When the Rev. Fred Smith and his wife, Emma, moved from Atlanta to the economically depressed area of southwestern Pennsylvania three years ago, “the despair and disappointment was so thick you could feel it,” he says.
The steel mills and bridge companies had left the industrial urban area and “taken away all of the hope.”
“All that was left was the very old and the very poor,” he says. “The most acutely affected were the children.”
Hope came back into the neighborhood when Fellowship United Methodist Church turned a beautiful old Serbian Russian Catholic church and elementary school into the Center for Hope.
During the opening worship service of the 2004 General Conference an offering was taken in support of Mother/Child Survival Advance Special (#982645-1) and for ministries to children and the poor in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference.
Fellowship United Methodist Church, Erie Alliance and Connellsville Area Community Ministries were the local ministries selected to receive support. The offering request was made by the Bishops Initiative on Children and Poverty and the Council of Bishops. More than $7,200 was received, and Fellowship will receive around $1,200, says retired Bishop Donald Ott.
Finding help and understanding
Every Tuesday afternoon a blue and white van goes out into the communities of Aliquippa and Ambridge and comes back to the Center for Hope with precious cargo. More than 30 children come to the center for help with their homework and to find an understanding adult who will take the time to listen to their problems.
Majesta Johnson, 12, says her mentor, “Miss Linda,” listens to her and teaches her about Jesus Christ.
“I talk to her about a lot of stuff and she helps me,” she says.
Isaiah Williams, 8, says he especially enjoys learning about Jesus. He also likes to dance in the Sunday worship services and looks forward to practicing with his friends after homework and a meal at the center.
“Many of these children come from dysfunctional families,” Smith says. “They are children of children; many live in foster homes.” Through the tutoring and mentoring program offered at the center these children are learning there is another way of life.
“They leave here with Jesus, they learn they are not bound by the place where they came from,” he says.
To prove that point, he asks Majesta what she wants to be when she grows up.
“A bishop,” she replies, without blinking an eye. Isaiah wants to be a cardiologist, because “I want to fix hearts before people die.”
Linda Hoehl, a tutor and mentor for the center, says the most important thing to her is to let the children know “someone cares, someone loves them.”
“These children are under a lot of stress, they need to know someone is behind them and can give them direction.”
Hoehl says she was compelled to help because she saw how much her own children were helped by being in a strong church group.
The Center for Hope works with many partner organizations and churches to offer, among other things, a food pantry, clothes pantry, adult literacy program and computer classes.
In partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, the center offers free computer training to help “bridge the digital divide.”
One of the classrooms in the center is packed with old computers, monitors and printers that were destined for the dumpster. Thanks to the North Pittsburgh Macintosh Users Group the computers are being refurbished and given to the community.
Dave Sevick, a leader in the users’ group, stresses the computers are not free—potential owners must first complete a training program and pay a $5 fee. The fee is basically for a new battery, he says.
“If you know the word processor or the spreadsheets, you have a marketable job skill,” he says.
Hand up, not handout
Smith says the people in the community were mostly used to being given “handouts.” He wants them to learn how to take care of themselves.
“This is a tremendous facility, this is God’s building,” he says. “It has been entrusted to us as stewards.”
Otis E. McAliley, president of the church’s administration council, points to a wall hanging in the church that says “God Kept His Promise.”
“It is true,” he says. “Other churches have embraced us and we are blessed.”
Smith has plans to provide a summer lunch program for 65 children in the neighborhood. He has many other dreams, such as providing a 24-hour day-care center.
He also has no doubts that all his dreams will come true.
“God loves Fellowship United Methodist Church because we love God,” he says.
*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer.
News media contact: (412) 325-6080 during General Conference, April 27-May 7. After May 10: (615) 742-5470.