June 4, 2020
Photography Nate Guidry
Reporting Peter Smith
The Rev. Liddy Barlow vividly remembers the words of the Scottish professor at the University of Edinburgh, where she was studying abroad for a semester as an undergraduate.
She was majoring in religion at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, mainly out of interest in the subject, but the religion courses at Edinburgh were geared more to divinity students, those planning to go into ministry.
And as they explored their sense of vocation — a term often used by ministers to describe their work, a sense of sacred calling beyond a job or even a career — she increasingly realized she had more than an academic curiosity in the subject.
“I wrote a paper on the concept of vocation,” Rev. Barlow recalled. “I went to meet the aging Scottish professor. He’s reading. And then he stopped and asked, “Are you writing this paper to test your own vocation?’ ”
Her thought was: “How did you just see through me?”
The encounter crystallized her realization that she was indeed drawn to ministry, following a calling that was nurtured in her childhood church and would later lead to her ordination as a minister in the United Church of Christ.
For the past six years, Rev. Barlow has served as executive minister of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania. The organization comprises local Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant denominational groups, seeking to foster Christian unity and make statements of common concern.
She has also been active in building interfaith ties — efforts that proved particularly urgent when she joined with other Christian and Muslim leaders in solidarity with the Jewish community in the wake of the 2018 anti-Semitic massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue.
Rev. Barlow said her calling wasn’t overly dramatic but rather developed over time. She’s not alone in that.
The Post-Gazette interviewed 10 area faith leaders of various religions and denominations, and their experiences varied greatly. Some trace their calling to a sudden, powerful experience, while others point to smaller, less dramatic signposts along the way.
Some experienced their calling quite early.
Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Western Pennsylvania, always expected to follow his rabbi father’s footsteps; the only question was where and how. He got that answer from the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, who told him as a young rabbi: “The place I want you to go to is Pittsburgh and see what you can do to enhance the world out there.”
Bhante Soorakkulame Pemaratana, now the chief abbot at Pittsburgh Buddhist Center in Harrison, persuaded his parents when he was 10 to let him join a monastery in his native Sri Lanka. “I just liked the peace in the temple,” he recalled.
He has strengthened that commitment since then, and today he leads prayers and meditation sessions at the temple — adapting like everyone else to the era of COVID-19 by livestreaming the sessions for participants. He remembers his spiritual master teaching him, “If you want to spend your life for the benefit of five or 10 people, you can live that life. That means you have a family. But if you’d like to spend your life for the benefit of hundreds of people, maybe thousands of people, then you can be a monk.”
Other faith leaders trace their calling to faith leadership to a powerful inner experience.
Episcopal Bishop Dorsey McConnell still gets emotional recalling the time he was studying in Paris after college, having left behind his childhood Episcopal faith and considering himself an agnostic. He was walking about the city one day, feeling as gloomy as the weather, when he heard the resonant bell of an Orthodox cathedral. He decided to go in, and the rhythms of the liturgy washed over him. “I felt what I realized was the power and presence of God in a way that the fog just lifted,” he said.
The Rev. Paul Abernathy recalls being ordained to serve the relatively minor role of subdeacon at his Eastern Orthodox parish. “I felt this fire well up inside of me, and it lasted for months,” said Father Abernathy, now pastor of St. Moses the Black Orthodox Church in the Hill District. “When I felt the fire burning the most was when I was serving at the liturgy.”
The Rev. Rock Dillaman, lead pastor at Allegheny Center Alliance Church, is among the millions who made or reaffirmed a commitment to Jesus Christ under the influence of the Rev. Billy Graham. Pastor Dillaman recalled he had drifted from his childhood faith during his college years when, one summer night in 1968, he watched the evangelist on television.
“He didn’t say anything I hadn’t heard 3,000 times,” he recalled. “... But at that point, I was ready.” Soon he also felt the call to ministry.
Bishop David Zubik of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh recalled that the turning point for him came when a high school friend dragged him along to a retreat in 1965 that neither really wanted to go to. The witness of young seminarians there, and of the retreat leader just returned from the reformist Second Vatican Council, was life-changing. “God really got me,” Bishop Zubik recalled.
Still others found their vocation later in life, changing careers into ministry.
Pittsburgh Area United Methodist Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi worked as a school psychologist for 17 years. As she increasingly got involved with her church, a fellow member “told me that God has called me to be a pastor,” Bishop Moore-Koikoi recalled later. “I said, ‘It’s nice that God has told you, but God hasn’t told me yet.’” But she soon sensed the call herself.
For Rev. Barlow, the path to ministry began as early as she could remember.
She grew up in Keene, N.H., attending a large Congregational church. In her teen years in the 1990s, she was active in its large “mission-centered youth program,” she recalled.
The church experience fostered her formation in its progressive religious tradition. What she didn’t know until later, though, was that she was witnessing the end of an era — one in which large, vibrant, mainline Protestant churches were common.
“As soon as five or 10 years after I had those experiences, the experience of most mainline churches around the country had totally changed,” she said. “I have the privilege of knowing that territory, yet I have so much of my career ahead of me in a different environment.”
Rev. Barlow’s interest in religious unity began early. She was active at her college’s interfaith chapel, and when the 9/11 attacks occurred at the start of her senior year, "my instinct and that of many on campus was to go to the office of religious life, bring sleeping bags, camp on the floor” and demonstrate solidarity across religious lines.
After college, she taught sixth grade in North Carolina for two years for Teach for America. She earned a master's of divinity from Andover Newton Theological School, located then in Massachusetts.
The seminary stood next to Hebrew College, and she joined a small group of Christian and Jewish students who met regularly for meals and discussions. “It was enormously meaningful to form that kind of relationship,” she said.
"That work is all about rebuilding trust. I believe that showing up, physically putting our bodies in places where they need to be, is a spiritual discipline.”
She later came to Pittsburgh and worked at parishes in the United Church of Christ before assuming her role at Christian Associates, where she works with a board composed of bishops and other local denominational leaders. She does guest preaching in about 20 different pulpits per year and estimates that, between Sunday and midweek activities, she has been to hundreds of churches across the region in the past six years.
Rev. Barlow, 40, and her husband, Gregory, have two young children and live in East Liberty.
Christian Associates has retained an unusually strong and robust commitment from its members at a time when similar organizations in other cities have waned, but Rev. Barlow also recognized early on it would need to adapt.
“The era of institutionalized conciliar ecumenism is at its end,” she said. “Seeking unity in the body of Christ is always an admirable goal. Now we’re at a moment where we need a fresh set of tools to do this work.”
That has included finding ways to cooperate with groups that haven’t traditionally been involved, including Pentecostals and other evangelicals, many of which are non-denominational. Some may also be wary of cooperating across theological lines, although Christian Associates already has broad spectrum of liberal, moderate and conservative denominations. She has seen slow but meaningful progress in expanding participation in some of the programming.
Rev. Barlow’s past interfaith work helped prepare her for responding to the Oct. 27, 2018, anti-Semitic attack on the Tree of Life synagogue building in Squirrel Hill, which claimed 11 lives from three congregations. She was invited to participate in an interfaith vigil the next day at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland.
Taking part in that vigil, and standing on stage with an array of clergy in support of the Jewish community, “I think those were the pivotal” moments of her ministry, she said.
At the same time, she acknowledges ongoing challenges, such as seeking to build relationships between churches across racial lines.
"That work is all about rebuilding trust,” she said. “I believe that showing up, physically putting our bodies in places where they need to be, is a spiritual discipline.”
When he was baptized as an infant, Paul Abernathy kept distracting the Catholic priest by reaching for his liturgical stole.
Today, the Rev. Paul Abernathy can’t help but wonder if that episode, recounted to him by his mother, offered an early hint of his vocation as a priest.
Today, after a long spiritual pilgrimage that included experiences of war, recovery from trauma and an embrace of an ancestral church tradition, he’s serving as an Eastern Orthodox priest, pastoring a small parish and overseeing a social-service organization in the Hill District.
Father Abernathy grew up in South Fayette in a family with part African American, part Syrian heritage. His family attended the former St. Agatha Catholic Parish in Bridgeville while also making occasional visits to the nearby St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church for devotions on behalf of his Syrian forebears.
While an undergraduate student at Wheeling Jesuit University, he studied for a summer in 2000 at the University of Aleppo, Syria. Wanting to familiarize himself more with Orthodoxy ahead of that trip, he visited St. George again.
"I had a really profound experience of the living God in the liturgy ... so mystically inexpressible," he said.
He began to study Orthodoxy and, after his return from Syria, went through the lengthy process of entering the church.
Father Abernathy, a fourth-generation military service member, took part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq as an Army combat engineer. What was hyped as a short war soon morphed into a long-running insurgency.
After one year of service, "I really came home not well," he said, learning firsthand the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I was apprehensive about it. I didn't feel spiritually healthy, but out of duty and respect for the priest, I went along with it.”
His arrival home coincided with the start of the Orthodox season of Great Lent. Its disciplines of repentance and forgiveness gave him a framework to process his trauma positively, even as he saw some fellow veterans take self-destructive turns.
In 2005, while earning a master's degree in public and international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, he spent another summer in Syria, studying how Orthodox Christians were living out their faith and aiding refugees from Iraq.
Their commitment was "absolutely humbling and inspiring," he said.
Later, after returning to the United States, he regularly helped out at his parish. One day, the priest told him he’d recommend the bishop ordain him as subdeacon, a role whose duties include assisting at the altar.
“I was apprehensive about it,” he said, because he was still dealing with his post-war trauma. “I didn't feel spiritually healthy, but out of duty and respect for the priest, I went along with it.”
It’s a relatively short ritual, he said, but when the bishop began to recite the prayers of ordination, “I felt this fire well up inside of me, and it lasted for months,” Father Abernathy said. “When I felt the fire burning the most was when I was serving at the liturgy.”
With his bishop's encouragement, he ultimately settled in the Hill District, where in 2011 he launched a local affiliate of the Orthodox charity FOCUS North America.
The work of FOCUS Pittsburgh, now known as Neighborhood Resilience Project, takes its shape from what Father Abernathy calls "trauma-informed" community development. The premise is that communities are suffering traumas as surely as individuals do with the endless plagues of violent crime and systemic poverty and inequality.
The work includes organizing everything from a clothes closet and food bank to a medical clinic and a rapid response team that goes to crime scenes, comforting and counseling those affected.
He also felt called to the priesthood and studied at St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Eastern Pennsylvania, eventually being ordained a priest.
He also founded St. Moses the Black Orthodox Church, part of the Antiochian Orthodox tradition.
For several years, both the church and the agency operated out of a small two-story walk-up building on Centre Avenue. Earlier this year, they moved to more spacious quarters with the agency’s acquisition of the former Hill House Association’s senior center on Bedford Avenue.
Father Abernathy, 40, and his wife, Kristina, have two young children.
Since the pandemic began, the Neighborhood Resilience Project has begun training volunteer health deputies. These include influential and respected people in underserved communities who are making wellness checks on people, educating them about the virus and even heading out on the street to persuade people to disperse from potentially risky social gatherings.
The work may have taken on a new form, but it’s fulfilling an ancient mission, Father Abernathy said: “This is what the church should be doing in this particular time.”
Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., as the son of a rabbi, Yisroel Rosenfeld always expected to become a rabbi himself. The only question was what kind of rabbinic work he’d do, whether as a teacher or a leader of a congregation or community.
As it turns out, Rabbi Rosenfeld is filling each of those roles as director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Western Pennsylvania.
He oversees the staff and programs that aim to foster Orthodox Jewish observance and education in a territory stretching from Altoona to Morgantown, W.Va.
Much of its activity, though, is centered in Squirrel Hill, where Rabbi Rosenfeld is the spiritual leader of the congregation that worships at the Lubavitch Center, and where he’s dean of the Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, with about 450 students ranging from preschool to 12th grade.
The worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch organization, based in Brooklyn, stems from a 250-year-old branch of Hasidic Judaism, itself a branch of Orthodoxy. Members wear traditional dress, engage in intense devotion and seek to promote religious observance among all Jews. It was historically led by spiritual authorities known as rebbes, most recently Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994.
“He's actually the one that sent me here,” said Rabbi Rosenfeld, 67, recalling the moment that shaped his life’s destiny long ago. “It was very direct. The rebbe said, ‘The place I want you to go to is Pittsburgh and see what you can do to enhance the world out there.’ ”
Rabbi Rosenfeld graduated from Chabad’s rabbinical seminary in Brooklyn and was ordained there.
He met his wife, Blumi, when she came to New York to study at the same school where his sister did, and they were married in Pittsburgh. She grew up in Squirrel Hill. Her grandfather, Rabbi Sholom Posner, had himself been sent by the rebbe’s predecessor to start Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh in 1943.
The couple have 9 children and numerous grandchildren, a number of whom are now rabbis or wives of rabbis.
"‘The place I want you to go to is Pittsburgh and see what you can do to enhance the world out there.’”
Today the Lubavitch Center is busy from early morning to late at night — prayer services, school activities, Torah studies for adults.
Rabbi Rosenfeld considers himself a learner as well as a teacher. “I still study,” he said, standing amid a library room that’s regularly used by children and adults. “Take a look. It could take a lifetime just going through so many of the things that are here.”
The Lubavitch Center mainly draws those who are committed to Hasidic practices. The organization also has several other synagogues and centers around the region, called Chabad, that seek to provide an entry point to Orthodox practice.
“I felt that we needed to have sort of an opportunity for somebody who's just getting started,” he said.
The Chabad centers range from Squirrel Hill and the Oakland-area college community to the suburban South Hills, Fox Chapel, Monroeville and farther afield, including Altoona and Morgantown, W.Va. A new center is planned for Erie.
Rabbi Rosenfeld said the organization’s mission is to encourage Jews to embrace traditional observances, but it’s not to proselytize.
“We don't go out as Jews to look for somebody who's not Jewish,” he said. “You’re not Jewish? Great. There's so much you need to do. We all have what we need to do.”
The current pandemic and recession have hit the local Chabad-Lubavitch community hard. One congregant died of COVID-19, and many have lost jobs, Rabbi Rosenfeld said. The yeshiva students are studying at home, and parents are overseeing multiple children doing online learning.
The Yeshiva Schools have begun distributing hundreds of kosher breakfasts and lunches to families in the community.
Rabbi Rosenfeld said while some people ask why God is allowing the pandemic, he reframes the question.
“We can’t assume we understand God,” he said. “At the same time, there certainly is a message for us. What’s the takeaway for us? Maybe we have to strengthen our family life. ... Maybe it’s an opportunity for us to enhance our prayers. How do we make the world a better world as a result of whatever is happening?”
The Rev. Rock Dillaman was leading a church in Erie County that was strong and growing. Then in 1984, he accepted a call to come to Pittsburgh and lead a church that was anything but.
“It was 400 people on a really good weekend, all Caucasian and none from the neighborhood,” said the lead pastor of Allegheny Center Alliance Church. “That’s a plotline that is not sustainable, nor is it appropriate.”
Some 36 years later, Pastor Dillaman is preparing to retire from a church that now has a racially diverse congregation of 3,500 regular participants. The onetime commuter church now draws more people from its home zip code than any other.
“We went from all-Caucasian with a very strong reputation for bigotry that had been earned” to one reflecting the diversity of Allegheny County, Pastor Dillaman said. That’s unusual for large evangelical churches.
“We’re an anomaly,” he said. “I don't think we should be.”
Pastor Dillaman grew up in Butler and went to Duquesne University, studying piano and trumpet and wanting “passionately to be a jazz musician.”
“I had been raised in a solidly Christian home but was doing my searching, my rebellion, so I wasn’t living the faith at the time,” he recalled.
At home in the summer of 1968, he was watching television when the famed evangelist Billy Graham came on.
“He didn’t say anything I hadn’t heard 3,000 times, because I was in church every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesdays, special meetings, the whole thing,” Pastor Dillaman said. “But at that point, I was ready, and tired of the alternative. That was when I actually embraced faith. I went back to Duquesne but after one semester felt unmistakably God was calling me to pastoral ministry.”
He transferred to Nyack College in New York State — affiliated with his Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination — and eventually earned doctorates there and at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky.
His first long-term pastorate, in North East, Pa., was doing well. “But the Lord had been telling me for several years I was going to be in Pittsburgh,” he said, and Allegheny Center called him when its pulpit opened.
“Once folks in the neighborhood saw us get outside of the walls ... they began to view us a bit differently.”
He not only accepted the job, he moved his family into the North Side. He noted that many urban, historically white churches close after their members move to the suburbs and their endowments dry up.
What followed was “a total new design for how we did church. The gospel remained the same. It was how we lived it out.”
The first steps to change involved Allegheny Center addressing basic needs of local residents.
“Once folks in the neighborhood saw us get outside of the walls ... they began to view us a bit differently,” he recalled. But it took more than a decade before African Americans began joining the church. “You don't get over a reputation overnight.”
Change involved rethinking everything from the music to Sunday School materials to the leadership.
Whereas some might envision a church that is colorblind, Pastor Dillaman takes a different lesson from the Bible. When the Greek-speaking portion of the early Jerusalem church complained of neglect, the apostles appointed deacons to address their needs — and they all had Greek names. Similarly, he said, a multicultural church needs a leadership team that looks like its membership.
“I tell pastors … you have to be intentional” to be multicultural, he said. “If not, it’s just wishful thinking.”
Over time, the church has developed a membership that is about 50% white, 35% African American and 15% Asian and Hispanic. “We reflect Allegheny County,” Pastor Dillaman said.
The church has planned a deliberate transition from Pastor Dillaman to his successor, Assistant Lead Pastor Alan Hannah. They hadn’t counted on transitioning during a pandemic.
Like most churches, it moved from on-site to online worship during the shutdown. In the process, Pastor Dillaman has seen unexpected advantages. He has learned more of people’s needs and prayer requests now that everyone is sharing the more widely via online media.
The church has been preparing about 4,000 meals weekly, distributing them mostly to households with children in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Pastor Dillaman, 71, and his wife, Karen, will spend their retirement in the North Side. They are parents of three, including a daughter who is deceased. They, with their son-in-law, are helping to raise her two children. They have six grandchildren in all.
“I’ve loved ministry,” he said. But “it’s time. At 71, you don't have the juice you used to. The church needs a younger guy to be more attuned to the culture.”
Shri Sureshchandra Joshi grew up in Nainital, a city in northern India with a prominent lakeside Hindu temple. His father was a Hindu priest, and he followed his father’s example by becoming one himself.
“He inspired me,” said Shri Joshi. “My father told me, ‘Don't look for the comfortable life. You can see some people are millionaires — they are not happy.’” Instead, his father taught: “We have to be a good person. The life’s goal is truth and nonviolence.”
He spent years studying Sanskrit and the Vedas — the sacred language and scriptures of Hinduism — along with other religious courses, astrology, yoga and sacred music.
For a time he worked as a school principal in India. Then he was contacted by a friend in the United States who told him: “We have a temple here, and we need a priest in this country.”
“I thought, ‘I can try. I heard about the United States. It’s a good country, it’s a democracy,’” recalled Shri Joshi. (“Shri,” derived from Sanksrit, is an honorific used before Indian surnames.)
“My father told me, ‘Don't look for the comfortable life. ... The life’s goal is truth and nonviolence.”
He began work on a temporary basis in 1986 at the Hindu Jain Temple in Monroeville, which had been opened two years earlier by many in Pittsburgh’s growing Hindu and Indian American community.
He liked the work, and when the opportunity came to stay permanently at the temple, Shri Joshi accepted it.
The temple is designed in a traditional temple style, with a striking red brick facade and ornate carvings. It has shrines to major deities in the Hindu and Jain religions, both of which trace their roots to India.
While venerating different deities, Hindus believe they are all manifestations of the same divine unity. Shri Joshi said: “God is supreme, God is one.”
He is one of three priests at the temple, along with Shri Vinod Kumar Pandey and Shri Jagdish Chandra Joshi.
Shri Joshi, 67, and his wife, Maya, live in Monroeville. They have two adult sons.
On a typical morning — pre-pandemic — the priests would preside at opening devotions, bathing and making offerings to the deities while chanting prayers. They regularly preside at pujas, acts of worship on behalf of devotees, throughout the day.
Priests also preside at events honoring 16 points along a person’s life cycle, from before birth through death. They often are called on to go to a devotee’s home for a blessing and worship.
Shri Joshi also accompanies himself on harmonium as he chants sacred prayers and hymns.
Because of the pandemic, the temple has been closed to the public, but the priests have continued presiding at the devotions and prayers individually.
Early in the pandemic, he assisted a family who could not have him be there in person for a loved one’s funeral due to social distancing, he said.
“We set up the Zoom,” he said. “I gave them the list of all the ritual things they have to collect. Then I gave them the directions of what they had to do. It was only family, only their kids. It was very hard for them.”
When they offer prayers at the temple, the priests are mindful of people in such circumstances during the pandemic:
“Now the whole world is facing difficulty, so we are praying that we all are disease-less and have a happy life,” Shri Joshi said.
Even though she was closely involved in church life since she was a child, Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi didn’t embrace a calling to ministry until she was in mid-career.
Bishop Moore-Koikoi, 53 — who now leads the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church — was born in West Virginia and grew up in Maryland.
Her father was a United Methodist minister, and she would listen in on church business meetings with fascination. “I liked hearing the give-and-take of people,” she recalled. “I liked hearing the way my dad handled that, letting everyone have a voice.”
She earned a master’s in school psychology from the University of Maryland in 1992, and she worked as a public school psychologist for 17 years. She was also getting increasingly involved in church leadership, music and preaching.
One day, a stalwart church member “told me that God has called me to be a pastor,” she later said. “I said, ‘It’s nice that God has told you, but God hasn’t told me yet.’” But she soon came to the same conclusion, earning a master’s of divinity from Wesley Theological Seminary and being ordained.
She said she takes lessons from her educational work into her current work. Both involve making sure systems work for the people they’re intended to work for, particularly the vulnerable.
“While I was marching I was terrified (but concluded) this is what God wants me to do.”
When she was a student pastor at a small urban congregation in Baltimore, she realized it lacked a connection to its neighbors. She held a Bible study for the neighborhood youth — not in the sanctuary but on a nearby front stoop. “That’s what the kids in the neighborhood did — sit on the stoop,” she said.
In 2015, Baltimore erupted in unrest after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. As a United Methodist district superintendent in the city, she worked with churches that distributed needed supplies and offered safe havens for children when school was canceled.
Bishop Moore-Koikoi recalled going on a peace march with other pastors from various denominations soon afterward. Smoke and tear gas were still in the air.
The ministers found themselves being escorted by gang members, who made sure they were safe and that onlookers quieted down while they prayed.
“While I was marching I was terrified,” she later recalled, but concluded, “this is what God wants me to do.”
She was elected a bishop in 2016 by the Methodists’ regional conference and assigned to lead the Western Pennsylvania Conference. Like the churches she grew up in and later led, the hundreds of churches in the conference range from urban to suburban to rural settings.
She and her husband, the Rev. Raphael Koikoi, live in Mars. He is also a United Methodist minister. He’s been conducting spiritual and social outreaches in the Upper Allegheny Valley and most recently has been appointed pastor of Warren United Methodist Church in the Hill District.
Bishop Moore-Koikoi’s tenure began just as tensions have risen to a near breaking point in the global United Methodist Church over its prohibitions regarding ordaining or marrying LGBT persons. A pending proposal, expected to go before a United Methodist conference next year, would split the denomination amicably. That still leaves each conference and church having to decide which side to join.
Even now, Bishop Moore-Koikoi envisions the church to be as big a tent as possible, recalling how her grandparents stayed in the denomination even through decades when it was segregated by race. Now African Americans such as herself are in leadership positions.
“They had hope in the dream that one day this denomination would look like the kingdom of God,” she said.
Similarly, she said: “I support the United Methodist Church. And I want folks to be a part of this denomination, who have made a choice to accept our theology, and our polity. And part of our polity, and part of our theology says that we stay in the messiness of diversity.”
The pandemic has brought on a whole new set of challenges. Even with in-person worship canceled since March, churches have found ways to provide food and other supplies to the needy, to check in on isolated members and to provide worship and fellowship online.
“Folks now more than ever need to feel the presence of Jesus Christ through the church,” she said. “I'm godly proud of the ways in which the pastors and lay leaders in Western Pennsylvania have risen to the occasion in the midst of their own anxiety and fear.”
As a student at St. Veronica High School in Ambridge in the 1960s, David Zubik planned to become an attorney, get married and have children.
Nothing changed that plan after a friend invited him to go along on a religious retreat. “I hated it,” he recalled. “I just felt like a fish out of water.”
A couple years later, the same friend invited him to another retreat.
He refused at first, but the friend didn’t want to go either and just wanted some company. So the future Bishop Zubik went, with very different results from the last one.
There, he met seminarians preparing for the priesthood, and their example inspired him. So did the retreat leader, then-Bishop and future Cardinal John Wright. This was 1965, and the bishop was freshly returned from the Second Vatican Council, with its historic reforms in liturgy and other church practice.
“God really got me. He got me where I needed to be gotten,” said Bishop Zubik, who would eventually fill the position Cardinal Wright held as spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Even after Bishop Zubik entered seminary, he said, “I still continued to fight the Lord during that time, because I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted to do. Eventually I got the peace in my own heart” about his calling.
What followed was ordination in 1975 and a long tenure as priest, as administrator and eventually as a bishop, serving for a time in Green Bay before assuming leadership in his home Diocese of Pittsburgh in 2007.
“God really got me. He got me where I needed to be gotten."
The last few years alone have been among the most challenging — a grand jury report on decades of sexual abuse in the diocese, a sweeping parish reorganization in response to declining membership and participation, a slump in funding.
Now there’s the COVID-19 outbreak, causing churches temporarily to shutter, interrupting sacramental life for more than two months and causing further cuts in revenues and jobs. Bishop Zubik has taken his share of criticism through all of this.
He said there’s no point in speculating on whether he would have chosen a different calling had he known what was coming.
“It’s the same thing for a married person” facing a challenging situation, such as having a child with a disability, he said. “You’re better off not knowing what you’re going to face. When you face the challenges, you have the commitment to say, ‘I have to work through this.’”
He added: “It’s the issue of having faith to say I'm going to put my whole self, heart and soul, to do the best job I can.” And, he said, “I know I’m not alone, that Jesus Christ is with me.”
Bishop Zubik often tells audiences about a conversation he had with an airplane seatmate. The man noticed the bishop praying the rosary and, as they conversed, told him he used to be a Catholic but became a Buddhist because he’d never seen a “Christian who really tries to be like Jesus.”
That encounter, Bishop Zubik said, has guided his decision-making with an aim to get people enthusiastic about knowing Jesus and following his example.
While Catholic churches slowly are reopening in June, Bishop Zubik said the impact of the recent shutdown is profound.
“I’m hoping that it has made people more appreciative and aware of the presence of God in their lives, and perhaps because of what’s happened, because of self-quarantining and being self-quarantined with the family, they've discovered each other in a new way,” he said.
He has continued to lead services at St. Paul Seminary’s chapel for online worshippers.
“We’ve been very blessed to be able to do livestreaming,” he said. “We do Mass every day, we do evening prayer. It’s amazing how many hits there are, from other parts of the country. I just received a thank you note from Canada.”
He added: “That’s been beautiful, people expressing their gratitude and expressing their faith, but let’s face it: There’s nothing like being with your people.”
For more than a decade, Bhante Soorakkulame Pemaratana has regularly led quiet meditation sessions in a small house in Harrison, converted into a Buddhist temple, located between a main road and a quiet wooded area.
Some of the participants are committed to Buddhist teachings, others are curious about meditation or are trying it out at a doctor’s recommendation.
Whatever the motive, he’s there to help guide and teach them, even if it’s half a world away — and a very different world — from his native Sri Lanka.
Bhante Pemaratana, 43, abbot of the Pittsburgh Buddhist Center, lives at the temple along with two other monks. “Bhante,” or venerable, is a Buddhist title for a spiritual leader.
He was attracted to the monastic lifestyle from an early age.
“I just liked the peace in the temple. I liked robes,” he recalled. His spiritual master speculated that in a past life, he may have been a monk, explaining why he would “have this inclination early.”
His parents were reluctant at first.
“My mother thought that was too early for me,” he said. But his grandparents supported the idea and eventually persuaded his parents to let him join.
Once he started, he had to adapt to the rigorous discipline and regimented schedule of monastic life. There were times as a boy when he cried with homesickness, but overall he liked the spiritual experience, and he became a full monk as soon as he was eligible at age 20.
He recalls his spiritual master teaching, “If you want to spend your life for the benefit of five or 10 people, you can live that life. That means you have a family. But if you’d like to spend your life for the benefit of hundreds of people, maybe thousands of people, then you can be a monk.”
He was reluctant to come to America.
“The people who started this place were looking for a monk who spoke English,” he said, and they consulted a monk who recommended him.
“Initially I didn’t want to come. I said no,” Bhante Pemaratana said. “But they kept asking me to come, so I decided to come for three months.”
He arrived in 2008 and discovered “this community is really genuine, they want to learn, they want to practice. I thought that being here could be a real service to the community.”
Coming here also gave him an opportunity to further his education. He earned a doctorate in religious studies at the University of Pittsburgh and plans to pursue post-doctoral studies through the University of Pennsylvania, building on his research into the modernization of Buddhism.
In pre-pandemic days, the meditation sessions typically drew 20 to 25 people to the temple. He also has offered sessions at various libraries in the region. Some participants are “more comfortable to come to a library” than the temple, he said.
He often teaches on lovingkindness meditation, a way of countering negative thoughts. “The meditation begins with oneself, and gradually expands to wishing well-being for all humanity and then all living beings,” he said.
"This is like a wake-up call for people to think about what matters in life."
In the time of pandemic, “we are serving more people than we used to,” he said. “Our online programs are well attended, and even other people from other states are joining.”
He has in the past offered a systematic course on Buddhism that typically drew 15 or 20 people in person. Now he’s launching a class on Zoom and had to cut off registration when it reached 50.
“I think people have more time,” he said.
And they also have more anxiety these days, which is why many are seeking out the temple’s meditation and chanting sessions, he said.
He said when people ask for the Buddhist perspective on the pandemic, he notes plagues have existed since ancient times and are spoken of in the Buddhist scriptures, which say greed causes famine, hatred causes war and ignorance causes epidemics.
“This is an opportunity for us to revisit how we treat nature, how we care for animals,” he added.
And for individuals seeking solace, or who simply have more time, “this is like a wake-up call for people to think about what matters in life."
Hamza Perez grew up as Jason Perez in Puerto Rico, New York and Massachusetts. He was confirmed in his family’s Catholic faith, but he also had competing influences from the street life around him and for a time was dealing drugs.
“I always felt a connection with God,” he said, but like “all young people I tried different things. They never quenched the thirst” spiritually.
In 1998, he saw an old friend from the streets who appeared transformed and learned the man had embraced Islam. “He looked like he finally tasted happiness without needing anything” such as drugs or alcohol, Imam Perez said.
He recalled also being moved by the recitals of the Quran on the cassette tape his friend played in the car.
Mr. Perez asked to borrow it, and within days, on the streets of Worcester, Mass., his friend brought along an imam who helped Mr. Perez take the shahada, or Muslim profession of belief in one God and in Muhammad as God’s prophet.
Imam Perez took the Muslim name Hamza. Later, he began a course of rigorous study through the Sankore’ Institute of Islamic-African Studies International, eventually being licensed to teach under a lineage with roots in West Africa.
He came to Pittsburgh in 2004 with a group that started the new Light of the Age Mosque. Located in a Central Northside walkup house, it is made of of a handful of small rooms for prayer and study.
Imam Perez said Latino Muslims such as himself trace their connection to the expression of Islam in West Africa to at least two sources — the shared experiences of Latinos and African Americans, and the historic connection between West Africa and Spain during the medieval centuries when Islam had a strong presence on the Iberian Peninsula.
The mosque is attended mainly by U.S.-born converts, of various ethnicities, although it’s open to anyone, and for Friday prayers it also draws participants such as Muslim staff members from nearby Allegheny General Hospital.
Imam Perez, 43, is the father of nine children, ranging from 1 to 23. He and his wife, Aisha, and their children live in the North Side.
“We like to promote young people” and “not just be a bunch of old guys holding on to religious positions.”
He also works as youth director at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, a mosque in Oakland. Often he works to build understanding between youths, strongly influenced by American culture, and their parents, many of them immigrants or refugees from other lands. He believes in showing youths “age-appropriate respect” and not to “dumb down their development.”
“We often see them as children and do not give them the ability to develop themselves as young adults,” he said.
At Light of the Age, Imam Perez puts that into practice.
“Every Friday, we have a rotation of people that we use, and even some young people,” he said. His son and another youth, both 15, recently gave sermons. “We like to promote young people,” he said, and “not just be a bunch of old guys holding on to religious positions.”
For a time after his conversion, Imam Perez and his brother formed a rap group, putting Islamic teachings to the rhythms of hip-hop. Their work was featured in a 2009 documentary that aired on public television. Eventually he gave up the hip-hop, saying with self-deprecation: “I’m not a fan of old rappers. I’m too old for that stuff.”
With the mosque closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s taught a class by phone, and he did some livestreamed reminders to members to keep up their Ramadan observances.
But he doesn’t preach sermons online. “I’m not a big fan of livestreaming,” he said. “As far as transmission of sacred knowledge, it needs to take place in person.”
“The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Those words by the poet T.S. Eliot, who had a formative influence on Dorsey McConnell, also capture something of the Episcopal bishop’s own spiritual journey.
Bishop McConnell now leads the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. But while he grew up an Episcopalian, he only found his way back to the church of his childhood after a long journey in both literal and spiritual terms.
He had graduated from Yale and “thought that I was sort of an agnostic,” even though the authors who had most fired his imagination — like Eliot, John Donne and George Herbert — wrote poetry infused with Christian devotion.
After college, the future Bishop McConnell went to Paris as a Fulbright scholar. “I thought I was going to wind up as teacher and a poet,” he recalled. “But in the course of that year, I went through a profound spiritual crisis in a sense of loss and disorientation.”
One day in Paris, he was “wandering through the city in the winter, walking with my head down. I heard these bronze bells ringing above me.”
He looked up to see an onion-domed Russian Orthodox cathedral, and he went inside to find a service of evening prayer underway.
“I let the music just wash through me,” he said. “I felt what I realized was the power and presence of God in a way that the fog just lifted.”
He told a friend soon afterward, “if I ever became a Christian again, I would have to be a priest.” Where did that thought come from, the friend asked. “I have no idea,” he replied.
"I just thought if I could be a part of that as a priest, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life.”
He then “went through the stages of running,” Bishop McConnell said. He finished his Fulbright studies. He worked as a ranch hand in Argentina and an actor in a California dinner theater.
Moving to New York, “I was confronted with the reality of God and my need for a savior,” he said. He and his soon-to-be-wife, Betsy, began going to to an Episcopal church.
One Sunday, after he did a Scripture reading, a woman told him at coffee hour, “You’re going to be a priest.”
Later moving elsewhere in New York, he got involved with a small Episcopal congregation that grew by reaching out to the diverse neighbors right outside its doors. It started by inviting them to a meal program, which in time the guests themselves began to run, and they also began to join the church.
“It was black and white and Latino, and poor and professional,” Bishop McConnell recalled. “I thought, this is what human life should look like, this call to mercy and this call to holiness and this mutual giving and love. I just thought if I could be a part of that as a priest, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life.”
He went to General Theological Seminary, was ordained in 1983, served as a priest in multiple states and was elected bishop of Pittsburgh in 2012.
Much of his work has involved helping the diocese recover from a major schism and, more recently, to settle amicably the property disputes of several churches that left for the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh.
He has also worked to build ties with historically black churches, and he has sought to bring the church out from its Gothic doors through such things as offering “ashes to go” to pedestrians in Market Square on Ash Wednesday.
He and Betsy, who have an adult son in Seattle, live in Edgewood.
Bishop McConnell, 66, plans to retire next year, although he is delaying that for a few months due to pandemic-caused delays in the succession process.
He admits to being “Zoomed out” with all the online activities during the pandemic, and with church buildings closed. At the same time, one of the highlights of his week is a Zoom meeting with clergy, where they pray with each other and share ideas and needs.
“It’s scary and sad, and there are moments of grief and anger, and then there are astonishing gifts,” he said. “We’ve always said the church is not the building, but now we’re really challenged to believe it.”
Photography Nate Guidry
Reporting Peter Smith