Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

3/29 2018

Easter Dawns in Pittsburgh’s Riverview Park

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.”


3/23 2018

Mister Rogers: A Neighbor before Neighboring Was Cool

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

“Won’t you be my neighbor?” For multiple generations of Americans these words instantly call to mind a familiar melody and images of a warm smile, cardigans, blue shoes, and trolleys. I’m no different, by the time I went to kindergarten in the fall of 1989 I’m sure I had heard Mister Rogers’ (at 1962 alumnus of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) sing this song hundreds of times. I loved so much about the program—the Land of Make Believe, the songs, the days we accompanied Mr. Rogers out the back door to join him at the sandbox. Through it all Mister Rogers’ calm, steady presence exuded sensitivity to the anxieties, joys, and curiosities that mark early childhood. It was the kind of thing that made kids like me love accompanying the grandfatherly Mister Rogers though both mundane things like changing his shoes to his trips out into his neighborhood.

Truth be told, as much as I liked the Land of Make Believe and the backyard sandbox, my favorite part of the show was getting to accompany Mister Rogers out into the neighborhood. In the neighborhood we met all kinds of people, from a friendly mailman and a dancer to folks who made things like crayons. (The orange crayon episode was my favorite. There were SO MANY orange crayons in that Crayola factory!) In my corner of rural western Pennsylvania I did not know anyone who worked in a crayon factory. I had no idea how the crayons I used everyday were made. I was so glad Mister Rogers did and was willing to take me along!


Looking back I can see that one of the things Mister Rogers did for me—completely without my knowing it—was to illustrate through this trips into the neighborhood how connected all of us were to others.


Mister Rogers in the Neighborhood

Looking back I can see that one of the things Mister Rogers did for me—completely without my knowing it—was to illustrate through this trips into the neighborhood how connected all of us were to others. Sure, I might be watching from the comfort of my living room, but just as the camera panned out to show Mister Rogers’ house, not as an island but as a part of a much larger community, so too my life and my little house was part of a much bigger community, a community in which many different kinds of people contributed in a variety of interconnected ways. By taking me with him into his neighborhood Mister Rogers taught me in his gentle way how to better see my neighborhood, my mailman, the people who made things (though not crayons, alas!) close to my house.


Who is My Neighbor

In today’s world neighboring has become a topic that is variously hipper-than-hip in some communities and politically suspect in others. We have books like The Art of Neighboring and “sanctuary cities” at the same time as others build literal and figurative walls. In this milieu the scribe’s question to Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” sounds almost contemporary. It is basically a question “Who counts?”

In the simple goodness that children instantly understand Mister Rogers never had that question. He seemed to intuitively know the answer. As I and generations of children with me accompanied Mister Rogers through his day and into his community we learned that the people we met were all neighbors each with unique contributions to make to our community and each worthy of our kindness. It is a lesson that rings with the Gospel. It is a lesson I hope I never forget.


The Rev. Dr. Charlie Cotherman ’12 serves as pastor of the church plant Oil City Vineyard in Oil City, Pa., and also as an adjunct faculty member at Pittsburgh Seminary. While a student at PTS, Charlie received The Fred McFeely Rogers Prize in Biblical Studies.


In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Pittsburgh Seminary invites you to help fund the Fred Rogers Family Room in our newly renovated, soon-to-reopen Barbour Library! With its Neighborhood-like feel, furnishings, and outfitting, the Fred Rogers Family Room will welcome families to explore reading and play that inspire loving our neighbors, welcoming strangers, and seeing every person as a child of God. Make your donation toward our $25,000 goal today!


3/16 2018

How to Remember the Real St. Patrick

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

saint patrick, missional saint, social justice saintYes, my family is having friends over this March 17, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. And, yes, there will be a mandatory Danny Boy sing-along. And, yes, my son’s cupcakes will have green icing and shamrocks. And, yes, we will write Celtic blessings and bless one another. And, yes, I will offer in my best Irish tenor (even though I’m not Irish; Owens is Welsh) renditions of Who Put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder and The Night Paddy Murphy Died, to the delight, no doubt, of all but my children.

Here’s what we won’t do: sentimentalize the memory of St. Patrick himself. We won’t tell the kids how he used shamrocks to teach about the Trinity or regale our guests with the tail of his driving snakes from Ireland. And not because these stories don’t help us understand the meaning of Patrick.

We won’t do these things because what we know about the real Patrick, from his own writings, is more compelling, and more necessary, for the church today than any legends about him.


The real Patrick, from his own writings, is more compelling, and more necessary, for the church today than any legends about him.


A Missional Saint

At 16, Patrick was abducted from the coast of Britain and forced into slavery in Ireland. Several years later he escaped and found his way home. But in dreams and visions God called him back to carry the Gospel to the very people who had enslaved him.

Patrick tells this story in his confessions. He also tells us how he loved the people of Ireland. He lived among them the rest of his life, as he believed Christ commanded him to do. He walked the island, conversing with the people and challenging pagan practices, all the while showing them the love of Christ.

He found himself caught up in the great mission of God to bring healing and hope to the nations.

The church today can learn from Patrick. Rather than staying hunkered down in the safety of the familiar, as Patrick might have done when he returned to Britain, the church is called to be a peripatetic church, as Patrick was peripatetic bishop—a saint on foot. He walked and lived and risked his life among the people of Ireland. He was a missional bishop, the perfect saint for a would-be missional church.

As Christ was the incarnation of God’s mission to restore a broken world, Patrick shows us a picture of what it means for the church to be the ongoing incarnation of that same mission.


A Social Justice Saint

A letter Patrick wrote shows a different side of his character: his opposition to one of the worst social injustices of his day, human trafficking. Some Christians, newly baptized by Patrick, had been captured and forced into slavery. As a former slave himself, Patrick knew the horror of this practice. Patrick says those who “committed these evil deeds are servants of the demons.”

One can imagine Patrick being equally horrified today as human trafficking continues. I believe he would also decry all sorts of injustices that cause the displacement of people. He would advocate for refugees seeking asylum, for the return of displaced people to their homelands, for the hospitable treatment of immigrants. For, as he says in his letter, “I live as an alien and a wanderer.” He knows what it’s like to live in a land not his own.

Imagine if the church today would learn these lessons from Patrick, if we would let these two commitments shape our lives: an intentional, missional orientation, a participation in the mission of God that gets us among the people of our communities, living, listening, loving, and speaking; and a cleared-eyed commitment to justice for people wandering, for whatever reason, from their homes—people suffering trauma, needing a new start, longing for hope.

Patrick’s witness—the real Patrick’s—might be the key for a renewal of the church in service to God’s world 1,600 years after Patrick lived.


Honoring Patrick

So maybe at our party this Saturday we should write blessings, not just to bless each other, but to bless our community. Maybe we should walk the neighborhood offering the blessings of God to people we meet, listening to their stories, learning to be with them.

And maybe we should write letters, letters to our representatives and letters to the editor, lifting our voices as Patrick did against the social injustices of our day.

Maybe this would be a better way to honor Patrick.

But we’re still singing Danny Boy.


The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of Christian spirituality and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife, Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century.

1 2 3 4 96