Explore: What are the keys to inclusivity for five local faith communities?

Aishat Okunade, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, first came to the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh for the food. 

Faith, Race, Place” explores how Pittsburgh’s fragmented religious landscape came to be and how historical divides are being confronted in the present day.

It was Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, and she had been working all day. Like other Muslims around the world, she had been fasting since dawn. 

“So, yeah, it was probably hunger that brought me,” she said, laughing. She’s sitting cross-legged in the carpeted prayer room of the Islamic Center [ICP]. 

Jum’ah, the Friday prayer service, has just ended. People spill out of the ICP’s brick building, refolding into the rhythms of the city.

Across from Okunade, two of her Muslim sisters, Lorena Montana Silva and Asma Qutyan — also university students — start laughing. They all start talking at once. 

“You were hunngrryy!” Qutyan said, drawing out the word.

“Did you see us?” Montana Silva asked.

“I thought, ‘I don’t want to cook … Might as well!’” Okunade said, shrugging.

At the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, Asiya Uwimana, Aishat Okunade and Lorena Montana Silva (left to right) pray with people from all over the world as a matter of course. It “opened my eyes to how normal things might seem,” Okunade said. (Photos by Kaycee Orwing/PublicSource)

Montana Silva came to Pittsburgh from Bogotá, Colombia, to study. Qutyan and her family moved to the United States from Yemen when she was a child. 

Qutyan, like Okunade, was raised Muslim. Montana Silva converted as a young adult. After her grandmother died, she had “a bunch of questions” about the hereafter. When a friend invited her to start studying at a mosque in Bogotá, she agreed.

At the ICP, the three women’s conversation moves easily back and forth from school and work to prayers, morality and the afterlife —  a relationship rooted in the strength of their shared faith, Qutyan reflected. “So many people have, like, changed my life here,” she said.

Prior to coming to the ICP, Okunade, who is Nigerian, didn’t see many people in Pittsburgh who looked like her. Walking down the street, she could feel people sizing up her difference. 

“Wait, she’s Black, she’s female and she’s a Muslim?? Like, what is this?” she imitated, her tone joking. The women begin to laugh again. 

“It’s too much!” Okunade continued. “One at a time!” Qutyan added.

Joking aside, though, the feeling could be isolating. 

“Sometimes I have things in my mind like, ‘Oh, people would see me as a target because I’m Latina American, I’m not American, plus I’m a Muslim,’” Montana Silva said.

Aishat Okunade and Asiya Uwimana sit on the floor of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh's carpeted prayer room, talking.
“The ICP is like a second home to me. Ever since I started coming here, I just felt a connection with the masjid. I think it has a lot to do with the people,” Asiya Uwimana (right) said. (Photo by Kaycee Orwing/PublicSource)

At the ICP it was a different story. The women would pray shoulder to shoulder with Chinese, Arab, Black and Latin American Muslims as a matter of course. It “opened my eyes to how normal things might seem,” Okunade said.

On any given Friday, at least pre-COVID, there might be 700 people at the center, said Director Mohcine Eljoufri. They come from dozens of nations. 

That’s somewhat unique, Imam Chris Caras said. In a lot of masjids, or mosques, including in Pittsburgh, there’s a predominance of believers from one region or culture.

The same could be said of many local churches, synagogues, meeting halls, sanghas and temples.

Islamic Center of Pittsburgh Director Mohcine Eljoufri. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh doesn’t promote just one school of Muslim thought, Director Mohcine Eljoufri said. “We welcome everybody.” (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

So how do houses of worship like the ICP become the exception to the rule? What concrete actions do they take to make people from many different backgrounds feel at home? 

How can predominantly white houses of worship avoid tokenism? How can predominantly Black faith communities manage risk, acknowledging how Black worship spaces have served as sites for resisting oppression and building resilience?

I asked these and other questions to the leaders of five racially diverse faith communities. Here is how they described their experiences. When it comes to matters of faith and diversity, there are no universal ‘how-tos’ or quick ‘recipes for success’ — only glimpses into others’ stories.

Shiite or Sunni, ‘there’s no segregation at all.’

Imam Chris Caras said he thinks the No. 1 factor in the ICP’s diversity is its location. Surrounded by universities, the mosque attracts students and professionals from around the world.

That was true since its founding in 1989, said ICP Director Mohcine Eljoufri. The ICP started as a small group of people worshipping out of the student union at the University of Pittsburgh. As the community outgrew that space, and then another, they raised funds in 1992 to buy the current building on Bigelow Avenue, which was originally a Jehovah’s Witness Hall.

Imam Chris Caras, photographed inside the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
The cultural diversity at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh helps define its character, said Imam Chris Caras. “If there are 10 people that happen to be present for prayer, they’ll probably come from six or seven different backgrounds.” (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

A good portion of those funds came from a stroke of fortune, Eljoufri said. A wealthy dignitary from Kuwait happened to be receiving medical treatment at UPMC while they were fundraising. Once he learned of their efforts, he donated a significant sum toward the cause.

Still, location alone wouldn’t sustain the kind of global community that the ICP has. Eljoufri credits the rest to the mosque’s openness — not only to people’s cultural traditions but their religious beliefs, too.

Within Islam, there are two main subgroups: the Sunnis, which include the majority of U.S. Muslims globally, and the Shiites. The Sunni tradition can then be further subdivided into four major madhhabs, or schools of thought, Eljoufri explained. At the ICP, they welcome adherents of all Muslim faiths. 

Aishat Okunade, Asiya Uwimana and Lorena Montana Silva (left to right) gather in the prayer room at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

Although most are Sunni Muslims, they do have Shiite members, and “there’s no segregation at all,” said Asiya Uwimana, a recent nursing graduate who is on the ICP’s board of directors. 

Originally from Tanzania, Uwimana and her family came to the United States 13 years ago as refugees. Since arriving in Pittsburgh, the ICP has been “a second home” to her.

“I’ve been to other masjids where I felt like I was on the outside,” she said. That was never the case at the ICP.

In the last few years, she’s taken on a leadership role welcoming other women who are new to the community. She has a WhatsApp group chat they can join, and she plans women-only social outings like ice skating or karaoke. 

One way they foster inclusivity in the group — and at the ICP generally — is by confronting their differences openly. 

If one of the sisters is Shiite and prays differently, Uwimana said, they ask her about it — not to judge or make her feel different, but to learn and understand. 

“We make it a space for discussion,” she said.

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‘Where diversity becomes impossible is when it seems forced.’

Rev. Paul Abernathy, priest at St. Moses the Black Orthodox Church in the Hill District, stands in front of a red wall at the church.
At St. Moses the Black Orthodox Church in the Hill District, congregation members strive to “be authentically in relationship with one another,” said Rev. Paul Abernathy, priest of the church and CEO of the Neighborhood Resilience Project. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Rev. Paul Abernathy, priest at St. Moses the Black Orthodox Church in the Hill District, recalls a joke he heard a comedian tell about Black people going into white churches.

The Black person is just trying to enjoy a nice worship service. The white people, on the other hand, are so overjoyed at having a ‘diverse’ person in their midst that they can’t leave him be. 

“They’re saying, ‘Here, come on, you can preach now!’ and putting him up there,” Abernathy said. He finds the joke very funny. The experience, less so.

“What I’ve experienced in some churches, it’s really tokenism,” he said.

“We don’t talk so much about going to get more Black people,” or white people, or Latinx or Asian people, he said. “What we do try to do is be authentically in relationship with one another.”

Rev. Paul Abernathy

The opposite of that — and what they work to achieve at St. Moses the Black, he said — is authenticity.

“We don’t talk so much about going to get more Black people,” or white people, or Latinx or Asian people, he said. “What we do try to do is be authentically in relationship with one another.”

Abernathy helped start St. Moses the Black Orthodox Church in 2016. Five years earlier, he had founded the Neighborhood Resilience Project, then called Focus Pittsburgh, which was dedicated to trauma-informed community care. 

As he worked with people experiencing issues like homelessness, food insecurity and gun violence, he realized they had unmet spiritual needs.

“Spiritual pain requires spiritual healing,” he said. With support from the Orthodox Christian community, St. Moses the Black was born. The church was a reflection of the community. People with Ph.D.s and high school diplomas, criminal records and Eagle Scout awards all worshipped together.

Abernathy senses that a key challenge facing congregations in their commitments to diversity is to keep seeing each other as individuals first — to look across the table and say, “I’m talking to Joe,” not “I’m talking to an Asian man,” for example.

“That’s really what the work is, you know?” he said. “To be authentic, to see people as children of God [and] to want to be in communion with people to celebrate that.”

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‘All I can say is this is who God called us to be.’

Pastor Alan Hannah of the Allegheny Center Alliance Church on the North Side preaches during a recent Saturday evening service. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)
Pastor Alan Hannah of the Allegheny Center Alliance Church on the North Side preaches during a recent Saturday evening service. “A church should not be a country club for its members; it should be a hospital for its community,” he said. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

For Pastor Alan Hannah of the Allegheny Center Alliance Church [ACAC] on the North Side, a church’s nature is defined first by its relationship to its neighbors.

“A church should not be a country club for its members; it should be a hospital for its community,” he said.

In the early stages of ACAC’s 127-year history, the neighborhood was mostly white, and the church was mostly white. Then the neighborhood diversified, and the church was still mostly white: White members would drive in from the suburbs on Sunday mornings.

When Hannah’s predecessor, Pastor Rock Dillaman, came to the church in 1984, he was determined to change that. After leading the church members through a period of repentance, he began pushing them out into the neighborhood. 

“There was intentionality, even in the Bible, when it came to caring for those of different ethnicities.”Pastor Alan Hannah

The church body slowly changed. “And it’s still a work in progress,” Hannah said. Today the congregation is about 50% white, 40% Black and 7% Asian, Latinx and other races. 

If churches pursue diversity for its own sake, that’s just tokenism, Hannah said. At ACAC, their motivation is biblical. 

“The very first church was a diverse church,” Hannah said, pointing to the story of Pentecost, where people who are from different nations and speak different languages come together. 

“There was intentionality, even in the Bible, when it came to caring for those of different ethnicities.”

At the same time, Hannah recognizes that diversity is not something to be prideful about. He’d never assume that because ACAC is diverse they are living biblically and another more racially homogenous church is not. For one thing, churches tend to reflect their neighborhoods. Segregated housing — the result of redlining, white flight and income inequality — can easily result in segregated churches.

Then, too, predominantly Black churches or Chinese churches or others who are targets of racism may seek to preserve that cultural space for a reason. ‘Diversity’ is not an equally safe goal for all faith communities.

For all of these reasons, Hannah said, he doesn’t see the ACAC’s story as something prescriptive.

“All I can say is this is how God has called us to be.”

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‘I’m a Black pastor, but our church is not a Black church.’ 

Pastor Justin Louis Murrell speaks at New Culture Church on Saturday, January 22.
Rev. Justin Louis Murrell speaks at New Culture Church on Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. He and his spouse Rev. Candice Williams-Murrell founded New Culture Church in Elliott in 2019. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

Rev. Justin Louis Murrell has yet to preach in a suit. He has preached a few times in sweats and a hoodie.

“On purpose,” he said. There’s a pause. “Or maybe because we were running late, and we have twins.” He grins. “But I digress.”

When Murrell and his spouse Rev. Candice Williams-Murrell started New Culture Church in Elliott in 2019, they were focused on breaking down barriers that would keep people out. That included expectations about dress.

“Church can be intimidating to some people,” Williams-Murrell said. Growing up in a multiracial, interfaith household, she knew what it was like to navigate an unfamiliar religious space: She had seen her Jewish mother “thrown into this culture of church.”

The Murrells have sought to break down expectations about Christianity and race.

“I’m a Black pastor, but our church is not a Black church,” Murrell said. “We’re very intentional about that.”

Many families in the congregation are interracial, and some members, like Williams-Murrell, are biracial. It quite literally keeps them from seeing the world in terms of black and white.

Members of New Culture Church in Elliott pray together during a worship service in January 2022. (Photos by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

“There are lots of different nuances that I think we have come to appreciate,” Williams-Murrell said.

For them, fostering an inclusive church environment is foremost about humility — about having the courage to say “this is out of our wheelhouse” or “we don’t understand, and we need to educate ourselves,” Murrell said. 

Murrell and his spouse have been thinking about this a lot in relation to LGBTQ identity. They have long believed that to be LGBTQ-affirming runs counter to the values of “traditional Christianity.” 

“Church can be intimidating to some people,” said Rev. Candice Williams-Murrell, pastor of New Culture Church. At New Culture, they work to break down barriers that keep people out. (Photos by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

But they also realize that they aren’t part of the LGBTQ community, and they don’t know many people who are. So, when given chances to talk with people who are LGBTQ-affirming, they want to have that conversation. 

“We’re willing to be vulnerable, and we’re willing to look like newbies or fish out of water,” he said.

Where churches go astray, he said, is when they lose that authenticity, that genuine commitment to knowing and learning from one another. As a Black man, he senses some people like the idea of him — or the idea of themselves as a “diverse” community — more than they actually value and respect him as a person.

“And you have to ask yourself, ‘Do you love Black people? Or do you love diversity?’”

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‘They weren’t gonna go to the suburbs like everyone else.’

Rev. Randall K. Bush stands wearing a black robe and multicolored stole in the front of the ornate East Liberty Presbyterian Church sanctuary
In 2011, East Liberty Presbyterian Church added a commitment to “radical hospitality” to their mission statement. “To be radically hospitable means that you invite people in so that you can hear their story,” said Rev. Randall K. Bush, the senior pastor. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

In 2011, East Liberty Presbyterian Church added a line to their mission statement, voicing their commitment to “radical hospitality” as a congregation.

For Rev. Randall K. Bush, the church’s senior pastor, the word ‘radical’ was important.

“Lots of churches can put on their sign, ‘Everyone is welcome,’ and they don’t necessarily mean it,” Bush said. They mean, ‘You’re welcome if you look and behave like us.’ 

Bush wanted to make clear that, they were interested in really learning from people, including people of all races, genders and sexual orientations.

“To be radically hospitable means that you invite people in so that you can hear their story,” he said, “and then together decide, ‘How can we walk together towards a common goal?’”

The East Liberty Presbyterian Church [ELPC] began more than 200 years ago when the children of two prominent white families got married and donated the land where the church was built. The congregation built four buildings on that land within the first 85 years.

In 1930, the Mellon family reached out to the church’s leaders: They wanted to build a cathedral on the land in honor of their mothers. The leaders begrudgingly agreed. (They were worried about maintenance costs.)

The architect “pretty much had a blank check,” Bush said. The final product, still in use today, took a whole city block. It had a bowling alley and basketball courts. The ushers for Sunday worship services wore tuxedos.

“Even into the ’50s,” Bush said, the church was “largely white and affluent.”

Then East Liberty began to change. An urban redevelopment project scattered much of the neighborhood’s business district, and new Section 8 housing prompted widespread white flight.

The congregation decided to keep the church in the neighborhood. Part of their motivation may have been the building. 

The large sanctuary of East Liberty Presbyterian Church. Photo is taken looking down the aisle between the pews toward the altar with large stained glass windows behind it. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)
East Liberty Presbyterian Church’s current building was constructed in the 1930s, a project funded by the Mellon family. At first, the congregation was mostly white and affluent, Rev. Randall K. Bush said. Since then, they have been intentional about becoming more inclusive and attuned to the neighborhood’s needs. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

“I mean, they’re not going to pick up a giant cathedral,” Bush said. “They weren’t gonna go to the suburbs like everyone else.”

But they also began consciously connecting with the emerging neighborhood. The pastor at the time became an outspoken civil rights and labor activist. The congregation started a homeless shelter, food bank and after-school tutoring program. They made sure the church was open more.

“People knew if they needed to use the restroom, if they had to use a phone, if there was an emergency, they could come into the church,” Bush said. The seeds were planted. They slowly began to diversify.

Today they’re intentional about trying to sustain that diversity, Bush said, even as East Liberty is again becoming whiter. They make sure their staffing choices, sermons, special events and budget lines express their values.

“You have to do the unspoken things,” he said. “But then you still have to pair that with the spoken things.”

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Chris Hedlin is PublicSource’s faith and religion reporter. She can be reached at chris@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ChristineHedlin

This story was fact-checked by Katelyn Vue.

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Chris Hedlin is a reporter for PublicSource focusing on religion. She comes to PublicSource through the American Council of Learned Societies’ Leading Edge Fellowship program, which pairs scholars of...