Introducing Terry Gibson: Ten years ago, religion and family pushed this Florida native to break ground in a new city he’d never visited. Listen to his description of Pittsburgh’s “unfiltered” religious identity, takeaways from his time here and his wishes for the city’s future.
Jourdan: So how does Pittsburgh land for someone who has no connection to the city? No deep family lineage, no job, no roots. They just up and come to Pittsburgh. No reference point for what it’s going to be like.
So I sold everything I had and jumped on a Greyhound bus with a backpack and a duffel bag and moved up to Pittsburgh.
Jourdan: Especially if that person is someone who was a man and who was Black at the same time.
Terry: My younger brother was in Pittsburgh, he was going to the Art Institute and studying culinary arts. And the house he was staying in has like a spare room, and that was mine. That’s how I ended up in Pittsburgh.
Jourdan: I’m assuming it’s your first time in Pittsburgh?
Terry: My very first time in Pittsburgh. Never seen the city before. Don’t know nothing about it. Come through to the Greyhound station and just drive up through uptown and through Oakland and into East Liberty. And was in awe of the city.
Jourdan: This is Terry Gibson. Twelve years ago, he was living in Florida and going to school, seminary school, to become a pastor. Hanging out on the beach, enjoying the sun, the seafood right from the ocean, going to the beach, hanging out, et cetera, et cetera. He says it was how the rest of his class, people who were attending pastor school as well in Florida, that encouraged him to move to a different city, to try something new and to figure out what he wanted to do different with his life because being in Florida was not it.
Terry: Sometimes when I think about my experiences in Florida, I kinda think about “12 Years a Slave.” Like I lived there for 12 years, and then I was like, it was time for me to go. After those 12 years, I need to go. I had a lot of tension between the church, and so I worked in a bar and was seeing like the people I was going to church with, I was seeing at the bar. And so it was just kind of like, I don’t know if I just want to stay in this community and stay doing these same things over and over again. And I think another thing about being in Florida, I was just hanging out on the beach like way too much. Even when I left the church, a lot of my time was just kind of spent chilling.
Jourdan: Spoiler alert. Terry eventually moves to Holyoke, Massachusetts, which is in western Massachusetts, and becomes a cultural and field organizer for Neighbor to Neighbor, which is a political power building organization. This isn’t one of those, I came to Pittsburgh. I’ve lived here for 20 years and I’ve decided to raise my family here, and these are my stories. But he did spend a decade here, and that’s a nice slice of time. You know what I mean? So here’s our conversation and more about what Terry knows to be true for sure about the future of the city from his perspective as a transplant. He talks about attending seminary here. The spiritual characteristics of the city. How the city could lead someone to have such foundational experiences like his that shaped his life. And I hope that you like it.
Terry: So when I first moved there, you could go, if you was a Black Pittsburgher, you could hang out at the Shadow Lounge all the time and be a part of that scene. You know what I mean? If you was a Black Pittsburgher who drank beer or worked in the breweries, which I did, then you might end up being a bike punk and you end up on that scene. So it was a city of scenes, and I am a little bit of a mix of all of that. And so I think some folks want you to be loyal to this scene. You this scene through and through. That’s not me. You know what I mean? I’m willing to hang out in Polish Hill with some friends over there, and like a couple of hours later be on the North Side hanging out with some folks over there. I was moving around the city and I wasn’t just going to be, and I was also from East Liberty, so they tell me I’m not supposed to cross bridges and I’m over here on the North Side. You know what I mean? So that’s me, you know, and that’s why I couldn’t really gel too much with the Pittsburgh way of doing things, because I couldn’t be married to just one scene, you know?
Jourdan: Terry and I spoke extensively about how his identity as a transplant really inspired his outlook on how these scenes in Pittsburgh operated. The punk scene, the bike scene, the Black art scene and the rules of engagement that kept these scenes thriving but very much separate. You know, just because Pittsburgh is the City of Bridges doesn’t mean that Pittsburghers actually cross those bridges. But on the other hand, there are certain icons that we use and hold up in this city as true blue Pittsburgh things that as a community, as a city, we fully embrace and we fully possess them and we allow them to possess us. For example, ketchup. Outside of the Pittsburgh Steelers, it may be one of the most iconic cultural productions of this city, of the region, right? Like we own ketchup, Heinz is Pittsburgh, we are Pittsburgh. We embrace the Heinz brand. But Heinz is a company. The Pittsburgh Steelers is a company. The Pittsburgh Penguins, a company. PPG, a company. Outside of these companies that have added to the Pittsburgh identity and who we are. What does Pittsburgh stand for?, What do we possess?, What do we own?, What do we stand up and defend? That is not a company, that is of the people for the people?. When you own something, when you possess something, you take care of it, you manage it. And from what Terry was saying, there seemed to be a conflict in how people actually showed ownership and possession and responsibility and care for the things that they say they care about and own in and stand by and identify with. So what I wanted to know was inside of it what he was saying,. Was there a call to action for people to truly stand up and take ownership over the things that they say they identify with? And they use to identify themselves with.
Terry: I think for me, maybe I didn’t have the courage enough to try to make this city or be a part of the change in the city in the way that I wanted it to be. Maybe that was something on me, but I definitely encourage Pittsburghers that live there now to to be courageous and make those changes. I feel like, kind of what we talking about is what’s the narrative of Pittsburgh, right? For example, that whole yinz and jagger bush, that’s not Black Pittsburgh, right? And like, so you might be somebody outside of Pennsylvania who’s like, “Oh, do you say yinz?” I mean the same thing happens here in Massachusetts,? You know what I mean? Most folks here hear you’re up in Massachusetts, . Most folks are like, “Oh, they parked the car in Harvard Yard and have got.” Actually, that’s only like Southie, like Irish folks that talk like that, and not very many people do, but for some reason, this is how the city is actually defined. So you’re in this position. This is how the states’ defined, the so you’re in this position where you can like redefine this. This city, this place, these neighborhoods, this community for yourself. And I also think that the old guard is dying off, you know what I mean and the old guard is recognizing that the newer generation has the strong voice, has those very progressive ideas that are going to move the city forward. And they’re going to have to lean into it eventually, Right?. And I just say, put yourself in those positions, in those spaces and, in places where they’re so that they’re hearing you now, You know what I mean? And seeing where you coming from now.? And and again, shift that narrative. work to shift that narrative. I think we talked about how how, though Pittsburgh is a very like on paper, by the numbers, a white city, it’s still a very Black city because Black history is still very rich there. You know, what I mean? and Black folks flocked there, fled there, moved there, lived there and thrived there and built there and grew there. That story, that narrative got bulldozed, got covered up, got covered in plywood, you know what I mean, and was full of asbestos and spiders and stray cats, you know what I mean?, like. But real talk. I mean, but that’s still our our story, You know what I mean? Black Pittsburgh’s story.?
Jourdan: When we speak about the Pittsburghese accent, the point that I think that is being made is. If something is just the identity of white Pittsburghers or a certain group of Pittsburghers, then it cannot inherently be a Pittsburgh thing. Universal Pittsburgh thing. Universal Pittsburgh identity. It”s just a thing that a group of people do in Pittsburgh. So Pittsburghese is not the official language or tongue of Pittsburgh. It’s just how some people talk here.
Jourdan: Okay, so earlier you were saying you spent some time in seminary and you studied how early Christians were doing community. How were they doing community? How would you say you experience Pittsburgh as community or like how, what was the Pittsburgh way of doing community? I’m curious in that comparison.
Terry: So I guess the contrast compare is like more from what I was studying in the early church compared to what Pittsburgh the city was doing and what I was learning in that space. What I loved and what will stick with me forever is those lessons that came out of that seminary out of that Christian space, because what I learned was that these monks they were setting up there was nuns as well. So it was like convents and monasteries that were being set up like 100 A.D. after Christ died 100 years after Christ died. So that’s not very long. You know what I mean? That’s not like today’s church. These are folks that were looking at the world, looking at the times and saying, I don’t want to be whatever this is, whatever this is, I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to be capitalist. I don’t want to be greedy. I don’t want I don’t want to be this. Christianity kind of provoked proposed an option out. And for some of these folks, they were like, Yo, we’re going to move to the desert, like move to the middle of the desert and we’re going to live in the middle of the desert. I don’t know where we’re going to get water from. I don’t know where we’re going to get food from, but this is what we’re going to do because we don’t want to be that. They made a very drastic decision to move. You know what I mean? That’s huge. And so that’s where you had a community of people who already agree to move out into the desert or in some cases, there were nuns who moved into like vacant castles. They squatters rights kind of situation, just like took over spaces and then create a community at it and say, OK, how are we going to live according to Christian principles and rules, but don’t think of them as like this hard and fast structure. They were rules that were as flexible as you needed them to be given the particular day. Maybe you were sick and you couldn’t fast like everybody else, you know they need. Or maybe you were extremely tired today and you couldn’t keep up with prayers like everybody else. But there were rules as as far as how that community would go. And so comparing all of that, what I was learning to how Pittsburgh was, it was just kind of like, OK, now I’m moving to be a little bit like a modern mystic where I’m biblically in the world, but not of it doesn’t define me. It didn’t give birth to me, then create me. It didn’t inform me a mold than shape me. But I’m here, you know the me and. So what it would do, I what do I do with what I have? You know, I mean, whether it’s the skill to listen, whether it’s the skill to just share a story or whatever. What do I do with these skills that I have that help this community or whatever community? And so when looking out in Pittsburgh, it was it was a struggle because I think Pittsburgh has a long history with Christianity, so it knows it and it understands it and hears it, but it doesn’t necessarily want to be fully moved by it. Right. And like. So going back into that world after having learned all of that or just hanging out with friends or whatever the case will be at bars, whatever. I just I just had to be myself, and I just had to be present and I had to be myself, and I could be like super conscious that like I knew all of these monks, you know, all of these nuns, I just had to be present. And if I felt moved to say or do a certain thing, then do that, you know, I mean.
Jourdan: So what did I hear? I heard Terry saying that this city in itself. Is it going to be moved by religious ethics and maybe that’s the way it should be, right? Separation of church and state but as a whole, it’s going to take individuals move by moral convictions to make change here. It’s up to them or you. If we’re talking individuals, right, it’s up to you to be aware and present of what’s happening and decide if you’re going to be moved by it or not moved. Our city has a rich history of religious practice. And there’s a gang of books that you could read to read more and learn more about the religious history of Pittsburgh. So there’s Nostalgia Without Memory by Amy Slagle. There’s After the Holocaust, which is a book about the migration of Polish Jews and Christians to Pittsburgh. There’s Between Two Rivers, a memoir of Christian Social Action and ethics by Ronald H. Stone. And The Colored Mausoleums of Pittsburgh by Noshir F. Kaikobad. Another resource is PublicSource’s Chris Hedlin the religious reporter and has many stories on the intersection of development, social justice, history and religion on our site. So be sure to check those out to. But, you know, back to my conversation with Terry. From all of that, I was thinking, you know, Pittsburgh has a lot of religions, but it is not a religious city. And I wanted to know if Terri felt the same.
Terry: I would say, no. you’re right to say that now, but back in the day, like you go like the borough of Wilkinsburg used to call that the city of churches because there were so many. Now, mind you, there was a strategy behind building all of those churches. All of those churches were built to prevent bars being also built because bars can be built in a certain proximity of the church. So. But they were so full of religious fervor, right, that they would just fill their city, their community with churches. So back in the day, I think, yeah, the city was way more religious, way more spiritual. I think actually today, to be honest, it’s more spiritual, less religious, I would correct that because I think you have. There’s a lot there’s a lot of witchcraft that goes on there, little paganism sprinkled in unanimity. So now Pittsburgh is kind of mature and as far as its like spiritual life has come, and I guess it’s really starting to grow a little bit.
Jourdan: I can see how you will say that. I could see that. So as someone who is sensitive to the spiritual call to change, to interrupt, to interact, to do community with folk, how do you? Have you ever do you help people to figure out like what that looks like, feels like may be for them because I’m thinking there may be someone listening who’s like, You know what? I do feel an urge to do something in the city. I do feel an urge to be involved with how we do community among one another. But like, is this just a thought or is this a calling? How do you recognize calls calling?
Terry: I think that there are a number of ways that we, as human beings are spoken to, like some of us, are attracted to patterns. We see these consistent patterns and we’re like, OK, we’re going to follow that pattern. Some of us are connected to people and we see people and move in in these certain spaces in place. And we like, OK, we’re going to follow. We recognize that we connected somehow to these people. And I think that is just being sensitive to to hear a call. A greater call is just hearing and being sensitive to that call that’s coming from the universe. Right. And. I think it’s about creating a space and a place. Where you can also hear that call. The great thing about again, I don’t not to keep going back to that seminary experience, but one of the great things about that experience was also learned how to carve out space for yourself, right? And that is, you got a super long, busy week figuring out how to like even if it’s just 30, 45 minutes out the day or out the week event, just space and time for yourself. And it’s in those spaces and places that you are really going to be sensitive and in tune with that call. Now you also got what I do want to mention is the Presbyterian Church has a phrase the frozen chosen. I think it’s a little bit lofty to consider yourself chosen, but I totally understand where you see yourself frozen, you know? And I think that folks sit in and hear and are steeped in that teaching and often are hearing that call. But for whatever reason, whether it may be that the inability to sacrifice or that inability to stretch yourself just a little bit further is kind of what is preventing you from hearing that call so you’ve got to find your space. And and and also be sensitive to how you’re being communicated to. I think that that’s those are two important people.
Jourdan: So you brought up the summer of 2020 and how all of the protesting and civic action that people were involved in was really encouraging, you know, to see people from different walks of life, different identities, different parts of the city or the state coming together for a central cause to bring about change in the way that policing was happening in our communities. You know, among the other things that people were calling attention to and trying to change and rally around, you were feeling like Pittsburgh was going to be one of the cities that was really going to show up and show out nationally to, like, lead that charge and be a central station where people were calling for that change, right? But we kind of surprised you, you know, and I’m happy that we did. So my question is if Pittsburgh had a calling? Right? We answered the call last summer, but if Pittsburgh had a calling of its own, what do you think that calling would be?
Terry: That’s a heavy question. All right. So I’ll start here. When when the murder of George Floyd took place and that video went viral, I think that it just rocked so many people. I don’t know what it was about George, but people saw their brothers, their uncles, their dads, it was just like so many people saw themselves or saw a relative and George. And it was huge. So for me, like I already knew that this was going to be big. I think that the response, like the day of was massive. You know what I mean from the jump and. I just was like I had just moved up here to Pittsburgh or just Massachusetts, and I didn’t really know too many people and didn’t know what was going on, how this side of Massachusetts Boston was popping off. You could best believe Boston was on. Yeah, wasn’t it? You know, but western Massachusetts was a lot more laid back, you know what I mean? So it was like, I don’t really know at the time how what was not going out. But as I’m watching, I follow all of the same news sources that I did when I was in Pittsburgh and was was seeing what was going on and seeing the protests take place kind of slowly but surely. Now, mind you, I did believe Pittsburgh would have been the last city to turn up. And I thought that because of my experiences, I really think that. Black and brown folks in the city, especially are so beat down, so downtrodden, so oppressed. And I think at some point in time, they don’t even realize it because you just you still got to get up and go to work every single day. You still got to get up and pay down bills every single day.
Jourdan: Survival is still knocking at the front door every single day.
Terry: I felt like Pittsburgh for a long time, just didn’t have that support system and we’re just like, continue to be this downtrodden city. And the only thing left to do was just Exodus was just leave, you know? But when I saw how the community showed up. Threw out those protests. I think it opened up my eyes that there were some definite allies and accomplices that live in Pittsburgh that might not be Black or brown, and it might not be people of color and that are willing to go out here and just like, be out here day after day, if that’s what needs to happen. And I think that’s kind of how we got down to that sacrifice, I think is scary, especially in a city like Pittsburgh, where the police are known for like brutes, brutal, absolute guts. I was one of the reasons why I had to move. No one, I can remember the kid’s name, but he was like, curb stomped on the south side. And after seeing the video, I was like, So where are we moving to? You know what I mean? So what are we going up? Because I can’t stay here? You know what I mean? Because I don’t want to be one of them. And so I think that it was like. Folks, have we’re fed up. They were tired and they realize that like a this is my city too. And they showed up and I was very like, Yeah, I was very happy to see those demonstrations that really made me happy.
Jourdan: So with the cities calling every city, I think in the United States has a feeling that they contributed to the overall American identity as a whole, so like, what do you think Pittsburgh’s calling could be should be is?
Terry: I think it’s hard, right? Because I think I think it’s hard to think about a city having or being a known for this one thing. And I think the reason why. That’s difficult is. You may end up leaving out a whole bunch of people who don’t feel identified by that, you know what I mean? And I think that that may be Pittsburgh’s calling as to be one of those cities that recognizes that it won’t be defined by these, this one thing, but we will be defined by these people, by this people. You know, they mean this body of people is the ones that define us. These scenes, as I mentioned earlier today, like the, you know, places like Detroit, Ohio. Chicago, they’ve seen industry come in and out, and that industry defined those cities. That’s part of Pittsburgh’s issue right now is that it’s still beholden to these industries that aren’t serving the city that aren’t like protecting the city. As a matter of fact, it’s killing the people, and you can’t be defined by steel no more. You can’t be defined by coal no more. You damn sure can’t be defined by ketchup no more heavily like you got to be defined by. You got something else. You know what I mean? Like, you’ve got to find something else. And I think it’s the people. I think it will be the people who will reshape and reform what Pittsburgh as a city is. And I think the reason why it will be the people is in part, like I said, that the folks that are in there now, they’ve got better ideas. They’d rather it just be the way it is right now. You know, I mean, and even the Googles is not going to do it for you, like none of that is going to exist. You see what’s going on in Bakery Square, what went down in Bakery Square, how it got all carved up and you demolished schools? Come on. You’ve got to think of something better. So it’s got to be the people, whatever the people of Pittsburgh. Right here right now, they’re like, they want to how they want to define the city. And that’s what it’s got to be. And I think as far as it’s called and goes, I think that that’s what is calling is this calling is to stand up against some of that narrative and finally say a Primanti sandwich is not the best sandwich in the city. You know me, there finally be real about that. Like, finally,
Jourdan: It ain’t it. It may have been in the ’30s. That thing may have hit in the ’30s, but in 2021…
Terry: That coleslaw might have been just a little bit better.
Jourdan: It may have been OK. So after ten years of living in Pittsburgh, coming to Pittsburgh on a whim, leaving and leaving to seek out better, greener, cleaner pastures literally in Massachusetts would be, you know, to be true about Pittsburgh. Or would you know to be true about your time in Pittsburgh?
Terry: But there are some amazing people in Pittsburgh. There are some really, truly like dedicated, loving, fearless, courageous folks who aren’t going to get bogged down in the foolishness who are going to continue to do the work and be president. You may not know their names, you may not see their faces, but there are folks out there that are really, really dedicated to this, especially support in the Black community in Pittsburgh. That’s one thing that I do know to be true. So despite somebody saying that this is the most racist city of North. The truth is that there are some movers and shakers in the city. Another truth is that like lets be real. There are some good food in there. It’s not just Primanti’s. So y’all stop taking people who just moved to Pittsburgh to Primanti’s. Go to La Palapa, go to a Chicken Latino. Like for real. For real. Like stop playing. go somewhere else. Hit up my homeboy Fernando Pesaro Grill. You know, to me, like there’s there’s some really. There’s a good burrito to be had if you look for it, you know what I mean? I also think that the city, the city has a bright future. And like I said, it has a bright future. If you really if the city really wants it and they want to embrace that and are willing to do the hard work necessary to kind of move that meter, move that needle a little bit more. Yeah, I mean, again, my encouragement to do what you got to do to get involved because their spaces and places for you to be.
Jourdan: My conversation with Terry left me thinking about how in the future I want to possess Pittsburgh. Will it be mine from afar? Will it be mine with my feet planted here? How will I show my my alleged commitment, concern and investment in this city? And also showed me the ways that this crazy city of Pittsburgh has loved me and held me and and been mine back? And it’s got me thinking about the places and ways of being the scenes that are the highest form of expression of true Pittsburgh community. Thank you to Terry. Thank you to you for listening.
Jourdan: This episode of From the Source podcast was produced by Jourdan Hicks and Andy Kubis, then edited by Halle Stockton. If you’re curious to learn how you can share your story with us or appear on an episode From the Source, you can get in touch with me by sending an email to Jourdan@ Publicsource.org. PublicSource is an independent nonprofit newsroom in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And you can find all of our reporting in storytelling at Publicsource. org. I’m Jourdan Hicks. Stay safe and be well.
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.