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Wilkinsburg reconciles after violence

BY SUSAN KIM | Wilkinsburg, PA | March 23, 2000

From the open doors of the Deliverance Baptist Church on Wednesday night, music spilled over the same places gunfire sounded three weeks ago.

After a gunman killed three, injured two, took hostages, and terrified this community on March 1, residents are still figuring out -- together -- how to go on. In a Community Reconciliation Service, they gathered to express their solidarity in the wake of trauma and fear.

"You can't be afraid," said the Rev. Michael Golphin, pastor at Deliverance and also president of the Wilkinsburg Ministerial Association. "God didn't give you a spirit of fear but a power of love," he added.

The ministerial alliance -- representing a myriad of denominations -- planned the ecumenical service as a way to keep the community focused on a positive response to the recent violence. Though Wilkinsburg has over the years faced challenges associated with racial tension and youth gangs, the town had never had a violent incident of a magnitude that captured national media attention.

"Nobody wants anything like that to happen," said the Rev. Donald E. Owens, Sr., pastor at St. Mark AME Church. "It always happens someplace else."

Part of the service, attended by some 15 pastors and a couple hundred people, was spent simply acknowledging that violence had affected them all.

The day the shooting occurred, church response was immediate. Pastors gathered at the Covenant Church to comfort the families of victims and counsel shaken people who had witnessed the violence. Then the pastors coordinated a "Prayer Walk" attended by some 400 people as well as "Wilkinsburg Family Talks" in which families could gather at the South Avenue United Methodist Church and talk to professional counselors.

The Wilkinsburg pastors said that the bonds created by their six-year-old association helped them respond in a rapid and cohesive manner.

Their ministerial association is diverse in terms of race, denomination, and age of the pastors. It's what Linda Knapp, director of the Presbyterian-affiliated Mulberry Senior Citizens Center calls "a neat bond of love. There is a wonderful camaraderie."

But it wasn't always that way, explained the pastors.

"In the 1930s, Wilkinsburg was one of the first places the (Ku Klux) Klan had a rally," said Golphin. "This has always been a place where good and evil gather."

The alliance was formed in 1994 to address, among other challenges, youth violence in Wilkinsburg.

"Six years ago when youth violence started to erupt here, our mayor gathered all the pastors together as a group. That was when we first became an interracial pastoral community," said the Rev. Janet Hellner-Burris, pastor at the Christian Church of Wilkinsburg.

Pastors here are worried about racial tension escalating in the wake of the shooting. The gunman allegedly targeted white people.

They talk about where they've seen recent racially charged graffiti, what they're hearing on the streets, and what they can do about it.

After all the work that Wilkinsburg residents have done to build positive race relations, the shooting has discouraged some people. The pastors purposely opened the service with hymns of praise and thanksgiving.

But Knapp said, "We don't consider it a step back. Sometimes a tragedy like this opens a door. You start to notice your neighbors. God will use this to do mightier work. Still, we know the reality is there's a lot of pain in this community."

The question of 'why this happened to us' commonly challenges many pastors in the wake of disaster. "Things like this happen. And you can look at the in two ways," said the Rev. Chet Williams, a pastor at the Covenant Church. "Either God sent it or God can use it. God can use this one."

At the Community Reconciliation Service, Golphin encouraged people to keep trying. "We will not turn around. We will not give up. We will not stop. We've come this far by faith," he said.

The highly visible church response has the pastors questioning, among themselves and among their congregations, how to keep up the momentum. "I'm afraid that once all this dies down we'll go back to church as usual until the next tragedy," said Golphin.

The Rev. Chet Williams, pastor at the Covenant Church, said, "we've got to keep getting outside the four walls of the church."

The pastors said they want their response to address violence not only in Wilkinsburg but everywhere. "This has been a day of violence all over the world," said Owens.

"The work is not in here," Golphin agreed. "It's never in here. It's always on the outside. What's great about Wilkinsburg is that we're coming together as a community. It's not what the Baptists are doing or what the Methodists are doing but what the church community is doing. God has given us -- all of us -- the ministry of reconciliation. We are all ambassadors for Christ."

"And this is not the final coming together," said the Rev. Donald E. Owens, Sr., pastor at St. Mark AME Church.

They talk about what to do next: hold outdoor services, rallies, and other publicly visible events. Or, as Golphin put it, "We going to saturate Wilkinsburg with the presence of God."

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