Feature

Urban Impact Changes Lives

Renewal and restoration on Pittsburgh’s North Side

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Ministry graduates leave seminary with a passion to change the world. Maybe they move to bustling cities to become associate pastors at growing churches, wife in tow and kids on the way.

But when Ed Glover left Alliance Theological Seminary 25 years ago, he and his new wife, Tammy, settled in a place they had never known. They didn’t buy the home with the two-car garage in the suburbs. They didn’t move to the upscale neighborhoods where young married Christians plan to start secure, stable families. They moved to the North Side, to a street where every other house was boarded up and sidewalks were the locus of drug deals as often as they were school bus stops.

It was a calling, and the message was clear: Win the hearts of the lost. Twenty-five years later, they’re still doing it.

Ed began his ministry at Allegheny Center Alliance Church as the youth pastor. Then in 1995, wanting to make an even bigger impact on the community, Pastor Ed envisioned a 501©(3) nonprofit called Urban Impact. He gathered a small staff and made it official. Pastor Ed and Tammy even made their home part of the mission; they were good neighbors—salt and light—sharing the gospel and the love of Christ. They took in kids who needed a place to stay, a family or someone to believe in them. They made their home a refuge from the craziness outside.

“I was in high school when Pastor Ed took me under his wing,” says Wayne, a pastor and friend of Urban Impact. “I lived with my grandparents, and Ed stepped in as a mentor to fill the place my absent father left.” Wayne’s grade point average was low, putting him at risk for not graduating high school.

“If I had been invited to a hardcore Bible study, I wouldn’t have gone.” Instead Wayne got involved in the Allegheny Center Alliance Church youth program that later inspired the founding of Urban Impact.

“Pastor Ed taught me that I was worth something, that I mattered. Then I heard the gospel, and it all made sense.”

Wayne was one of the first kids to grow up in Urban Impact’s programs. Now two decades later, Wayne works to impart this knowledge to his own North Side congregation.

Eighteen neighborhoods north of the Ohio and Allegheny rivers make up the North Side of Pittsburgh, and the same problems exist there today as when Wayne was growing up. In Pittsburgh there is a joke that people are afraid to cross rivers—and so regions develop individual characters all their own. The North Side is a mix of hillsides and narrow, row house–lined streets that once made suitable locales for homes and working-class families. But now these neighborhoods are sparsely populated, and homes are vacant, condemned or lonely. Their names—like Fineview and City View—describe their proximity to downtown Pittsburgh, but since 1940, they have become misnomers.

On the flat land along the river there is more life, but it moves slower than it once did, and crime is an unfortunate part of it. Of the 18 North Side neighborhoods, 13 have major crime rates higher than the city average.* Citywide, 21.7 percent of Pittsburgh’s population lives below the poverty line, but on the North Side, 11 neighborhoods have even greater rates. Fourteen of these have more vacant houses than the city average, and when it comes to high school graduation rates, it becomes even more obvious that the North Side needs to be redeemed.

A survey of area residents would reveal that only 53 percent have high school diplomas. A decline in school enrollment and budget deficits are forcing some schools to close and others to consolidate, bringing together rival neighborhoods.

While the neighborhoods try to mend their problems, Urban Impact is working on a different kind of urban renewal. Urban Impact’s holistic approach to ministry works to build strong youth who are resistant to the many threats on their souls so prevalent on the North Side.

“Only the gospel has the power to change lives. We’re just the instruments to effect that change,” Ed explains. Through its relational ministries in performing arts, athletics, summer day camp, and post–high school transitional programs, Urban Impact comes alongside kids, bringing them together in fellowship while ministering to their personal, spiritual, physical and academic needs.

To do so, Urban Impact uses the Son Life Ministry model of winning, building, equipping, multiplying and sending. Outreach programs help to win new kids who have never participated in Urban Impact activities. When children want to learn more about the gospel, Urban Impact workers edify them in Christ’s love, build their faith and get them involved in other Urban Impact programs, like basketball teams or choir, that include more Bible study and life skills instruction.

The next steps are equipping and multiplying. “We’re all called to make disciples of every nation, and we’re starting here in our own ’hood,” says Pastor Ed. “We want to make sure kids have the right tools with which to reach the masses.” That’s why Ed founded Global Impact, an annual one-day missions event that has motivated more than 54,000 students to fulfill their part of the Great Commission locally and globally. Urban Impact also accepts interns to serve at summer day camp, an eight-week program that helps to limit academic regression in elementary school–age kids.

When students have made their way up the ladder, they are ready to be sent. To that end, Urban Impact employs its Options program. Its goal is to ensure that high school students have a clear path to a career via jobs, college, trade school, military or ministry, where they can live out their callings not only as adults but also as Christians ready to speak out for God.

This transformative work is aided by Urban Impact’s eight urban missionaries, called ministry associates, along with 20 other staff and key volunteers. Ministry associates are adults who feel called to incarnational ministry and thus raise their own support. They live on the North Side in order to invest in and take ownership of their surroundings, just as Ed and Tammy did so many years ago.

For bringing this vision to life, Pastor Ed—one of 448 nominees spanning 25 countries and 19 states—was the recipient of the 2011 EPOCH Restoring Places award, which recognizes an individual who has made a long-term impact on a specific region. The award includes a grant of $20,000. “I accepted it on behalf of the many individuals, volunteers, partner churches and local businesses that have helped to make this vision a reality,” Ed says.

Urban Impact now enrolls 1,100 at-risk kids in its programs. Last year the organization served 23,683 meals and boasted an 83 percent academic improvement rate at summer day camp. Of all kids consistently involved in the Options program, 97 percent have graduated high school. Of these graduates, 95 percent are “on a bus,” meaning they are pursuing a job, a college education, trade school, the military or ministry. The Urban Impact Singers and Urban Impact Shakes, a musical ensemble and Shakespeare troupe, respectively, tour the country by request, and the Urban Impact Choir now has a waiting list for participation.

Although the organization continues to grow in popularity and in reach, Pastor Ed continues to move forward the vision of transforming a community person by person, family by family and block by block.

*All city data is compiled from PGHSNAP, a 2011 document of Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning that incorporates 2010 Census information.

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