Pittsburgh Cathedral of Hope

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.

Drone bird's eye view of downtown Liberty and the Cathedral Photo by Adam Tripp https://www.instagram.com/trippac/
Drone bird’s eye view of downtown Liberty and the Cathedral Photo by Adam Tripp https://www.instagram.com/trippac/

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.

Jesus carries the Cross Stained Glass windows by Charles Jay Connick

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…

Nondiscriminatory 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.

the high altar
the faithful


First United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh

I have walked by this place so often, it was time to finally go in and see the grandness from the inside. Also, what is Methodist actually? I couldn’t say I’ve actually consciously ever been to a Methodist service. Oh wait, I take it back, Christmas 2005 in Copperas Cove, TX when I didn’t have enough leave accrued to go home I went to the Methodist church nearby, and I recall finding the music very moving. The location of this church is prime real estate, at a major intersection of several key up and coming neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. I walked past on my way from the grocery story on a Saturday and decided to visit the next day. There were several homeless-looking men hanging around at the front drinking beer, and as I walked around to see the other side, so did one of them and he proceeded to urinate against the building. The next day I could see from inside that he at least hadn’t urinated against the wall where the altar was…This is a truly beautiful building, the architectural symmetry made me feel comfortable, and it is well maintained. The choir wore gowns, I always get a kick out of that—not having grown up with lots of pageantry or uniforms, my only connotation is the Gospel Choir in uniform scenes from TV—but this choir sang beautifully, and it got me in the Spirit. At some point, at least 20 minutes after services had begun, what appeared to be one of the friends of Saturday’s hobos came in and proceeded to ‘greet’ the congregation. Better late than never, they say! What I’m still trying to get my mind around is the order of the events in these services. There is an observable order, but it doesn’t always appear to culminate in communion that everyone participates in. Yes, I know, some of you are probably going ‘duh’, it is Protestant! But this is new to me. I have since informed myself about Methodism further here and here. I asked how often communion is celebrated and learned about how the Methodists celebrate a service of Word and Table. Though I did not get to see it on this Sunday, they don’t use wine but grape juice and everyone regardless of denomination is welcome to receive the Communion. Apparently once a month is the norm for communion, though this goes back to the early days when there were not enough ordained clergy and so congregations had to wait for their ‘rotation.’  The senior pastor lead an attempt at a group prayer situation, which seemed somewhat awkward, because no one publicly volunteered the incriminating information which was needed to be prayed upon; the congregation seemed more comfortable submitting prayer requests by paper, or allowing the pastor to speak generally about and pray for the types of challenges a community, heck, every community, faces such as illness, incarceration, unemployment, and death. The sermon later was not particularly inspiring, and involved lengthy personal anecdotes and lamentations about the state of the world (yes, I already know, it sucks I live here too) but finally got to the message that we are called to help those in need, to be His disciples. This is in line with the Methodist “practical divinity” and putting love into action. From the community bulletin and bulletin board, it was evident that this church is very active socially and is doing charity, interfaith and community work, the opportunities to be His disciple are quite numerous. I find it interesting that Methodism was founded by John Wesley, a priest in the Church of England in the late 1700s. How many denominations, movements, and independent churches were founded by people seeking renewal or a renewed emphasis on an element they find lacking in their church? The freedom ultimately possible in Protestantism for individuals to follow their conscience and results of their own study of theology—regardless of where it might lead—them is for me the main draw of Protestantism itself.