Staff Reflections

  1. A Word of Thanks from Pastor Heather

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    tunney-rev-heather_200x240I wish to offer a word of thanks to the ELPC Session, staff and members for the opportunity to take a one-month sabbatical in November, with the remaining two months to be taken in July and August.

    I am honored to have been elected to serve Pittsburgh Presbytery as Sr. Vice Moderator in 2016, even though the responsibilities connected to this role would interfere with my ability to take three months off together as originally planned. I am grateful for Pastor Randy’s creative thinking, Session’s permission to split up my sabbatical, everyone’s collective planning to ensure coverage while I was off. I’m deeply grateful to both staff and volunteers who stepped up to cover my responsibilities during my absence—particularly Pastor Randy, Pastor Patrice, Sara Hackett, Wil Forrest, Gloria Knopp, and Mark Blank.

    Finally, I’m grateful that our congregation offers installed pastors three months of sabbatical after seven years of service. It’s hard for me to believe I’ve completed eight years of ministry here (and counting!), and I remain blessed to serve such a dynamic, loving, welcoming congregation, alongside gifted and caring staff. It is a privilege to be a part of this faith family!

  2. A Letter to Delta Foundation

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    Delta Foundation,

    The staff, Session and LGBTQIA Ministry of East Liberty Presbyterian Church join their voices with many others who are grieved by the decision of the Delta Foundation to contract with singer Iggy Azalea for the 2015 Pittsburgh Pride concert. The fact that the selected performer has publicly offended LGBTQIA and people of color within our community is a serious breech of our safety and solidarity as a community. This isn’t about her style of music, her race or gender. This is about her inability to embrace the community for which she has been asked to perform. If she cannot do that, she should not be performing at Pride. Her racist, homophobic, transphobic, and discriminatory comments have no place within a community that values diversity and respect for all. Iggy Azalea has demonstrated an inability to embrace the community for which she has been asked to perform. Therefore, it is wrong and painful to have her performing at this year’s Pride.

    East Liberty Presbyterian Church has been a proud and active participant in Pride since it was held in the park on the Northside, when the GLCC was still organizing the event. Our participation was incredibly significant for us because as a congregation we were taking a public stance on welcoming the LGBTQIA community to worship and to membership at a time when our denomination did not. We were celebrating our understanding of God’s love for ALL individuals.

    It has taken years of denominational struggle to win inclusion within our church. Today we celebrate that our denomination has voted to allow LGBTQIA individuals to serve in congregations in an ordained capacity, to allow clergy to perform same-gender weddings, and most recently to change the definition of marriage to a commitment between two people rather than specific to man-woman.

    Our congregation continues to search for ways to demonstrate our commitment to full inclusion. We have taken a pledge, which says in part, “We will seek to stop jokes and unkind language about anyone, including LGBTQIA persons, when spoken in our presence. Words that hurt and bigotry are not funny. We will speak out against slander, debasement, lies or dehumanization of anyone, even when spoken by political or religious leaders.”

    Pride is not just entertainment. It is a celebration for all of us. Each organization represented at Pride has gone through similar struggles and deserves to be a respected part of the celebration. It grieves us that some members of our community, including members of our own congregation, have been so offended by the hurtful words of Iggy Azalea, and Delta’s lack of empathy, that they do not want to attend Pride. We honor their decision to express their woundedness and voice their protest in this way. We likewise affirm the dignity and worth of all members of the LGBTQIA community, and remain committed to working together toward the authentic full inclusion of all.

    Despite the divisiveness this decision is causing, after prayerful consideration East Liberty Presbyterian Church will participate in the Pride March and have a booth at Pridefest. We see a distinction between the concert and the public witness of the parade. We will use our presence at the latter event as an opportunity to speak out for the disenfranchised and to proclaim the dignity and respect each person deserves. We will continue to offer a gospel message of inclusion, welcome and hope for people pushed to the margins for too long. However, we will actively demonstrate our opposition to Delta’s decision to invite Iggy Azalea as we march in the parade and staff our church’s booth. Pride’s public witness is too important to allow it to be compromised by the message of an ill-spoken performer.

    We also seek reconciliation of our community members, seeking a constructive conversation with Delta Foundation leadership including all members of our LGBTQIA community represented at the table. We seek to be a partner in this process and pray for reconciliation for our community.

  3. Pastoral Prayer for Ferguson, MO

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    It is important to speak a word about the recent grand jury decision in Ferguson, MO. First, it is sad to think how few congregations are likely commenting in worship on the recent events in Ferguson. It is a big part of the problem if people of faith are not talking honestly about the lingering sin of racism in America. Second, the strategy of releasing all the data and testimony after the Ferguson trial served its purpose of deflecting the country from the real issues at stake. The appearance of legality is not the same thing as the presence of justice. The fundamental issue had less to do with Michael Brown and Darren Wilson and much more to do with a persistent pattern of socially accepted violence against people of color, and whether or not the criminal justice system can be trusted. Using lethal force against unarmed African Americans must stop being the default response of police officers.

    Riot police stand guard as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri

    Lastly, the riots and anger over the flawed non-decision against Darren Wilson are symptoms of a larger dissatisfaction – of mothers tired of fearing for their sons’ safety or grieving over their untimely deaths, and of families caught in the modern Jim Crowism of unfair educational systems, unfair employment opportunities, and prejudicial criminal justice laws ensuring that people of color remain shackled and hamstrung generation after generation. Protectors of white privilege will always find reasons to blame the victim. People of faith need to find the courage to say “No more” as part of our faith in Jesus Christ, a man of color executed after a flawed grand jury trial long ago.

    In seeking that courage, let us now join together in a time of prayer. Let us pray.

    Merciful God, you call us to goodness and open our eyes to see the paths of righteousness we should walk by faith. You encourage us to look for the signs of your coming and to keep watch. As we wait, we pray for this world that needs your saving power.

    We pray for people living in nations at war – and we pray against those who choose to profit through supplying weapons or spreading messages of hatred.

    We pray for people who suffer from violence in the streets or in their homes – and we pray against laws that intentionally discriminate, policies that are unjust and oppressive, and social complacency that shrugs off mothers weeping over their dead sons.

    We pray for those who are ill, captive to disease or despair – and we pray against barriers to compassionate health care for all, and against advertisers hawking products that only lead to bodily harm or corrupting the image of God in each person.

    We pray for those who have never heard of your rescuing love and those who have lost hope – even as we pray against the practices within the church that distort the gospel you entrusted to us and against the gospel of Mammon outside the church that sacrifices bodies and souls on the altar of the pursuit of wealth.

    We pray for ourselves, for our children, our parents, our families, friends and neighbors – both here and around the world. May we work in confidence for your coming reign, living Lord, that we may greet you with joy on the great day of your healing of the world. Through Christ, we pray. Amen.

    ferguson-missouri-22

     

     

  4. Stumbling Blocks of Faith

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    Stolpersteine

    How do we remember painful things? That question seems backwards, because we typically try not to think about painful things. We work hard at forgetting bad memories and tell ourselves we should “move on” instead of dwelling on the negative moments in our lives. But some things are not easily forgotten. And, in truth, sometimes it is only in remembering and reflecting on the dark moments of life that we can find the faith and strength to walk forward into the light.

    The sidewalks in many cities in Germany are made out of paving stones – gray slate pounded into the sand and clay to form a beautiful, yet uneven, walking surface beside the houses. Recently a different type of stone has been appearing in these walkways – a stone covered in hard brass and engraved with painful information. It will have a name etched into it with an inscription noting that this person used to live near here before losing her or his home and life during the time of the Nazi regime. Often it will list the concentration camp in which the person died – Dachau, Buchenwald, Auschwitz. What is interesting to me is that the German word for these pavement memorials is “stolpersteine,” which means “stumbling blocks.”

    Stolpersteine 1

    No one thinks fondly about stumbling blocks. They literally trip us up, slow us down, and can be painful. Yet they serve a purpose. They make us stop and reflect – to look back to see what we’ve stumbled over – and, in this case, to remember a part of our shared history that we are too prone to hurry past and forget. Walking past a building and knowing that once a family dwelt there who lost their lives unjustly means that you never take that building for granted again. Nor do you take for granted the freedoms that have protected your own life thus far.

    As individuals and as a society, we often stumble. We carry our scars with us and our painful memories within us. But there is value in remembering from whence we’ve come and the ways we have wandered away from what is just and righteous and true. For after we pause to remember our lives’ “stolpersteine,” we then walk forward by faith – grasping once more the Savior’s extended hand that bears a scar formed by human violence – a Savior who graciously picks us up whenever we stumble and who shows us a better way.

    We’ll talk more about this on Sunday, October 2 – World Communion Sunday – 11:00 am worship – East Liberty Presbyterian Church.

    – Randy Bush

     

  5. “I Love Jesus, But…”

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    Several years ago, Ellen DeGeneres had a great conversation with an older woman in Austin, Texas named Gladys. You can watch the YouTube video here now, if you wish.

    The question is asked: What should I do to lead a Christian life? The bible answers that question in several places. Romans 12 gives a long list describing the life of believers: Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; contribute to the needs of the saints, extend hospitality to strangers; and so on. If that’s too general, there’s the long parable at the end of Matthew 25: I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me something to drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you gave me clothing, sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me. That may still feel like too long a list, so Jesus, at the Last Supper, condensed everything down to one, new commandment found in John 13: Love one another. As I have loved you, you should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

    At some point, though, the focus shifted from how we live our life with others to how we live our lives by ourselves. Christian faith became equated with morality. Suddenly being Christian was less about the love we show and more about the long list of things we are not supposed to do. If you’re a Christian, now you’re told you can’t smoke, you can’t drink, you can’t say cuss words, you can’t wear white pants after Labor Day. Over the years, we just kept adding things to the “Do not do” list. As a Christian, you can’t ever do drugs, be an addict, look at porn, be divorced or gay, be a felon or depressed or have suicidal thoughts. We ignored what Christians are supposed to do, as described in Romans 12, Matthew 25, and John 13, and only focused on a checklist of what not to do as our standard for Christian faith.

    Which means we end up with a whole lot of people like Gladys in the world, who confess, “I love Jesus, but (blank) – I drink a little, I smoke, I cuss, I mess up.” That’s a hard place to be in. It’s hard to look in the mirror of faith and say to yourself, “I love Christ, but I do this or that so that must mean I am not a real Christian.” So we feel outside the church and distant from God.

    When statements like that emerge in counseling sessions, I’ll often ask the person “Whom do you hear speaking those words of disapproval to you?” Who is saying, “You have no worth in God’s eyes because you drink, you smoke, you’re not successful, you’re not morally pure and perfect”? Sometimes they’ll tell me that they learned this lesson in church or read it somewhere in the bible. Now friends, I love y’all but, bless your hearts, you don’t listen to 90% of what is said in church or really know everything that’s in the bible. More than likely it wasn’t the church that told you “don’t do this” or “don’t do that.” It likely wasn’t the church that said, “Stop doing that or you’ll go blind” – it was more than likely some kid on the playground or a very misguided camp counselor or your crazy aunt Zelda. And even if by chance you did hear something like that from the pulpit, the bottom line is that most, if not all of humanity, exists on the wrong side of that moral equation – smoking, drinking, cussing, cavorting, lying, full of shame for what they’ve done or fearful that the world will know the truth about them and know they’re not good Christians.

    Let’s be honest: there are some things you can do that undermine whether or not you truly love Jesus. To say, “I love Jesus, but I hate (blank) – I hate the Irish or Turks or immigrants or Jews or Muslims” – are contradictory statements. To claim to love Jesus but to be guided by passions that are abusive, violent, or wish the destruction of others, those two phrases cannot be logically combined. But that’s an extreme case. What about the vast majority of us who seek to be faithful, but at times feel unworthy to be called Christian for a variety of reasons?

    The short answer is this: None of us are outside the care or love of God. Neither Gladys nor you or I need see ourselves as we are reflected in the world’s moralistic eyes. Our self-examination and life of faith always begins by seeing ourselves reflected in the eyes of Christ. In that loving glance from our Savior, we need not be hesitant or pull back from a life of faith because of our failings. More importantly, in that loving glance of Christ’s, we know what we are to do and how we are to live wherever the journey of life takes us and we know that we won’t be alone. Then Gladys’ phrase is changed. It now becomes, “I love Jesus, and…”

     

  6. ELPC Receives Equality Award

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    The Dignity & Respect Champion is… East Liberty Presbyterian Church!
    (July 2014 award from the Dignity & Respect Campaign of Vibrant Pittsburgh)

    East Liberty Presbyterian Church (ELPC) has long been called the “Cathedral of Hope” and its pastors strive to be a beacon of compassion and hospitality to all people. The Reverend Dr. Randy Bush, along with his fellow pastors – Rev. Patrice Fowler-Searcy, Rev. Heather Schoenewolf, and Rev. Mary Lynn Callahan – endeavors to create an environment where everyone is welcomed and valued regardless of race, culture, ability, socioeconomic status, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

    ELPC Pastoral Staff
    East Liberty is a vibrant neighborhood in the midst of redevelopment and change, adding to its mix of people from all backgrounds. This change is not new to the neighborhood, as it’s been happening for decades. During the late 1960’s moving forward into the 1970’s, urban renewal pushed East Liberty into transition and decay leaving the community divided and searching for hope. However, throughout these chaotic years, East Liberty Presbyterian Church remained as a force for good in the community. The church became an anchor of support by providing the community with soup kitchens, homeless shelters, educational programs, and services open to people from all faiths and backgrounds.

    As the years progressed into the new millennium, the church began to take an even more proactive stance in the community, as the pastors do not shy away from advocating for issues of equity, equality, social justice, and peace. In the midst of the current redevelopment in the neighborhood, the pastors have taken on leadership roles in the community to be sure the community plan was implemented and to stave off gentrification.

    East Liberty Presbyterian Church has opened their arms for all to worship including, the LGBTQ community. Pastor Randy and his colleagues have been supporters of the community and advocates for full marriage equality. Additionally the church has also done a lot of outreach into the small, but growing Latino community, even conducting portions of the services in Spanish. The pastors take their mission of welcoming all people and celebrating their differences very seriously. This mission is lived out loud, not just spoken.

    When asked what we can do better as a society to assure all people are included and differences are valued, Pastor Randy states, “Every church billboard may say ‘all are welcome’ but that isn’t always apparent in the actions of the congregation. We rejoice in welcoming all people here at ELPC.”

    Nicole Molinaro Karaczun, who nominated the pastors for this honor said, “The pastors at East Liberty Presbyterian Church don’t just say the words inclusion and diversity; they breathe life into them with behavior and action. The church consistently works to advance issues around social and economic justice, making sure all people are included and cared for. I love attending a church that welcomes everybody and advocates for all people to live with equality, justice, and love.”

  7. What Your Front Yard Says About You

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    Our church’s front yard is different now. The rain garden project is basically finished. After the hard winter we had last year, we are making sure that the newly planted grass plugs, bushes and trees have taken hold. So far the rainfall absorption system seems to be working well, which is good since that means far less rainwater flows into the city sewage system. But the difference in the front yard is not just about the new plantings.

    The prior landscaping on Penn Avenue consisted of a formal yard trimmed with a solid stone border. It looked postcard-perfect from a distance but it was functionally unwelcoming up close. Now we have broken that stone border with a series of benches and tables. As people wait for the bus or simply pause on their way up and down Penn Avenue, they can sit on benches provided for them. They talk; they eat; they interact with other passer-bys. Most importantly, they transform the church’s front yard into a community space. Our building now has a living, active link to the neighborhood, modeling a renewed and faithful spirit of hospitality.

    ELPC Front Yard

    We may not meet the people who pause in our front yard. But I trust they will enjoy the plantings around them and I hope that they will look kindly upon our building as a place that valued them and literally offered them a seat in the shadow of our cathedral walls.

    I believe churches too often view their front yards as something designed only to look nice as people come into their buildings. Yet, front yards are actually the point of contact between the church and the community. What are other ways church yards can embody the love of Christ and make real our commitment to mission, radical hospitality, and God’s commission to go out into the world? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  8. Radical Hospitality at ELPC

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    Most churches have written on their sign out front or in their bulletin that “All are Welcome” with the best of intentions. However, just being inviting is only a start to making all God’s people feel welcomed in our churches.

    LGBTQ individuals have faced generations of being excluded from the life of the church and, by extension, from a Christian relationship with God. We have been ignored, condemned, excluded and persecuted all supposedly in the name of Christianity. It takes courage to for an LGBTQ person to walk through the doors of a church, any church, including our church. Why would it be different at ELPC than in most other houses of worship? Well, it is different here. We seek to reflect God’s inclusive love to all of God’s people.

    To demonstrate our radical hospitality it helps to have a visual reminder …something that we can actually show our welcoming love to one another and clearly to those who visit. Being that the rainbow flag is the most recognized symbol of LGBTQ support and inclusion, we have asked the congregation to consider wearing a rainbow ribbon while at ELPC. Both gay and straight individuals wear this ribbon as a witness of support and inclusion.

    In the pews at ELPC you will find a bookmark with a rainbow ribbon attached to the top. One side of the bookmark offers a pledge you are asked to consider before wearing the ribbon. The other side offers some information about our new LGBTQ Ministry at ELPC. This ribbon and this ministry is for all of us, regardless of orientation. Those who have a nametag already may prefer to have a rainbow sticker instead, so they will be available by the hanging nametags both at Journey and in the Narthex.

    The rainbow ribbons will be available for those who want to show their support. They will be there for visitors. They will be there in the pews and on our shirts as a public witness to our visitors and to one another that at ELPC all people are welcomed and loved and that God’s love excludes no one.

    Blessings!
    Wil Forrest

  9. Be an Actor

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    God has shown you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you?

    To act justly, and to love mercy,
    and to walk humbly with God?

    – Micah 6:8

    It is central to the Christian faith that God desires a world in which justice is done.  However, the past hundred years have revealed the scale of injustice in the world to be greater than anyone had previously imagined.  Global forces that are deeply unfair determine the destiny of the world’s poorest people and cause damage to the planet’s environment.  War and suffering follow.  This has led to a planet on which, every eight seconds, a child in the developing world dies from diarrhea because his or her community has dirty water.  And in our own country, each day three gay teenagers commit suicide because of being rejected and bullied.

     

    What do you think God sees when God looks at our world?

    Striving for justice, particularly for the world’s poorest people, is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  The good news he came to announce was that suffering and oppression could be brought to an end.  The challenge Christians face is to have a personal way of life that does not add to the world’s problems.  This means adopting a simple lifestyle in which the world’s resources are not wasted, buying goods that have been fairly traded (like Cafe Justo coffee), and changing habits that damage the environment.  This requires our active participation, not sitting back and hoping for justice.  How do you participate in God’s justice in this world?  God calls us to act justly.  Let’s get moving!