I grew up in suburbia, just outside of Washington DC. From infancy, my family would travel to Greensburg, PA to visit my great aunts. They were really the closest things to grandparents I had, these two sisters. I always looked to those trips with great excitement. I can still remember their house and their yard as if I could go there and see them today as they were then.
My Aunt Isabelle, the last remaining connection to Greensburg, died 19 years ago this coming fall. Greensburg has changed a little since then. As a kid one of the things I remembered were the sounds. Whistles and sirens dominated the air. At 6 AM the Walworth factory whistle would announce the start of a new shift. From up the hill a siren we would call the “sick cow” would ring out a code informing fire fighters (and the general public) where the alarm call was coming from. And then there was the siren from half a block a way: the infamous Southwest Greensburg fire siren. It could be heard from ten miles away. It wailed in a series of pitch waves that seemed to go on forever. It was more than a little unnerving for a small kid. It was as if it were sending the alert right in to my very soul.
Later I remember going to a hockey game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues. I remember rounding a bend of the Lincoln Highway and seeing a great and hulking steel mill sending great plumes into the sky. The air was filled with smoke and sulfur. It was an awesome and somewhat intimidating sight. It was Pittsburgh in stereotype. Well, the whistle of Walworth’s valve factory went silent forever in 1980. I remember the time when I first came and experienced the eerie silence where the lunch whistle should have been. The mill that I saw on my way to the Pens game, J&L’s Eliza works, is now immortalized (if you will) as a bike path that connects downtown Pittsburgh with the trail that soon will run from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC. The mill itself was demolished in 1983.
I came to Pittsburgh to seminary in 1989. By then most of the mills were on their way to demolition. I remember traveling along route 837 from Dravosburg past Duquesne into the South Side of Pittsburgh and being stunned by the vast acreage of ruined concrete and rusted steel of the abandoned mills that used to crowd the Monongahela River. No bomb could have caused this devastation. No, only economics could do something as horrific as what I saw. And with the demise of the mills came a death of another type: the death of an entire region’s identity.
Outside the hills of Western PA, Pittsburgh still has the reputation of being a sooty steel town. That image is timeworn. Honestly, the region still struggles to find its identity. Perhaps this is why the Steelers remain as vital a force on Pittsburgh culture: their success hearkens back to a time when both they (Steel Curtain, anyone?) and the city were a force with which to be reckoned. And, I guess, this is where I come in. By the time I arrived in Pittsburgh, only one steel mill remained. The Edgar Thompson works still presses on to this day. But even this mill is a pale shadow of the majesty that it once was. The world has moved on from Pittsburgh. Sure the city is quite “livable”. I am glad to be here. But it suffers. It lives knowing that for now its best days are behind it and for now the future is not too clear. Politicians cannot decide whether to save it or condemn it. Many kids leave. Many that stay get lost in the seamy underbelly of drugs and abuse.
Churches of all types are still trying to figure out their role as well. Once they served to give their people a place where they could be themselves in a world where being “yourself” was dangerous: AME Zion, Slovak Lutheran, Polish Catholic, and Syrian Orthodox churches all gave their people hope and the awareness that God truly loved them despite what was going on in the world around them. Sadly, many of those needs seem to have vanished with the mills. Other needs are still there, but the churches are too small to be of much help. Deprived of their numbers and their mission, they become museums and mausoleums, then artsy microbreweries, hookah bars and domiciles for trendy bourgeois neo-urbanites. Community churches give way to the ecclesial mega-complex: a one-stop, post-denominational smorgasm (my word – smorgasboard meets When Harry Met Sally) of politically correct, feel-good, benign theobabble designed to meet the pragmatic needs of all (AA meetings, single mother groups, railroading clubs, cub scouts, bird watching, all under one 6 million dollar roof!) while not bothering to worry about things like sacraments, christology, synergea or theosis.
I love this place, this region. My ancestors lived here, and now my daughter is a part of this place too. I believe in the spirit of the people here, and I believe that the best days for this region are ahead of it, not behind it. To live here you have to be not just a little resilient. You have to deal with really depressing things like really cloudy, monochromatic, snowy winter days. You have to have a store of faith that comes from beyond things you see on a routine basis. You have to have hope. I’ve told my parishioners that in all things you have to have hope and you have to refuse to give in to despair. To despair is to say there is no God. God has promised faithful people that they will not be left desolate. God understands suffering, and God will transfigure that suffering into bliss. Finally (for now), I submit that the Orthodox Church has something to offer Western PA: a look at the church in Russia during the time of communism reveals a remarkably strong, vital and, yes, durable faith that overcame all sorts of obstacles and adversity. Our struggles pale in comparison to the persecution Russian Orthodox Christians faced. They can teach us. Others like them, from 9th century Damascus or third century Rome, can do likewise. We need the humility to listen, and the love and desire to follow their example. More later. Forgive me, a sinner.