sabbatical is complete. Since Doug announced his planned retirement in July of last year, Council has been preparing to find our next pastor. In the United Church of Christ, we are not sent or given a Minister as happens in other  denominations. It is up to the local church, that is us, to find the person to fill our pulpit. As with all things UCC, there is a thoughtful and intentional process for doing this. Our process is spelled out in our by-laws. There is a two-step process. First, we seek an intentional interim minister. This person is called to help us transition to new leadership. We know we are not the same congregation we were when Doug was called. We know Pittsburgh is not the same city it was a quarter century ago. We can all agree on this. The interim will help us identify who we are now and how we might minister to today’s Pittsburgh.

Back to the by-laws. They charge Church Council with finding the interim and with the help of our Conference Minister, David Ackerman, a “call” was written for an interim: Smithfield United Church of Christ is seeking a full-time, intentional interim who has administrative experience with multiple staff in an inner-city ministry setting to be in place for September 1, 2022. We are Pittsburgh’s oldest congregation (1782), situated on a Penn Family land grant in the City’s Golden Triangle. Although relatively small in numbers, Smithfield United Church of Christ maintains a vibrant downtown ministry, hosting the Operation Safety Net Cold Weather Shelter and a well-used food pantry. We are part of the Downtown Pittsburgh Ministerium working closely with our neighboring congregations. With the retirement of our long-term Senior Minister, we are poised for leadership, ideas, and ways to uphold our mission statement, “Ours is an inclusive congregation, Open and Affirming (ONA). We are committed to oneness in Christ across all boundaries of race, ethnicity, national origin, age, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, family structure, faith background, ability, and economic circumstance.”

Well, it is September and we do not have an Interim in place. Council received 3 pastors interested in our position. Two turned us down. Number One was holding out for a full-time gig and applied to us just in case, yet we were given insight into the Search and Call process on a national level. That being; there are more churches seeking than there are Pastors looking for a Call.

The second, came to Pittsburgh and met with Council. We found them to be talented and engaging. They asked us pointed questions about our budget and our stewardship. I was personally embarrassed to have to state that we have not had a stewardship campaign in recent memory. We were turned down by Number Two because we were more than they wanted to take on at this point in their career.   By mutual agreement, Number Three was not a good fit. We had a Zoom interview that was beset with technical glitches. The candidate was forthright, almost blunt in the answers to our questions. Council was evenly split on our first impression. We asked them to come to Pittsburgh and worship with us. Council met with them after service. Again, there was great conversation. Number Three talked about the role of the Interim. That the job of the interim is to move people from their comfort zones. To get folks to think about things differently. To not accept, “but we have always done it this way” as a reasonable answer. A bad analogy was the downfall. Number Three said the roll of the interim is to smack the hornet’s nest with a stick. Church Council member, Barb Wepler was quick in her response, and I paraphrase, “A hornet’s nest is a community. We do not want to destroy our community; we want to grow it.” Making the phone call to Number Three was one of the most difficult things I’ve done as a grown up. The conversation turned out to be a positive learning experience for me. They were clear they were not the one for us and encouraged me to believe that we, Smithfield United Church of Christ, are doing the right things and are willing to ask the right question.

By-laws again. The Congregation President is charged with selecting a search committee to find a Settled Pastor. I have done that. The search committee has been meeting. Even ahead of having an Interim in place, I thought it wise to have this important committee have time to get to know one another. If I do say so myself, I think I put together a group that well represents our congregation. I will name them again: Ben Senkowicz, Jeanette Thomas, Nathan Hart, Mari Stocker, Irna Knapp, and me as ex officio. Irna will continue her support of the Search Committee from Venice, as she and Mark open a new chapter in their lives.

I have updated the interim posting, removing the September 1 date and the bit about the shelter. Because of the new year-round shelter, known as Second Ave Commons, Allegheny County notified us that they would not be using our building this coming winter. All the mattresses and other shelter related items have been removed from our lower level.

Jeff Gibbons, our Treasurer, brought to my attention a scheduled Pittsburgh City Council. One of the bills presented delt with the needs of the homeless population in Pittsburgh, identifying the need to build more transitional and permanent housing for the currently unhoused. Knowing that this will take time, the City was also seeking short term, right now solutions. I attended the meeting and spoke in the public comment part of the agenda. I said, “Good morning, I am Jon Colburn, President of the Congregation at Smithfield United Church of Christ, 620 Smithfield St, our home since 1787.

For more than 30 years, Smithfield United Church of Christ has provided shelter to the homeless population in some form or another. Bethlehem Haven started in our building.

This spring, we were informed that the Operation Safety Net Cold Winter Shelter would not be using our building this coming winter because of the construction of Second Avenue Commons.

In 2020, with funding secured with the help of the County Administrator, the Mayor’s Office, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority, life safety improvements were made to our building. For this we are grateful. With that in mind, we at Smithfield want you to know that we are open to assisting, as we are able, to be a temporary shelter facility as the City explores its options on the development of more permanent solutions to homelessness in our City.”

From the reaction of Council, they were unaware that the County would not be running the shelter out of Smithfield. Our Councilwoman, Deborah Gross told me the City had counted our bed spaces in their calculations for this winter. We may again be a place out of the cold. 

In 1924, the Elders of the German Evangelical Protestant Church signed a contract with Architect Henry Hornbostel to erect a new edifice on the corner of Smithfield St. and Strawberry Way. The cost was not to exceed $450,000.00. Adjusted for inflation, today that would be just over 7 million dollars. In 2011, this congregation engaged the architectural firm STRATA to evaluate the cast stone exterior of our building and propose interior changes to provide ADA compliant access to all parts of our building. Those costs, adjusted for inflation, are right around 10 million dollars. We are not alone. Churches all over the country are in a similar situation.

Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan is one example. A building designed by the world-famous architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White found itself in a situation not unlike ours, a dwindling membership and a crumbling building. Knowing that they were but one financial hardship away from closing their doors, they looked out to their neighbors; the businesses, the banks, the people around to find ways to work together to benefit the neighborhood. They rethought their space utilization. Who could they share their building with? What could be going on during the other six days of the week?

Out of their successful rethinking and doing, Sustainable Solutions for Sacred Sites was born. S4, for short, is a five-year Lilly Endowment funded program to produce sustainable solutions to the persistent concerns of congregations about their buildings. Problems are turned into possibilities by teaching and learning with imagination and experience.

Smithfield United Church of Christ and four other churches in Pittsburgh applied to and were selected to participate in the S4 training. Representing us are Diana Ames, John Axtell, Joel Pretz, and me. We have toured our building from boiler room to belfry, pondering additional and alternate uses for the many underutilized cubic feet of this building.

The Lectionary for September 4, when I presented this information as my message was perfect for the day. From Luke: For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost, to see if he has enough to complete it? We know our costs, and they are not all monetary. Much of what must be done is in the hands of a handful of faithful who have more than just sense of place but a sense of community. We cannot wait for a new Pastor to build community. That is not the role of a Pastor, interim or settled. It is the job of the members to build community. Think about who is attending Smithfield UCC because of you. People come to church because they are asked to come. We have a history and a future to share with our neighbors, in and around Pittsburgh.

And from Jeremiah: Just as the potter remade the vessel, God can remake us to be who we need to be in this time and in this place.

Peace,

Jon

Greetings from the desk of your associate minister, Smithfield United Church of Christ! A few years ago, a great couple after finding our church in downtown Pittsburgh asked me if the senior minister and I have any plans of retiring soon. I was rather puzzled and curious about their concern, as the couple further explained to me that they have had more than one experience of losing pastors after arriving at their prior churches. I needed to tell them that both Doug Patterson and I had worked together for 20 years, and we both were approaching retirement age, but we had no plans to retire at that time. Fast forward two years, Doug’s last day with the church was May 22, 2022, and I have the satisfaction of having not     mislead this wonderful couple.  

First, let me give thanks to God for guiding us and directing us for the last few months. I recognize the effort that our congregation president Jon Colburn has put into making things happen, efficiently handling difficult projects that our church had to encounter. Jon’s diligent work did not just start this year, he looked out for our church matters for the past 10 years as the facilities manager. Each of our staff members generously gave their time and energy to make things run smoothly during this pandemic. Many thanks to Jim, Rena, Al and Sean for caring   deeply for the church even in the midst of their difficult personal challenges. I am so happy to announce that we now have a new seminary intern, Suzie Bellisis, who found us on their own earlier this year and had joined our choir before their official time started with us. They have preached a few times, played violin and guitar.  Suzie will do an internship with us during this academic year September- May 2022-2023.

During this transition period let us explore what is a church and what we value as members and friends of this particular church? Here is a working definition: Christ as the head of the church,  we are in the process of becoming members of that one body, demonstrating Christ’s love through our missions; we commit to serving all who are around us, not just to some folks, but all the people.

I want to express my deep appreciation for you being able to support our church through your prayers, gifts, and service during this transition. Being a downtown congregation, it is difficult for us to get us all together more often. So, it’s true that Spire keeps us informed; I’m interested in knowing what you value most about our church and what you want to see retained or put in place as we explore our priorities and our values as a church.  Our church council and the search committee will be curious to see what you may have to say in formulating our future goals. 

You can reach me through my email at sucherian@verizon.net. Hope to see you at church.

Suzie Hager Bellesis is our new Seminarian Intern here at Smithfield. Suzie is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. Suzie is originally from Sterling, MA, in Worcester County, though they have lived in Pittsburgh for the last four years. They currently live in Squirrel Hill with their husband Andrew Bellesis.
Suzie received their undergraduate degree from Gordon College in Music Education with a concentration in the violin. After teaching music for several years, they received their call to ordination. Suzie is now attending the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary on track to receiving a Master's in Divinity.
Suzie loves hiking, traveling, tea, goats, and loves to play the guitar, piano, violin, and to sing. 

From the Desk of the
Associate Minister

by Rev. Dr. Susan Cherian

News From Our
Church Family

We extend our best wishes to Mark & Irna Knapp as they embark on a new chapter of their lives in Europe.  Please keep them in your prayers.

On June 12, we welcomed Arlo Richard King into the worldwide family of faith through the sacrament of Holy Baptism. Arlo is the son of Christie and Charles Richard King III.