Center of Life: Remembrance and Hope

 by Laura Garvey, Great Lake Conference.   Featuring Pastor Tim Smith, Keystone Covenant Church, Pittsburgh, PA. Story reposted from the Great Lakes Conference newsletter.

Pastor Tim Smith lost track of how many boys and men he had eulogized and buried – all between the ages of 14 and 26 – almost all from gun violence.

Pastor Tim moved to the Hazelwood neighborhood in 1980 when his father became pastor of what is now Keystone Covenant Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pastor Tim replanted the church in 2000 and Keystone joined the ECC in 2005. Hazelwood, which reached its peak population of 38,000 in the 1960’s, now has a population of 5,000. The closure of its last steel mill in the late 80’s transformed Hazelwood from a community that once had over 200 businesses to one that now has 16. In 2001, Pastor Tim founded Center of Life (COL), a 501c3. COL’s mission is to “provide families and youth with the life skills, training and resources necessary to be strong and to make their communities strong”. Their vision “is to empower and equip families to bring economic revitalization to their communities”. Those who attend Keystone Church are almost all involved with COL and it provides them continuous, significant ministry opportunities.

Center of Life offers many programs including an after-school tutoring and enrichment program for grades K-12 called Fusion. They take a holistic approach that involves families. COL’s Crossover program is both a mentoring initiative and a recreation program. It involves a family meal, life skills and open sports sessions. The COL mentors continue to interact with the kids as they serve the local schools during lunch, passing time and arrival and dismissal. Music is a large part of COL’s programming. They have several jazz ensembles for different ages and skill levels. The Krunk Movement is a youth “micro-enterprise” designed as a production company. Students use Hip-Hop music to learn about performing, writing and producing music. COL also offers summer camps at no cost. In 2016 over 160 children/youth were able to be involved with music camps – 5 days a week for 6 weeks. COL partners with community organizations to provide monthly gatherings for parents in the community for shared learning and support.

On May 20th COL hosted the grand opening of an on-going exhibit entitled “I Lived, We Live, What Did We Miss?” Pastor Tim and his wife Donna received inspiration for the exhibit when they visited the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. Pastor Tim realized that parents didn’t want their murdered sons to be forgotten. He wondered how they could bring dignity and recognition to these lives that had been lost. Carnegie Mellon School of Design, where Pastor Tim is an adjunct professor, agreed to hold a class that would design the Hazelwood exhibit. The class members began talking to mothers who had lost their sons to gun violence in the community and worked together to create the project. The exhibit includes a wall of empty frames to represent the lost potential of the deceased boys. There is also a wall that has pictures of the victims with mementos the families donated to represent the interests and personalities of their sons. There is a TV at the altar of the church that runs interviews of the families of the victims. The exhibit also highlights the history, the present and the heroes of Hazelwood, and most importantly the hopeful future of Hazelwood. The exhibit includes words from the bill of rights, the preamble and the constitution along with news reports about Hazelwood.

Pastor Tim believes the future IS hopeful. After officiating a funeral almost every 4 weeks, he has not had one in almost two years. Of the kids who attend COL programs on a regular basis, the average school attendance is 94%, and the average GPA is 2.8. Kids are going to college. Pastor Tim says that much of the positive changes in the community are due to the community itself. “The people of Hazelwood are great people who have never given up on their children”, says Pastor Tim.

In October of 2016 COL acquired a closed middle school across the street from the church. COL, which is currently operating in 4 locations, will use 50,000 of the 150,000 square foot building. The rest will be rented to anchor tenants. A capital campaign will begin this fall and Pastor Tim is hopeful that they will begin operations there in 3 years’ time. In addition to their current offerings they are hoping to add an Early Childhood Development and a Workforce Development program.

The following piece, written by Pastor Tim, hangs between two broken stained glass windows in the new exhibit.

Finding Purpose Through Broken Pieces

You see here before you the broken pieces of two stained glass windows.
This is how they look today, but there was a time when they were new,
well put together, made for a purpose,
a thing of beauty for the eye to behold.
In many ways these broken pieces tell the story of Greater Hazelwood.
Once it was a vibrant, well-populated community that stood on its own.
For many, it was a thing of beauty, built for a purpose,
with grocery stores and barber shops, movie theatres and dance halls,
schools and places of worship, gas stations, playgrounds, swimming pools
and a steel mill that gave the community its identity.
Greater Hazelwood, made for a purpose, a thing of beauty…
But what was that purpose and what kind of beauty did it produce?
When something whose purpose is meant to work for all only works for some,
that something results in brokenness. But there is purpose in broken pieces.
The broken pieces of Hazelwood are its people.
Broken as a result of injustices and inequities. Broken but not beaten.
Broken but still powerful.
These broken pieces
are the vital clues to making a community with liberty and justice for all.
These broken pieces are the ingredients that produce righteousness, justice and equity. These broken pieces tell the truth about what this community really is and what it stands for.
These broken pieces are the light that shines through the darkest days.
With their many colors, shapes and sizes, these broken pieces are the people who have kept the lights on in the community while being underserved and forgotten. These broken pieces are the families who have persevered in the face of generational economic and racial discrimination.
These broken pieces are the countless African American boys whose lives were taken through gun violence. These broken pieces are the parents who never gave up on their children. These broken pieces are the pain of the past and the hope of the future. These broken pieces are the life and times of Greater Hazelwood families, along with families in other underserved and forgotten communities where the people now speak and say
“This is not normal; this is not right.”
It’s not normal or right for human beings in America to have vital resources withheld.
It’s not normal or right for any child to be relegated to a substandard education. It’s not normal or right for a child to be the absolute authority in his or her own life. It’s not normal or right for children to have easy access to illegal high-powered weapons and drugs. It’s not normal for parents to bury their children and it’s not normal for humans to kill other humans.
But this is what happens when liberty and justice is not for all.
Greater Hazelwood was built on a system where liberty and justice was not for all. Therefore, that system was simply wrong and in the end, it produced what it was set up to produce. Brokenness. But the best present and future hope to bring about what is right and good for any community are the people of the community. Greater Hazelwood has come together with a shared hope and a vision for a community designed intentionally with liberty and justice for all.
And the good news is we don’t have to start from scratch as long as we remember that the picture of a greater Hazelwood can be discovered through the broken pieces.

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