East Liberty Presbyterian Church
Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Hope looms large over East Liberty and the greater east Pittsburgh area. It dominates the main corner of the increasingly gentrified neighborhood and houses the East Liberty Presbyterian Church. For a while I was under the false impression that this building was featured in the movie Dogma, because everyone always referred to the church in East Liberty that was, and this one is so impressive that I just assumed it was “the one.” But that is a different one. I show up on Palm Sunday and am duly impressed by the neo-gothic architecture, the huge organ, and the full pews. It somehow reminds me of the National Cathedral in D.C., but the more churches I see, the more they all seem to be some kind of gothic, either original or new/revival gothic.
As over 200 parishioners wave green palm fronds and sing Hallelujah, my heart soars and the devotion brings tears to my eyes. The sermon begins with a Pittsburgh sports trivia question: Who had the home-run at the bottom of the 9th inning at the World Series in 1960? Only in the US, where sports and religion are one and the same, could this be the way to begin a high feast day. I have no idea what the preacher is talking about, but I try to get with the program to appreciate his message. Ignoring some distracting hand gestures, I understand the analogy he is drawing for us. Sitting behind me is a Gregory, I find out later a native Pittsburgher, who cheers out loud during the sermon. It seems he was there during that historic game in 1960 when the PGH Pirates won the World Series against the Yankees! (Full disclosure: I had to Google this all later). The sermon goes like this: First picture: the huge crowd which rushed the field at that historic game is our common heritage and part of our identity for many Americans—especially Pittsburghers. Second picture: The experience of being caught up in the crowd cheering for our team, that is Palm Sunday when Christ rode into Jerusalem and was triumphantly welcomed by the crowd shouting Hosanna. Third picture: only a few days later, however, the same people turn on Him and call for his crucifixion. Conclusion: the true essence of Christianity is not being part of a jubilant crowd celebrating the victory of the Super Bowl, or World Series, or what have you. No, being a true follower of Christ requires conscious intentionality in the difficult times, when the crowds disperse and the fun is over. I never thought I would relate to a sermon that began with a baseball trivia question yet somehow, I made it.
Friendly Gregory is an elderly African American, and is wearing a yellow shirt with handprinted letters that says “Free Hugs”. After the service, we chat a bit and he tells me about his beloved Cathedral and community. There is a labyrinth to walk during Holy Week which I find quite progressive for a somewhat Mid-western town like Pittsburgh. I mention that I walked the labyrinth in Chartres, France and Gregory exclaims: “Me too! We went on a church trip there!” Whatyaknow. That’s the kind of church this is, progressive, worldly, and welcoming. In the program, they have every kind of social activism and ministry possible. Prisoners, women, Taize prayer, youth ministry, literacy, homeless outreach, refugee outreach, LGBT rights, the bathroom is a freedom bathroom…
and the pews are full of people of all ages, all ethnicities, and classes, including a goodly share of man-buns. The liturgist and other celebrating officers are all women. I learned a new word: beadle, also a woman today.
Touring the grounds, I pass by the Meditation Room and peer through the window, seeing a middle-aged white woman sitting cross-legged on some cushions. She appears to be deeply focused—on her smartphone. Ah, even entering a special space for meditation is no guarantee that peace and quiet from the distracting Maya of the interwebs are possible.
Thank you, Cathedral of Hope for making me feel welcome, and proving that even the most staunch anti-sports American, would have her eyes opened to the joy of sports analogies.