As I already mentioned, I volunteered at the 2011 Mennonite Convention in Pittsburgh. My volunteer gig kept me busy in the afternoons, leading high school youth groups from around the country to serve the city. My estimate is that around 4,000 youth participated in service projects that week. I met 120 of them.
I spent 3 out of 4 days with the Pittsburgh Project. The organization left such a great impression with me that I must share it with you.
Briefly, The Pittsburgh Project is a multi-faceted ministry in North Pittsburgh. They offer home repairs for the elderly and disabled, an after-school program, city park maintenance, and urban farming. Let’s go deeper.
That Pittsburgh will be called a City of Truth, where once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets each with cane in hand because of age, and where the city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there (adapted from Zechariah 8:4 – 5).
Glory, Hallelujah, and Amen! Can you imagine living in a city with such a vision statement? Especially one that was once familiar with the shouts of violence and the sobs of financial poverty? Imagine a place where men and women grow old together and the children feel safe enough to play in the streets while the elders look on, drinking iced tea from their porches and dolling out unsolicited advice.
A vivid picture, but here’s the reality.
Pittsburgh used to be an industrious steel town. Nearly overnight, the steel industry dried up, leaving families who once held strong, steady careers, jobless. Owning their homes but unable to care for them, the houses slowly deteriorated. A broke city, Pittsburgh began fining homeowners for home repairs. If people cannot afford the upkeep of their home, they certainly can’t afford a fine. So the Pittsburgh Project began repairing homes for the elderly and disabled. They repair so many homes, that they are running out of space to place pins on the giant city map that hangs at the top of the office stairs.
In another moment of bad policy, Pittsburgh decided to save money by shutting down city parks. They began with parks in the financially poor neighborhoods, or as I heard someone say, “the parks where city council members didn’t live”. Soon, the unkempt parks became gathering places for violence. People lose their creativity if they don’t have space to cultivate it. Noticing the escalating violence in the park across the street, the Pittsburgh Project leased the park from the city. The park now boasts gardens that children help plant, and a gazebo who smiles and welcomes guests. A new playground beckons children, and the organization breaks ground on a community center this week.
Adjacent to the park, a community swimming pool almost met its death when the city scheduled demolition. Instead, the Pittsburgh Project claimed the pool, repaired it, and staffed it with college students from around the country. After a day of work, my volunteers groaned that we could not join the splashes of cool water and laughter of neighborhood kids!
Down the hill from the pool, a weekly farmer’s market sells food from the Urban Farm further down the street.
The urban farm might surprise you. Tomatoes grow in the outfield, and green beans in the infield. That’s right – an old baseball field now grows fruits and vegetables instead of skinned knees. We spent a day flipping compost piles, weeding, and cutting down overgrown trees. One hour of hard work adds beauty and possibility!
The campus accomplishes great things as a result of many hours of hard work from both staff and hundreds (thousands?) of volunteers. As a result, North Pittsburgh sees a reduction of violence, and a community that loves together. Way to keep working towards the Kingdom on Earth, guys.
Along with sweating in the urban farm, the Mennonite Youth Groups carved out a trail in the woods, from the main offices to the urban farm. Now, children can walk the trail between locations instead of through the streets. Not easy jobs, but each group served with enthusiasm.
Thanks for hosting me (us), Pittsburgh Project! Thank you for showing us to see a need, and meet it with a little creativity. Keep up the great work, for the Kingdom of God surely exists in Pittsburgh.