Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

3/29 2018

Easter Dawns in Pittsburgh’s Riverview Park

Easter sunrise service in Pittsburgh“Easter Sunrise Service in the park. It sounded good to our family. But the only one we knew about in Pittsburgh was held in Schenley Park, way on the other side of the city. It would mean at least an hour’s street car ride to get there, so, of course, we didn’t go. That was in 1932.” So recalled Northside resident Helen Nichols in 2008. She went on: “Then one day we heard that a group of people in our area were starting a sunrise service to be held in Riverview Park. That was in our backyard! So of course, we attended.”

And thus began what has become a nearly century-old Pittsburgh tradition—the Northside Easter Sunrise Service in front of Allegheny Observatory in Riverview Park, now in its 84th year. The 2018 interdenominational community worship service begins at 6:30 a.m. April 1, with Pittsburgh Seminary alumnus and Miller Summer Youth Institute co-director the Rev. Derek Davenport preaching. From native Pittsburghers to visitors to our city from around the country, all are invited to attend.

Easter Sunrise Service in Pittsburgh

Since its inception, the NESS has had an ecumenical ethos. Helen Nichols noted, “The [initial organizing] Committee felt it was important to have pastors from different churches participate in the program. So we would visit various churches in the area to get acquainted with the pastors and to invite them to have a part . . . We invited high school choirs to provide the special music. Many of the same people attended year after year, and we became Easter morning buddies!”

That same thing still happens today, according to organizer Alice Hoffmaster, Helen Nichols’ niece. “I really think some people would just show up at 6:30 on Easter, even if it wasn’t advertised! It’s a joyous occasion!” As the last member of the Nichols family to be involved with this service—“but not the last member of the Nichols family!” Alice hastens to add—she does everything from inviting service participants to promoting the event online and through mailings to local churches. “Participants in the service always change,” she says, and “in recent years we have mixed more contemporary music in with the traditional Easter music.” Alice likes “that the service helps people start their Easter day in a positive, reflective, and meaningful way,” and without conflicting with people’s home church services later in the morning. As well, “It’s dark when the service begins, but the sun rises as the service progresses. I like that symbolism,” she says.

Sunrise Service Churches and Pastors

Over the years, many churches have participated in the NESS. Alice’s program lists church participants back to 1938, including: Riverview (previously Watson and Eighth United) Presbyterian, Shadeland Avenue Christian and Emmanuel Baptist (now the merged congregation of Emmanuel Christian Church), Shadyside Presbyterian, Trinity Lutheran, Central Pittsburgh Reformed Presbyterian (now Reformed Presbyterian Church of the North Hills), Mt. Zion Baptist, Bellevue Christian, North United Presbyterian, Evangelical and Reformed Church of the Ascension, First United Presbyterian of Allegheny, New Life Community, Mt. Troy United Church of Christ, Brighton Heights Lutheran, Lamb of God Lion of Judah, Mosaic Community, North Hills Christian and Missionary Alliance, Allegheny Center Christian and Missionary Alliance, Emmaus Deliverance Ministries, and Christ Church at Grove Farm.

Multiple Pittsburgh Theological Seminary students and graduates have also participated as preachers for the NESS. More recently, they include the Rev. Charissa Howe of Emsworth/St. Andrew’s PCs, Erin Angeli, the Revs. Steven Werth and Kellie Mills of Riverview PC, and now Derek Davenport. Alice notes, though, that “the speaker is not always a preacher or pastor. In the past, we’ve had as speakers the 1965 Miss America (Miss Vonda Key Van Dyke), a Christian author (the Rev. William H. Venable), and a missionary to Africa (Ms. Lorinda Robinson).”

Funding for the NESS is provided by donations from the people who attend the service. “The money goes directly to advertising the event, and all participants in the service graciously donate their time,” Alice notes. She sees the event as “a great opportunity, especially for smaller churches, to get involved in a community-wide service, something they may not be able to organize on their own.” Thankfully, as her aunt Helen said 10 years ago, “many of the responsibilities are now being carried on by the next generation of some of the original committee members. Some of those original members are now in Heaven, but it is our desire that the Easter Sunrise Service in Riverview Park will continue until Jesus Christ comes to take His own to be with Him.”


6/9 2017

An Unusual Church Planting Journey

Dave Lettrich, Mdiv and church planting program student I’ll be 47 years old in July. Like most second career seminarians I’ve met, I had little if any idea why I was there, and to be honest, I had little idea of what seminary was supposed to be. My life to that point had been driven by a lot of things, none of which were God. I grew up 30 miles east of the city in a small town at the foothills of the Laurel Mountains, where I continue to live. I have an undergraduate degree in business and an MBA. Most of my life, and my identity, were wrapped up in my entrepreneurial endeavors. My new found focus on God came only after the destruction of everything I thought I knew about my life and what it was supposed to be. Three years ago when I first toured the Seminary, I found myself wandering through the halls of PTS with Director of Enrollment Derek Davenport and I clearly remember meeting then Church Planting Director Chris Brown that day. When Derek introduced Chris as the director of the Church Planting Initiative that was the first time I heard the words “church” and “planting” used together. For all I knew it might as well have been an initiative intended to restore the landscaping around aging church buildings.

Fast forward a few years and the creative, entrepreneurial spirit found in church planting and innovative ministry has been the easiest transition for me from self-driven endeavors to a God-driven life. I should think most everyone who knows me even a little would say it’s hard to see me in traditional church leadership/pastor rolls. Systems theorists might say I’m self-differentiated to an extreme, almost detrimental degree (extreme, almost detrimental is my default setting in life). As I have followed God through this strange blurry trip they call discernment, I’ve found myself most drawn to atypical pastoral leaders—community starters like PTS alums Chris Brown, Keith Kaufold, and Jeff Eddings[1]. I’ve been encouraged by their determination to follow God on the terms they hear God calling, regardless of the established church world around them.

Ministry on the streets of Pittsburgh

church planting on the streetsThrough this discernment process, I have heard God call me to the streets, to minister to Pittsburgh’s homeless population. Almost by accident, I found myself building deep personal relationships with people from the street. I’m drawn to those struggling with addiction and mental illness, those who reject society first, out of fear that given the chance society would reject them. It is in these heavy circumstances that I hear Christ calling me to those who have lost him, or those who have yet to know him. They are drawn to me, and I to them, so I minister to them on their terms and their turf, under the bridges, along the tracks, in the middle of the street. As I do, I’ve recognized how hard it is to convince someone that there is hope in a God greater than anything in this world, when their world view is constricted by the eminent need to survive the next day, the next hour, the next minute.

Bridge to the Mountains

church planters Dave Lettrich and Keith KauffoldTwo years ago, Keith Kaufold and I were rafting down the whitewater of the lower Youghiogheny River with 20 teenage summer campers when I turned to Keith and said, “can you imagine what it would be like to bring people from streets here?” That was the seed that eventually would grow into Bridge to the Mountains.  It started with a few trips bringing a few homeless individuals at a time up to the mountains to ride bikes along the river trail, ride the natural water slides, and just enjoy God’s wonder for a few hours. Eventually I raised some money and brought a group of 20 homeless, and homeless care providers white water rafting. That was a year ago. Today Bridge to the Mountains is a Pennsylvania nonprofit corporation, and we are awaiting our 501 (C)(3) status. We are a Pittsburgh based Christian faith mission dedicated to developing relationships with, and providing a bridge of hope, to those experiencing homelessness, addiction, mental illness, and otherwise challenging life situations. By combining street outreach and the coordination of services with other providers throughout the city with mountain excursions of hiking, whitewater rafting, trail biking, rock climbing, and adventure courses, we believe we can create the best environment to allow an inbreaking of Christ’s peace and hope to those who so desperately need it.

For more information on our ministry visit our website at http://www.bridgetothemountains.org/ or find us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/bridgetothemountains.

Dave Lettrich is a senior Master of Divinity student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary who is also pursuing his graduate certificate in church planting through the Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative.

[1] The Rev Chris Brown (PC USA) is the former head of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a founding co-pastor of the Upper Room Church Community in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The Rev Keith Kaufold (UMC) created Eighth Avenue Place in Homestead, Pa. And the Rev Jeff Eddings (PC USA) is a founding co-pastor of Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community in Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood.


1/18 2017

What is Epiphany?

what is epiphanyWhat is Epiphany? Epiphany is a celebration in the Christian liturgical year occurring Jan. 6.

Every year, Christians celebrate the “A-Team” church holidays—Christmas and Easter. Nothing is on par with those two.[1]

Then there are the sort of “B-Team” holidays. Some churches get excited about Pentecost, Ash Wednesday, or the events of Holy Week, and some have mixed feelings about less liturgical (or non-liturgical) events like Thanksgiving or Halloween.

Finally, there are the “C-Squad” events—the holidays people aren’t really that sure about. Christ the King Sunday. Trinity Sunday. Redemption Sunday. All Saint’s Day. Ascension Day. These holidays are so minor to most of us might not have noticed which one of them I just made up.

Epiphany, for many Christians, is on the C-squad. Despite vibrant celebrations in some traditions, to others, Epiphany is more of a mystery than anything else.

Over the last few years, Pittsburgh Seminary has gathered some resources to help de-mystify Epiphany, so I wanted to take a moment to gather them all in one place as you consider the question, “What is Epiphany?”

What is Epiphany? The Festival of Theophany

In some traditions, Eastern traditions in particular, the festival that occurs at the same time as Epiphany is actually referred to as Theophany, and is a celebration of the Trinity. This approach often focuses on the Baptism of Christ. New Testament professor Edith Humphrey considers this celebration from her experience in the Orthodox tradition in her reflection “Worship of the Trinity was Made Manifest.”

What is Epiphany? The Visit of the Magi

For many of us, the celebration of Epiphany is most closely linked with the three wise men. This is an ancient tradition with deep roots in the arts. Dr. Karen Bowden-Cooper, former curator of the Kelso Museum, traces the development of artistic portrayals of the wise men in her e-book A Journey with the Magi.

PTS produced its own artistic take on this celebration in the form of a short video combining visual art with ancient legends. Watch the “The Story of the Magi” on the Seminary’s YouTube channel. 

If you’re the kind of person who prefers to read the book instead of see the movie, you can skip the audio and just read the text of the Legend of the Magi. There’s also an Epiphany lesson plan to accompany the video if you’d like to use it with a Bible study or class.

What is Epiphany? A Bridge from Christmas to Ordinary Time

After Advent, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day, it can be tough to transition back to ordinary life. Some people use it as a marker to take down the Christmas decorations or to start up normal routines again.

Dr. John Burgess, professor of theology at PTS, discusses this transition in his sermon “Light of Light.” He looks at a passage from Ephesians and considers the significance of Christmas lights in particular.

Kendra Smith, the Seminary’s worship coordinator, also reflects on the transition back to ordinary life in her sermon “Epiphany Experience.”

What is Epiphany? A Time to be Creative

Let’s face it. People have specific expectations from their preacher during the month of December – more so than just about any other time during the year. But January is a different story.

For Epiphany, people are pretty open to different passages or ideas. Even if your church has strong traditions, people may be open to discussing the different ways other churches observe the holiday.

I had some fun preaching on Epiphany at Pittsburgh Seminary by exploring some strange legends and mysterious creatures that are connected to the Magi, if only tangentially. Check it out by reading and listening to the sermon “Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.”

What is Epiphany? It’s lots of things!

This brief cartoon highlights several of the ways we celebrate Epiphany. It only takes a couple minutes of your time, and gives a quick, broad overview of the celebration.

If you’d like a little more depth, check out the Miller Summer Youth Institute’s Epiphany Resource Kit. It includes liturgical aids, lessons, and Bible studies about the various approaches people take to Epiphany.


[1]  At least in how we observe them, naturally the actual significance of various feasts, festivals, and holidays is a matter of some debate, but that’s another blog post for another day (and another author)!

The Rev. Derek Davenport ’05 is director of enrollment at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and program co-director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute. Derek is also a PTS alumnus of the Master of Divinity (MDiv) Program after which he served at a church in Orlando, Fla., for five years. Besides working with prospective students, he serves as a guest preacher in Western Pennsylvania, researches church symbolism on his website, and tweets at @DerekRDavenport.


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