“Faith, Race, Place” explores how Pittsburgh’s fragmented religious landscape came to be and how historical divides are being confronted in the present day.
The evening of Monday, Nov. 1, 2021, about 80 people stood on the corner of South Aiken and Centre avenues outside of First United Methodist Church. They held candles and signs with calls to action like “Black Lives Matter” and “Stop protecting property over people.”
The vigil honored Jim Rogers, a Pittsburgh man who died the day after officers repeatedly shocked him with a Taser in October. A medical examiner ruled Rogers’ death accidental, the result of a lack of oxygen to the brain.
The organizers of the vigil, members of an interchurch Wrestling with Racism group, are among those pushing officials to investigate further.
Founded about 15 years prior, Wrestling with Racism brings together members of First Church, a predominantly white church, and Warren United Methodist Church, a Black church in the Hill District. The group also includes members of a few other faith communities including Lutherans, Mennonites, Quakers, Presbyterians and Baptists.
The Wrestling with Racism group has held regular vigils for racial justice since George Floyd’s murder. They also use their voices to write letters to political leaders and national TV personalities and to discuss anti-racist books, movies and plays together.
Before COVID, they had an annual celebration where they worshiped in each other’s churches and ate meals in one another’s homes. One Sunday, First Church would close its doors, and everyone would go to Warren. The next week, it would switch.
Pastor Don Blinn Jr., who served at Warren at the time and had brought them into the Wrestling with Racism group, said he’d never seen anything like it.
“People so often feel, ‘I can’t worship any place but in my sanctuary,’” he said. He cited the biblical cry of the Israelites when they were forced into exile in Babylon: “How can we sing God’s songs in a strange land?”
Unlike Israel and Babylon, Warren and First Church are only 2 miles apart, bookending Centre Avenue. Still, the factors that have separated them — neighborhood boundaries, racism, segregation in Methodism — can make that distance seem far.
Given the two churches’ different histories, a true partnership — one where both congregations give and receive — takes intentionality. The members speak of “wrestling with racism” for a reason. The process is far from finished.
Integrating Faiths: 1968
Retired TV broadcaster Lynne Hayes-Freeland grew up at Warren Church. So did her mother and grandmother. Her great-grandmother, who was white, and great-grandfather, who was Black, married in Alabama in the 1800s — a time when interracial couples often faced discrimination or even violence. They fled to Pittsburgh in the early 1900s and soon after joined Warren, which was just down the street from them.
Hayes-Freeland was born in 1955. For her first 12 years, the Methodist Church was officially segregated. Following a merger between Methodists in the North and South in 1939, white churches like First Church belonged to regionally specific conferences. Warren was instead part of a designated Black conference, which stretched along the eastern seaboard.
The period of segregation officially came to an end in 1968, the effect of another merger. The United Methodist Church, the name the denomination still uses today, was born.
Of course, “officially” ending racial segregation at the conference level was one thing. Actually integrating white and Black congregations, or even fostering open relationships between them, was another.
“We didn’t really know how to do it,” Hayes-Freeland said.
Soon after the United Methodist Church merger, Hayes-Freeland and her family participated in an exchange program where one Black family and one white family switched churches for a series of Sundays. Hayes-Freeland was also among the first Black kids to attend the region’s Methodist summer camps.
“My mother was always big on that stuff,” she said. “So, yep, we were the family that went to Mt. Lebanon, and my sister and I were the kids that [went to]… sleepaway camp.”
These experiences were mostly unmemorable, she said, with one exception. Her first year at camp, a white child referred to her as Aunt Jemima.
“I don’t remember being traumatized then,” she said. At the time, she didn’t really know what the comment meant. A friend had to explain it to her. “But, at the same time, I think it probably was traumatic because that is my recollection of my first experience at sleepaway camp. I don’t remember the boy who said it, but I can see his face plain as day.”
As she moved into young adulthood, more churches in the conference began to host exchanges with Warren. Still, “for the longest time,” there was a sense of distance between the congregations, she said.
“There was always that distinction that, you know, these were the Black churches within the conference.”
Wrestling with Racism
When Blinn became pastor of Warren in 2014 and invited members to join the antiracism group being hosted at First Church, he encountered some skepticism.
This wasn’t the first time Warren and First Church had worked together. Church records show evidence of pulpit exchanges and fellowship dinners dating back to the 1960s. In the ’60s, they also collaborated on a project to protect Black voting rights and, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, participated in an initiative called “One Voice against Racism.”
But by the 2010s, Warren was largely an elderly congregation. “It was like, ‘We’ve done that work,’” Blinn recalled. They weren’t particularly interested in reopening old wounds or revisiting ongoing traumas, especially not with white people who were maybe encountering it for the first time.
But some Warren members did attend. The group had a breakthrough when one member suggested they switch locations, hosting their regular meetings at Warren instead of First Church. At the next meeting, the size of the group almost doubled.
John Young, a retired educator and longtime Warren member who joined Wrestling with Racism, recalled the first time he was invited to First Church years earlier. One of the questions members of First Church had asked before accepting an invite to Warren was, ‘Would it be safe?’ It showed him how far apart 2 miles could be.
Wrestling with Racism hopes to cultivate enough familiarity between the churches that members don’t feel they need an invitation to go back and forth, Young said. They advertise their events in each other’s bulletins, and some members, including Young, have started meeting each other for coffee outside of church.
“Those are the kinds of initiatives that begin to make a difference.”
Warren’s social engagement
When Young began serving in the Pittsburgh Public Schools in the 1960s and ’70s, the district assigned him to schools strategically.
His task? To “break the color code” in places that didn’t want to be integrated. He recalled once dining in the home of a white parent whose neighbor asked if she would throw away her dishes after he ate from them.
He remembered the day in the late ’60s when a riot broke out at the high school where he served, and somebody pushed the principal down a hill. At another school, a middle school, he looked out the window one day to see white people, armed with sticks, dogs and chains, waiting for the school’s Black students. This was in the mid-’70s.
Some local churches stepped in to help. Leaders talked with their members about the issues and volunteered to walk the school’s halls. Warren wasn’t one of them.
“It could have been helpful to have people from the church,” Young said. He recalls feeling similarly disappointed with Warren’s response when the AIDS epidemic was “ravaging” the Black community in the 1980s. He wanted the church to be asking, ‘What can we do?’ Instead “it was not even talked about.”
Many of the members were even community leaders. As a church body, though, they weren’t making community involvement a priority.
It wasn’t always like that. Young joined Warren in 1950 when he was 11. His family had moved to a housing project in the Upper Hill 10 years earlier. He started attending events at Warren because his friends were.
Hayes-Freeland recalled the church being a hub for political activity during her childhood. She can remember playing in the basement as the adults held civil rights meetings upstairs.
What changed? For one thing, she assessed, a gulf developed or perhaps just widened between the church and the neighborhood.
The Hill District in the early 20th century was industrial and poor. Located near the train station and affordable, thanks to the noise and pollution of industry, it had attracted waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe and then Black migrants from the South.
Once people could afford to move out, they generally did. By the mid-20th century, many Warren members did not live in the Hill District. They would commute on Sunday mornings.
Meanwhile, the urban redevelopment project of the late 1950s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination shook the Hill’s Black community. As Warren members became more established elsewhere, the church demographics resembled those of the neighborhood less.
When Hayes-Freeland had her own children, she opted to raise them in a different church.
“I wanted the same type of church Sunday School experience that I had for my kids,” she said, “and I wasn’t getting it at Warren.” She tried volunteering, but it didn’t help. “The leadership of the church wasn’t there.”
For Young and Hayes-Freeland, one of the things that is exciting about the Wrestling with Racism initiative is that it shows Warren trying once again to be socially involved.
In the last decade or so, the church has supported senior housing, a food kitchen, after-school programming and a new bike ministry that current pastor Rev. Raphael Koikoi, an avid cyclist, began.
As a younger and larger congregation, First Church makes a good partner in the quest. When conversations turn to intersectionality, for example — how identity markers like race and gender or sexuality work together — First Church can bring insights based on its LGBTQ ministry.
“The goal is to humanize all God’s children,” Blinn said.
Can Black and white churches be true partners?
For Koikoi, without confession or lament, the notion of racial reconciliation is troubling.
“For a lot of people, racial reconciliation means just forget the past and move on,” he said. “And it’s kind of difficult for me, as a person of color, as an immigrant, to forget the past when the past is so very real in the present.”
He looks around at the destruction and displacement of the Lower Hill District and the lack of neighborhood resources like supermarkets, restaurants and child care.
Before talking about racial reconciliation, “let’s deal with the violence that race has done and continues to do,” he said.
One of the things that makes the Wrestling with Racism partnership with First Church work, according to Young, is that the white members take responsibility for their learning.
“We actually had a conversation about that very early on,” said Tracy Merrick, who helped establish the group at First Church. He and other white members heard the Black members saying, “We’re tired of having to educate you white folks about this.”
They responded by committing to reading and studying on their own first, and then listening and asking questions.
The members also take action together. They understand that they are studying antiracist materials so they can be “actively involved in trying to dismantle racist policies,” Merrick said.
First Church and other white churches have also shown up for Warren in hours of financial need, Koikoi said. In recent years, they’ve taken to doing “mission work” at Warren, offering the resources for some necessary building renovations.
To Koikoi, that kind of aid feels central to the United Methodist Church’s mission. It’s one reason they’re all in a denomination together. He wishes more churches had that mentality.
Churches with endowments will talk about keeping a “rainy day fund,” he said. Meanwhile, in places like the Hill District, “it’s raining, literally, on people in their homes.”
Hayes-Freeland sees the grounds for racial cooperation embedded in the basic premises of the Christian faith.
“The challenge has always been, ‘If we are one Church and there is one God, why are we so separated?’”
Chris Hedlin is PublicSource’s faith and religion reporter. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ChristineHedlin.
This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.
Help us inform people in the Pittsburgh region with more stories like this — support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation.
Do you feel more informed?
Help us inform people in the Pittsburgh region with more stories like this — support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation.