A Pittsburgh church puts the gospel back in social care
A patient’s life is saved by a health clinic; three children of an addicted parent have the best summer of their lives; a woman seeking legal advice finds the Lord. Numerous people in Pittsburgh are finding help, hope and healing in Jesus through ministries directly tied to the Allegheny Center Alliance Church (ACAC). Some of these ministries flow directly out of the church. Numerous others were assisted in their birth and still collaborate with and are supported by ACAC. The community the church serves is not confined to the one within its walls.
“If a church like ACAC—situated in the midst of poverty, bigotry, addiction, violence, gangs, dysfunction and brokenness—isn’t addressing those issues, it’s largely irrelevant, and its witness will be extremely weak,” explained Senior Pastor Rock Dillaman. “God’s people are required to ‘do justice’” (Micah 6:8).
In an attempt to practice both aspects of justice—removing evil and fostering righteousness—ACAC recently purchased a nuisance bar one block from the church. It involved a two-year process and partnership with a local community group. The day it closed the doors of the bar ACAC removed a stronghold of violence, alcoholism and prostitution.
Upon hearing the news that ACAC had purchased the bar, one church member, a woman with a past history of addiction, eagerly volunteered to join a work crew to gut the building. “It was in that bar that I started using [drugs],” she explained, “and I can’t wait to go back in there with my brothers and sisters from the church and clean it out.” In the future the church hopes to turn the property and buildings into a positive influence in the community, part of God’s shalom for Pittsburgh’s North Side.
ACAC’s emphasis on working in its diverse and needy community developed over the past 20 years and started with a change of understanding and vision by Pastor Rock.
Raised in the C&MA in the 1950s and ’60s, Rock heard great emphasis on personal salvation that was largely private in its application. There was little or no teaching on addressing injustice in society or the plight of the poor. Society was seen as hopelessly lost and the church’s task as rescuing individuals from its influences.
Once Rock moved to the North Side of Pittsburgh, he saw people trapped in cycles of poverty, violence, unjust social structures and bigotry and was convicted that God didn’t call believers to turn a blind eye. The book Salvation in the Slums by Norris Magnuson introduced Rock to the convictions and actions of evangelical churches at the end of the nineteenth and into the early twentieth centuries. He discovered that The Alliance, the Church of the Nazarene, the Salvation Army and other like-minded groups that emerged from the Holiness Movement were the leading providers of social services and intervention for the poor during that era. Then, theologically liberal churches started to engage in similar efforts but without emphasis on personal transformation through faith in Jesus. Soon the term “Social Gospel” garnered negative connotations—physical help absent salvation—and most evangelicals abandoned the practice of justice, despite clear biblical mandates. It was a classic case of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” “But the social dimension of salvation is in our Alliance DNA,” Rock said. “It’s also in our biblical DNA.”
As Rock studied Scripture from his urban context he saw it with fresh eyes. Salvation should transform how we conduct ourselves in society, not just our private or domestic life. That was underlined in numerous texts like Jeremiah 22:16—“‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is not that what it means to know me?’ declares the Lord”—and Colossians 3:12, a clear echo of Micah 6:8.
The context of Isaiah 1:18, often quoted in regards to personal conversion, actually addresses a nation deficient in social justice. The fasting that God desires in Isaiah 58 is intentional abstinence from a selfish and materialistic life. And Proverbs 29:7 declares, “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.”
In 1991, seven years into his ministry at ACAC, Rock introduced these truths to a congregation taught, like him, to be suspicious of the Social Gospel. “The reputation of ACAC was not that of a church that cared for the community, but rather one that owned a building and met in the community,” said Rock, “and very few people from the community were part of the congregation.” But as God moved, thinking and practice changed.
The first initiative began in 1993. The North Side Christian Health Center was launched by three mission-minded doctors (two from the congregation) in collaboration with ACAC. Today the center offers quality health care in the name and spirit of Christ to the underserved and uninsured. Last year, it moved to a new four-story facility several blocks from ACAC, doubling its capacity to meet the demand of 14,000 patient visits a year. Another location has opened to serve a housing complex with 2,000 residents.
“As Christians and churches, we need to ‘go into all the world,’ which means outside the four walls,” says Floyd Cephas, the health center’s executive director. Floyd encounters the impact of the ministry even when he goes to the local grocery store. A woman bagging his purchases saw his health center name tag and told him that one of the founding doctors had saved her life. “That was powerful,” he recalls.
ACAC frequently supports a ministry by simply offering its resources, such as office or program space. That helped Christian Legal Aid (CLA) to offer free legal advice clinics. “ACAC has really opened their doors to us,” said Janet Goode, CLA executive director. “They have enabled us to grow in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to do at this stage without their help.” About 40 licensed attorneys plus another 30 paralegals, law students and other volunteers served approximately 300 clients last year. This year the number has grown. Lawyers pray for and talk to people about any noncriminal legal need. Divorce proceedings, custody battles, landlord and tenant issues, bankruptcy, foreclosure questions and wills and estates are all addressed with clients who, according to Janet, would otherwise have to do it alone.
Lindsay Oliver and her husband, Nick, who attend ACAC and work as corporate lawyers, volunteer their services at CLA and have seen how peoples’ lives have changed. A year ago, a woman from the area came for advice about a landlord and a gas company. While listening to her story, Lindsay presented the gospel to her. During a follow-up call, the woman said she’d thought about what Lindsay had told her about Jesus and wanted to become a believer. “I was on the phone, and I was like, ‘That’s great. Let’s do it right now.’” The woman contacted Janet several weeks ago to ask for a reference for a new church because she is moving, and Lindsay was blessed to know she was still walking with the Lord. “The volunteers are there because we want to serve the Lord and be His hands and feet and use the talents He’s given us.”
Within the church, ACAC ministries such as the After School Place (ASP) serve community needs. ASP offers approximately 60 kids, from kindergarten to fifth grade, a safe place to do homework and receive tutoring. “We want to be a light to people and say we’re here to help you with whatever problem you have,” said Gwen Kelley, ACAC Children’s Ministry director. Children who might otherwise struggle and fail are succeeding in school. And instead of going home alone to unsafe neighborhoods, they can wait for their parents in space ASP provides.
Children’s Ministry also runs a summer day camp that serves 100 kids. Two of the children this year were brought to camp by a neighbor worried their mom couldn’t take care of them because of her tragic addiction. When the neighbor had insufficient money to care for the kids and their three-year-old sibling, ACAC provided scholarships for the older two to attend. “It was the best summer they’ve ever had,” Gwen said.
“I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy,” sang King David (Psalm 140:12). As the people of God, the men and women of a historic Alliance congregation founded by Dr. A. B. Simpson are seeking to be the Lord’s hands and feet in Pittsburgh’s North Side.
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