Pilgrims: Immigrant religion in Pittsburgh

Story by
Peter Smith
Photography by
Julia Rendleman
Andrew Rush
Bob Donaldson
Nate Guidry
Pam Panchak
Robin Rombach
Darrell Sapp
Bill Wade
Videography by
Andrew Rush
Julia Rendleman
Nate Guidry
Bob Donaldson
Debi and Krishna Siwekoti, Hindus from Bhutan, pray at their Carrick home in May. Julia Rendleman / Post-Gazette
Parents and children light sparklers on Oct. 25 to celebrate the Diwali Festival of Lights at the Sri Venkateswara Temple, Penn Hills. Andrew Rush / Post-Gazette
Fatimah Salim prays during a Friday worship service in October at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh in Oakland. Julia Rendleman / Post-Gazette

Hundreds of Indian-Americans gathered on a recent Sunday evening in the social hall next to the Hindu Jain Temple in Monroeville — many dressed in colorful saris or shalwar kameezes, others in Western clothing — all chatting, eating native foods and watching performances of song, poetry and millennium-old dances marking a festival dedicated to the goddess Durga’s triumph over evil.

Uphill in the quiet temple itself, Vijay Shah and his family came to offer a ceremonial scarf to the statue of Durga and to pray and prostrate themselves before the various shrines, which hold intricately carved idols of several deities surrounded by offerings of flowers, food and incense.

Afterward, Mr. Shah recalled how he came to Pittsburgh for a temporary work assignment more than 20 years ago. When his wife, Arti, joined him with their newborn daughter, she found the region more friendly and less frantic than where they had been living in New Jersey.

“My wife loved Pittsburgh so much she said, ‘Do what you have to do. We are not leaving Pittsburgh,’ ” recalled Mr. Shah, 48, of Upper St. Clair.

Central to the family’s life here is the temple — not just for religious reasons but also for the cultural and social support that has helped the Indian immigrants to assimilate while maintaining core traditions — and passing them on to their American-raised daughter, Avisha Shah.

“I can probably call 400 people here my family,” said Ms. Shah, 21, now a student at the University of Pennsylvania, who grew up attending festivals and other events with Indian-American families.

“They’ve got each other’s backs,” she said. “Having all kids see that and develop those relationships is one of the best parts of Pittsburgh.”

Such stories of spiritual, cultural and social cohesion are playing out throughout Pittsburgh’s immigrant populations.

Pittsburgh’s estimated 75,000 foreign-born citizens — ranging from the highly educated immigrants to refugees arriving with minimal literacy from the tortured lands of the globe — have started Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Baha’i and other faith congregations. The Sri Venkateswara Temple in Penn Hills, dedicated in 1976 to an incarnation of the deity Vishnu, is a landmark of the nation’s growing religious diversity, drawing pilgrims from distant cities as one of the first traditional Hindu temples built in North America.

Churches have absorbed immigrants from the fast-growing, youthful Christian populations of Latin America, Africa and Asia, and synagogues have received Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union.

Congregations serve as both spiritual filling stations and all-purpose social networks for those seeking referrals for jobs and human services or just the experience of familiar languages and foods.

“This is my spiritual home, also my home away from home,” said Jane Chan of Pittsburgh Chinese Church in McCandless, where the Bethel Park resident has been a longtime member and volunteer. The independent Protestant church, with roots in 1930s Chinatown, has weekly services and classes in English, Mandarin and Cantonese, followed by a communal meal.

Ahmed Arafat of Brookline, an information technology worker who came here from Gaza in 1999 to study at the University of Pittsburgh, got involved at the Islamic Community of Pittsburgh in Oakland, soon after his arrival. “It’s been my center for the last 15 years,” he said.

Storefronts to cathedrals

Yetunde Olaore sings during a Sept. 3 Pentecostal service at Living Spring International Center in Wilkinsburg. Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh’s changing religious landscape has been evident in visits by the Post-Gazette to more than 20 congregations, worship services and faith-based service organizations serving immigrant populations:

Tempa Dukte Lama, a native of Nepal, teaches about meditation at the Olmo Ling Bon Center & Institute in Greenfield, part of the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh’s changing religious landscape has been evident in visits by the Post-Gazette to more than 20 congregations, worship services and faith-based service organizations serving immigrant populations:

  • At a historic St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in the Strip District, amid displays of Polish icons and prayer cards reflecting its immigrant founders, a bride and groom pray at a side altar to the Virgin Mary after a bilingual wedding — in English and Vietnamese.
  • In a carpeted former Presbyterian sanctuary in downtown Carnegie, rows of Muslims from many nationalities kneel and prostrate amid Arabic prayers at a Friday service.
  • At a Pentecostal church in a former auto parts warehouse in Wilkinsburg, immigrants from West Africa and a few Americans bob and sway, raise their arms and sing exuberant worship choruses: “I’ve never seen your kind-oh, this kind God- oh!”
  • At a makeshift temple in the storage room of a Carrick grocery store, refugee priests from Bhutan chant in Sanskrit and prepare a small fire offering in honor of the Hindu goddess Durga.
  • At a modest Greenfield storefront, a dozen mostly American-born participants recite an ancient Buddhist chant, sit silently on meditation cushions and hear a teaching from a Tibetan lama.
  • On the streets of Oakland, Spanish-speaking Catholics process with a painting of the crucified Christ, re-enacting a centuries-old Peruvian tradition in honor of Senor de los Milagros, “Lord of the Miracles.”

The marchers were from St. Regis Church, which has English and Spanish Masses, the latter drawing hundreds of Latino immigrants from throughout the region.

“It’s not that I need a Mass in Spanish, because I was able to speak English from the beginning, but having people you get to know from the same country, same customs, same community was really nice,” said Rebeca Dosal, 47, a native of Mexico now living in Squirrel Hill and active at St. Regis. “I just love it.”

More than 100 children, mostly Hispanic, now take part in a religious education program that only recently had an enrollment of eight, said the Rev. Daniele Vallecorsa, the multilingual pastor of St. Regis.

All this “has brought a revitalization of the parish,” he said. “Seeing large numbers in church excites people even in the Anglo population.”

Spanish-speaking Catholics from St. Regis Church in Oakland re-enact a centuries-long Peruvian tradition Oct. 19 to honor the "Lord of the Miracles." Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette

Interfaith response

A group of dancers with the Sanskruti Dance Troupe wait for their performance offstage at the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Penn Hills during a Diwali celebration on Oct. 25. Andrew Rush / Post-Gazette

That influx of youth is one of the common characteristics of the otherwise diverse array of immigrant faith groups. U.S. populations of Hindus and Muslims, who are largely immigrants, and Hispanics, a third of whom are foreign-born and most of whom identify as Christian, are younger than the national average, according to the Pew Research Center.

Coming up with precise numbers for Pittsburgh’s immigrant religion is difficult, given their diverse and decentralized structures. A 2010 survey estimated more than 11,000 Hindus, 7,000 Muslims and 1,700 Buddhists in Allegheny and six surrounding counties, although it did not determine how many were foreign-born, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has regular Masses in Korean and Vietnamese in addition to Spanish, while anecdotes abound of Protestant services in Spanish, Swahili, Burmese, Korean, Vietnamese and other languages.

The influx of refugees and immigrants has also brought a response by faith-based institutions, such as Catholic Charities, Jewish Family & Children's Service, Casa San Jose, South Hills Interfaith Ministries and AJAPO (Acculturation for Justice, Access and Peace Outreach). They, as well as non-sectarian charities, are active in helping foreign-born arrivals learn English and gain legal status, driver’s licenses, medical care and jobs.

“I do this because God calls me to do this,” said Sister Janice Vanderneck, Roman Catholic Sister of St. Joseph and director of Casa San Jose, based at St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Brookline amid a growing South Hills Hispanic population.

Several groups are also working to build interfaith relations. While many praise the region for religious tolerance, attributed partly to the broadening influence of its many colleges and universities, they say it’s important to be vigilant against religious prejudice.

Anne Wirth, of the newly formed Greater Pittsburgh Interfaith Coalition, said public talks and discussions about differing religions can help in facing problems that range from stereotyping and mistrust to proselytizing and language barriers.

“When people of different faiths and cultures share food, their own life stories, as well as working on common projects for their community, I think we will be well on our way to addressing many of the challenges,” she said. “Realistically, there will still be challenges that will take time, and some challenges for some people will never be resolved.”

Arthur Udler, a refugee from the former Soviet Union, with his children Benjamin, 16, and Ilana, 15, celebrating the arrival of Sabbath Oct. 31 in Squirrel Hill. Bill Wade / Post-Gazette
Dasarathi Nepal, an 80-year-old refugee and Hindu priest, is trying to preserve the religion and culture of Bhutanese Nepali refugees. Pam Panchak / Post-Gazette

Strong faith, but not universal

Religious faith is far from universal in the foreign-born population, which is affected by the same secularizing trends affecting the rest of the U.S. populace. Recent nationwide surveys, for example, have found that half of Chinese-Americans identified with no religion, as did roughly one-fifth of those of Hispanic, Vietnamese and Korean ancestry.

Many Jews who came as refugees from the former Soviet Union, where religion was forcefully repressed, arrived with little knowledge of Judaism. Some, however, have gradually found their way into religious observances.

For Arthur Udler, that involvement came gradually through contacts with rabbis and his children’s Jewish schools. “It was always important for me to be what I was meant to be, and I feel absolutely confident this is supposed to be this way,” said Mr. Udler, 57, of Squirrel Hill.

Many foreign-born residents, particularly those fleeing harrowing circumstances, arrived with their religion and little else.

“The bottom line is, practically all refugees come with a faith. It’s always really strong,” said Yinka Aganga Williams, executive director of AJAPO, a refugee resettlement and service agency based at the former St. Benedict the Moor Catholic School building in the Hill District.

Dasarathi Nepal, an 80-year-old refugee and Hindu priest, is trying to help thousands of his fellow Bhutanese Nepali refugees transplant their traditions here after they were driven out by the Bhutanese majority, partly over religious and cultural differences. “To be a priest is to protect one’s religion and culture,” he said through a translator.

Long history of immigrant religion

Pittsburgh has received several waves of immigrant religion, from the early Scots-Irish Presbyterians and German Protestants in the 18th century to later Jewish immigrants from German and Russian lands.

The demand for labor in mines and mills drew an influx from Eastern Europe and Mediterranean lands, their church spires and onion domes still sharing skylines with defunct blast furnaces and smokestacks.

A 1913 directory for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh listed McKeesport as home to Polish, Hungarian, Italian, Ruthenian and “Slavish” parishes – not counting ethnic Orthodox and Protestant churches. Nearby Homestead had “a sacred density to rival Rome and Jerusalem,” University of Pittsburgh architectural historian Franklin Toker wrote in his 2009 book, “Pittsburgh: A New Portrait.”

Artist Maxo Vanka captured another era of immigrant religion with his renowned murals. Painted in 1937 in St. Nicholas Church in Millvale, they depict the Croatian peasants who settled in the Pittsburgh area to work in its industries. Here the parishioners join their priest in offering the parish in prayer to the Holy Mother. Martha Rial / Post-Gazette

Yet a 1958 publication of the Committee on Religion for Pittsburgh’s Bicentennial Association contained only two religious symbols on its cover – a cross and a Star of David. It said the region it hosts “all the major religious faiths — Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Eastern Orthodox.”

Today, one can still attend the occasional polka Mass and ethnic-heritage fair at some of these churches, and some are receiving new influxes of Eastern European immigrants. But most ethnic parishes were stirred into the American melting pot, if not closed following the population losses amid the steel industry’s collapse.

Meanwhile, the notion of “all the major religious faiths” would broaden.

English-language pastor Jim Fullmer (right) leads the congregation in singing a dual-language version of "How Great Thou Art" at the Pittsburgh Chinese Church on Oct. 26. The congregation has its origins in Pittsburgh's Downtown Chinatown of the late 1930's. Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette

After historic legislation in 1965 ended discriminatory U.S. immigration policies, skilled immigrants from Asia and elsewhere were drawn to Pittsburgh’s universities, medical centers and corporations. Their ranks have swelled with small but significant Hispanic immigration and an influx of refugees of war and exile from Bhutan, Burma, Somalia and elsewhere.

While immigrant congregations can be found throughout the region, a modern “sacred density” can be found in the eastern suburbs of Monroeville and Penn Hills, now home to multiple Hindu centers, a mosque, a Sikh gurdwara and ethnic churches.

But immigrants and refugees also face the challenge of passing on their faiths to children growing up in a vastly different context than their foreign-born parents and clergy. Many congregations have launched Sunday schools and summer camps.

Pittsburgh Chinese Church, is working to “reach the second generation with English ministry” and to “not see them as secondary,” said Pastor Benjamin Lee.

But it’s harder to pass on the faith if the parents themselves, many of them working weekend shifts in health-care and other fields, can’t get there. A 2011 Princeton University study found that immigrants overall attended worship less frequently than they did in their homelands.

“It’s got to do with trying to survive in this country,” said Ms. Williams, of AJAPO. Many refugees and poorer immigrants have to take work when they can get it, posing the question: “How do we become part of that system without losing faith?”

New immigrant groups

Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette
Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette
Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette
Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette
Bill Wade/Post-Gazette
Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette
Robin Rombach/Post-Gazette
Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette
Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette
Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette
Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette
Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette
Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette
Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette
Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette
Sparklers help worshippers at the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Penn Hills celebrate the Diwali Festival of Lights on Oct. 25. Andrew Rush / Post-Gazette

Indians make their mark on Pittsburgh's religious scene

Devotees at the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Penn Hills celebrate the Diwali Festival of Lights with a fireworks display in front of the temple Oct. 25. Andrew Rush / Post-Gazette

Seated in front of the floodlit, intricately sculpted façade of their Hindu temple in Penn Hills, hundreds of people looked into the October night sky, their faces glowing with the colors of fireworks bursting overhead to mark Diwali, a sacred festival of lights marking a god's victory over darkness and ignorance.

People travel from across North America to make pilgrimages to the Sri Venkateswara Temple.

Built in the mid-1970s and based on a much larger shrine in South India, the Pittsburgh version is renowned for its pioneering role in recreating on American soil the architectural grandeur and sacred sense of a major shrine in Hinduism’s native land.

Being able to make the regular trip there from his home in the Sewickley area is so important to Srini Bellamkonda that the software engineer -- who was transferred by his company to the United States from his native India in 2001 and came to Pittsburgh in 2004 -- hasn’t sought transfers anywhere else since.

In fact, he knows of fellow Indian immigrants who left Pittsburgh for jobs in Texas or Florida -- only to return.

“This is important to us, definitely,” said Mr. Bellamkonda, 40, after he helped a neighbor’s young son light a sparkler to celebrate Diwali. “They might not like the weather so much [but] the temple is one reason why people want to stick to Pittsburgh.

Of all Pittsburgh’s immigrant groups, its 10,000-strong Indian community has made the most visible imprint on the city’s diverse religious scene. Many immigrated since the 1960s to work as engineers in corporations such as Westinghouse and in the city’s academic and medical centers.

Indian-Americans have organized two major Hindu temples and other smaller Hindu institutions, as well as a Jain shrine, a Sikh temple and small Christian congregations, including a Catholic group worshiping in the ancient Syro-Malabar tradition. Muslim immigrants from India are also active in the region’s mosques.

Earlier in the Diwali festival at the Sri Venkateswara Temple, that religion’s full, sensory worship experience was much in evidence. Priests chanted in urgent tones to the backdrop of bells, drumbeats and declamatory notes from wind instruments known as nadaswarams.

Worshipers prayed before the idol of the deity to whom the temple is dedicated — Sri (Lord) Venkateswara, an incarnation of Vishnu, surrounded by consorts Lakshmi and Bhoodevi, goddesses of wealth and the earth. The deities were surrounded by such gifts as floral garlands, mango leaves and rice.

From the temple’s modest origins, “it’s grown, grown and we have a lot of devotees from all over the country now,” current temple Chairman Ashok Sarpeskar said.

In Monroeville, a few miles from the Sri Venkateswara Temple, the Hindu Jain Temple features elaborate turrets and other architectural flourishes.

Inside are five major shrines to deities primarily venerated in northern India, one of them especially by Jains, followers of a religion historically connected to but distinct from Hinduism.

Young people learn Hindu basics at temple Sunday schools and a summer camp.

“When we were young we never asked why,” said Indian native Vijay Shah of Upper St. Clair, who is active in the Hindu Jain Temple. “Today we have to explain, ’What’s the significance of this god? Why do I put a dot on my forehead?’ There is more value in that.”

Closely overlapping with the role of the temples are various Indian ethnic associations and educational institutions teaching classical Indian dance.

“I feel like I've learned a lot about Indian culture and heritage by learning to dance,” said Anika Roy, 16, of Monroeville at a Bengali Association of Greater Pittsburgh festival at the Hindu Jain Temple, where she performed an elaborate, ancient choreography depicting the goddess Durga’s triumph over evil.

The Pittsburgh Sikh Gurdwara was formed in the 1970s, also in Monroeville, by followers of the monotheistic religion, which emerged in India in the 15th century with distinct Scriptures, worship and traditions of dress.

Indian religious leaders say they have been involved in interfaith efforts and find the climate generally friendly despite isolated incidents of prejudice. But national events, such as a massacre committed by a lone gunman at a Wisconsin Sikh temple in 2012, have prompted heightened security and educational efforts, such as giving temple tours and speaking to school and church groups.

“We need to work a little more on telling people who we are,” said Chitratan Singh Sethi, who is active at the Sikh gurdwara. “We definitely try our best with whatever opportunities come our way.”

Shifting the religious landscape
Pastor Deo Lagoon (center) prays as worshipers accept Jesus Christ on March 16 at a service of Bhutanese Baptist Church in Carrick. Mr. Lagoon is a resettled refugee from Bhutan, as is most of his congregation. His wife, Rajami Lagoon, stands behind him. At right is Pastor Kim Grueser of Pittsburgh Baptist Church, which is supporting the Bhutanese church. Julia Rendleman / Post-Gazette

Margaret Standard came to Pittsburgh from her native Georgia in the late 1950s when her husband was transferred here by Westinghouse.

“We were supposed to stay here for two years. Somebody can’t count,” recalled Ms. Standard, now 85. But, she concluded, “we were sent here for a reason.”

With other Southern transplants, the Standards helped found Pittsburgh Baptist Church in Dormont, the first Southern Baptist congregation in the Pittsburgh area. It quickly set and met a goal of ringing the city with new churches. “There was just a need, and we were able to meet it,” Ms. Standard recalled.

The congregation is back to cultivating new churches today — cooperative ventures between the spiritual descendants of Southern migrants and more recent arrivals from foreign lands.

On a Sunday morning earlier this year, while the mostly white, English-speaking congregation was singing traditional hymns like “He Leadeth Me” in the upstairs sanctuary, about 20 Vietnamese-Americans were finishing up worship in a downstairs classroom. Teenagers on piano and drums accompanied “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” and “Because He Lives,” sung in Vietnamese and accented English.

In the afternoon, the Slavic Baptist Church, a small group of mostly Ukrainian immigrants, met in the sanctuary for prayer, preaching and singing to lyrics written in the Cyrillic alphabet on the large screens.

And that evening, at a sanctuary in Brentwood, a Bhutanese pastor affiliated with Pittsburgh Baptist Church led fellow refugees in Nepali-language worship to the accompaniment of drums and a well-amplified guitar.

These are a few scenes of the ferment surrounding immigration and faith today in Pittsburgh and the United States. While many immigrants transplant Old World faiths to new soil, others have switched or left their historic religions.

Some American churches are actively evangelizing among the newcomers — seeing a historic moment in which the populations of the once-distant mission fields are now in their own backyards. Some immigrants themselves are proselytizing among their own ethnic and language groups and their U.S.-born neighbors.

Many faith-based social-service organizations forbid proselytizing in their work with immigrants and refugees, but some congregations do evangelize while also offering practical aid such as food, clothing and English lessons.

That has raised concerns among some immigrant and refugee advocates over what they see as potentially coercive tactics — even if unintentional — aimed at vulnerable populations.

“These mission groups that help with those resources, that’s great,” said Sancha Rai, a leader in the Bhutanese community. But some people “later feel obligated” to attend the churches that helped them.

Still, Mr. Rai said the Bhutanese community, which celebrates Hindu and Buddhist festivals, has encouraged its Christian members to hold a Christmas celebration, saying: “You organize it and we’ll come. Every religion we take as holy.”

Courtney Macurak — director of Prospect Park Family Center, a refugee-service agency of South Hills Interfaith Ministries with strict no-proselytizing rules — tells refugees they “have the right to say no” when proselytizers knock on their doors. But sometimes the message gets lost in translation..

Some immigrants themselves are fervent evangelizers.

Living Spring International Center, a Pentecostal church in Wilkinsburg, is part of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, a Nigerian denomination active in scores of countries with a goal of being within a short drive of every soul in developed nations and within a short walk of everyone else.

“We are mandated to go to the whole world,” rather than just create a church by and for West Africans, said Laide Ogunyemi, a founding member of Living Spring.

And Christianity is hardly the only religion causing a cross-cultural shake-up. The growing presence of Muslims has led to some converts to Islam. And while some Buddhist temples are community centers for Asian immigrants, others largely draw U.S.-born learners to classes on meditation, with the resident lama or monk often the only Asian in the room.

Lili Tiolla prays during a worship service at La Iglesia Cristiana Sion Sunday, Oct. 12 in Carrick. Julia Rendleman / Post-Gazette

A “send city”

The Southern Baptist Convention — the nation’s largest Protestant body, but with only a small presence locally — has officially designated Pittsburgh one of 50 “send cities” in North America. That makes it a destination for money and workers to expand beyond its mostly white, Southern base.

Pittsburgh Baptist has also helped launch two neighborhood churches among predominately U.S.-born populations, but its ethnic focus reflects its goal to reach the entire city.

“We cannot effectively do that just speaking English,” said Pastor Kim Grueser. “The world has come to Pittsburgh.”

The church soon connected with pastors with visions of their own for “church planting” — a missionary strategy of starting congregations geared to unreached populations.

Among them was Deo Lagoon — one of thousands of ethnic Nepalis who are refugees from Bhutan. The son of a Hindu priest, he converted while a refugee student in Nepal, concluding only Christianity offered hope for eternal life and forgiveness of sins. He sensed God commanding him “to tell your people about Jesus,” he recalled.

Mr. Lagoon, now 58, started a church in Nepal and connected with Pittsburgh Baptist after resettling here. The congregation meets at Brentwood Christian Church to be closer to refugees’ homes in Carrick and Whitehall.

The small Vietnamese congregation was founded by Dan Nguyen, 64, who previously pastored other churches here and in Vietnam. He “followed God, and the Bible says to go out and spread the word,” he said through a translator, and has done so through such means as passing out religious literature at Vietnamese markets.

Pastors Lagoon and Nguyen both receive funding to work as church planters by the Southern Baptists’ North American Mission Board.

The Slavic Baptist Church started about 15 years ago, its service a mix of Ukrainian, Russian and English. “We definitely want to reach people for Christ,” said longtime member Yuriy Kostyuk, 40, a welder from Plum. “Our goal is mostly for our people, but we accept everybody.” Prayer, praise and pinatas

The view is similar at Iglesia Cristiana Sion, a Spanish version of the name of the congregation where it meets Sunday afternoons, Zion Christian Church in Carrick.

At a recent service, the small but spirited group of worshipers raised their hands as they prayed and sang in Spanish. Afterward, they gathered for lunch in the fellowship hall, followed by a birthday celebration featuring cake and a pinata.

Raised with little religious training in Venezuela, Pastor Frank Rondon became a Christian as an adult. He met his future wife, Stephanie, whose father is pastor of Zion, while he translated for a mission team she was on. He felt a call to ministry, went to a Bible college in Massachusetts and led two New England congregations.

They returned to Stephanie’s hometown and opened the church in 2012.

“Sometimes the need is the call,” he said. “Seeing there is a need for a Hispanic church in Pittsburgh and knowing that God called us to preach the gospel, and having a Hispanic heritage myself, we decided to follow God and ... start the church.”

Gerri Hines of Wilkinsburg prays during a service at the Living Spring International Center in Wilkinsburg. Julia Rendleman / Post-Gazette

“I have a very big God”

Over in Wilkinsburg at a Wednesday evening service earlier this year at Living Spring, dozens of worshipers sang a full hour’s worth of high-octane praise songs with words like, “I have a very big God who is always on my side.”

The church, launched more than a decade ago by one in Philadelphia, has since planted others in the South Hills, Erie and Morgantown, W.Va., and plans another in the North Hills.

Pastor Adegboyega Esan said he was working as a banker in his native Nigeria when he got involved with Redeemed Christian Church of God. “At some point you just find yourself pastoring a church once you have a call,” he said.

Pastor Esan preaches what he calls a “full gospel” of a holy lifestyle and both material and spiritual prosperity.

While most attendees are West African immigrants, the church tries to connect to the surrounding African-American neighborhood and wider community through school supply give-aways, public festivals and health fairs.

Among the U.S.-born attendees are Gerri and Lephate Hines, who were invited by a member who is a nurse who was caring for her sister.

“When you see people who love the Lord, you can feel it,” said Ms. Hines, 65, who brought a well-worn Bible to the service and knelt in prayer during the worship time.

Teachings from the East

Things were far quieter on a recent evening at the Olmo Ling Bon Center in Greenfield, one of several Buddhist sites in the region. About a dozen mostly Caucasian participants sat in meditation on cushions or chairs in the modest storefront, lavishly decorated with sacred scrolls and mandalas and images of the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhist leaders.

The center follows the Bon tradition, which both predates and is interwoven with the main strands of Tibetan Buddhism. The session included ritual chants, silent meditation and a teaching on compassion by founder Tempa Dukte Lama.

The teachings have resonated with practitioners like Kate Bazis, 42, an artist from Wilkinsburg. Raised Catholic, Ms. Bazis gravitated toward Buddhist practice but isn’t interested in labels: “If it’s a true truth, it doesn’t matter what form we put it in. They all should have the same teachings.”

Burundian refugees infuse new life into local church

Angela Irankunda and Edisa Bukuru, both 17 of Northview Heights, worhsip at the Cornerstone Church in Ross. The Cornerstone Church has welcomed a large group of Burundian refugees. Nate Guidry / Post-Gazette

In the middle of a Sunday worship service at Cornerstone Church in the North Hills last month, Ntahimpera Evelyne stood up from her pew and called out the first ululating notes of a worship song with its roots in Central Africa.

She and several others in the congregation then strode rhythmically to the front, where they sang joyfully in the Swahili and Kirundi languages, with lyrics such as "My love for Jesus has no end and I'm taking care of my salvation."

They swayed and rolled their arms in simple choreography, the women with brightly patterned skirts, blouses and layered headscarves, the men in collared shirts and jeans or baggy linen pants.

The scene repeats itself regularly at Cornerstone, where a chain of events beginning half a world away has led to the integration of dozens of African refugees — exiles of a genocide that occurred so long ago that many grew up entirely outside their native Burundi — into the small, mostly white church.

Since the first Burundian refugee families connected with the church about six years ago, the congregation has helped its members learn English, get driver's licenses, prepare for jobs and navigate the bureaucratic obstacles of getting healthcare, housing and school enrollment. Many live in North Side neighborhoods and have found work in pharmaceutical manufacturing and other manual labor.

In turn, the congregation has received an injection of new energy, an infusion of children into what had been a small Sunday School program and powerful examples of faithful resilience amid adversity.

“I feel really passionate about this church,” said Boniface Rukundo, 28, a North Side resident who was born in Congo and spent his entire life there and in Tanzania before coming to Pittsburgh six years ago.

It started around 2008 when the Rev. Michael Guthrie received a call from the refugee service organization of Catholic Charities, seeking to set up a meeting between the church leaders and the first three families of Burundians to arrive.

Egenie Munezero, 2, enjoys the singing of the Burundia Choir during worship service at the Cornerstone Church in Ross. Nate Guidry / Post-Gazette

Through an interpreter, the Burundians told the church leaders: "We are looking for our mother."

To understand what that meant requires more than a century's worth of church history.

Cornerstone is a member of the Free Methodist denomination, a small evangelical body whose historic anti-slavery stance also prompted missionary work in Africa.

Free Methodist workers were thus in place in Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo to help Burundian refugees. They had fled a genocide of ethnic Hutus in 1972 by the governing Tutsi group, according a background publication by the Cultural Orientation Resource Center, funded by the U.S. State Department to help in refugee resettlement.

After the refugees spent many years in the camps, with no hope of returning safely to Burundi, the U.S. government agreed to resettle some of them here. Those arriving in Pittsburgh soon sought a Free Methodist Church.

As the same time, Cornerstone "had been in a time of asking God, 'What should we be doing to reach out to the community?'“ recalled Rev. Guthrie. ”When these first three families made contact with us, there was agreement that this was what we were supposed to be doing," said Pastor Mike Guthrie.

Those who never taught a Bible class found they could teach the use of stoves and ovens to people who had to cook over open fires in refugee camps. Law enforcement officers talked to young men about how to respond safely if stopped by police.

Member Rick Davidek recalled many hours helping set up and fix computers, teaching refugees to drive and helping them get licenses. The church helped teach job skills and how to file applications and prepare for interviews.

"Their faith is incredible," he said, citing the case of one refugee woman who, lacking any money to put in the offering plate, put in some of her own dishes instead.

In time, more refugees arrived. Some refugees eventually departed the congregation, amicably, to create a more exclusively African church, but many have stayed with the intentionally cross-cultural congregation.

That mix can be seen in everything from the children's programs, with white, American-born youth rehearsing on a recent Sunday for a traditional American Christmas pageant performed by African children, to the worship band which features Americans and Africans blending their voices, guitars and bongo drums.

For the longtime members, the benefit is "to be in a church that is diverse," said Leonora Kivuva, a linguist and native of Kenya who has helped the church and the refugees for the past six years. For the refugees, "they are able to benefit from people who have lived in this country from the beginning in a setting where they feel they are safe and accepted and loved."

Ms. Evelyne, 27, is a mother of four children, ranging from 1 to 9 years. She spent 11 years in a refugee camp before coming to Pittsburgh, arriving with her husband, a toddler and a newborn.

"Everything is different for us," she said. But "I feel very happy because I found our church."

The Burundians do not readily talk about the terrors and hardships they have been through, focusing more on the present.

"Absolutely, it was very tough," in the camps, said Mr. Rukundo. But "I have see God in our lives from where we came from to here I am. It’s only of God," he added.

“One of the main things we have learned is how faith can help us deal with difficulty and tragedy," said Rev. Guthrie.

With Americans, "if something bad happens, we're angry at God, that he must have caused it,” he said. Among the Burundians, "I've never heard that. If anything, I've heard them say God allowed us to be on this journey to bring us to this point. Suffering is not what you think it is, and it doesn't have to destroy you.“

He would never go back to the “calm” days before their arrival.

”When you have noise in the church because of kids, then the church has life, and if it has life, it has a future."