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Faith community makes a difference in a Pennsylvania town

Aliquippa, Pa., faces tough economic challenges. But scores of people of all faiths are working together to help resurrect it.

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    People hold candles during a prayer vigil for victims of a high school stabbing rampage in Murrysville, Pa. last April. In another Pittsburgh area town, Aliquippa, religious groups have come together to pray for their town and feel they've seen a reduction in violence there.
    Shannon Stapleton/Reuters/File
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Beyond the facts and figures in the sheaf of 150 pages that is the city's Act 47 recovery plan are the people who live and do business here.

They've endured decades of economic downturns and slow decay since the industrial lifeblood of Aliquippa, Pa. — Jones & Laughlin Steel and its successors — left with the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s.

But the people of Aliquippa, Pa., have leaned on another institution, one that many say is even tougher than steel: their churches and what springs forth within them, namely their faith.

Despite the city's financial woes, it has a strong spiritual foundation, and scores of people of all faiths are working to help the city resurrect itself.

"We see united ... clergy like we've never seen before" crossing congregational and racial boundaries to unite for the city's common good, says Rich Liptak, pastor of Wildwood Chapel in Hopewell Township, just across the border from Aliquippa, on the northwest outskirts of Pittsburgh.

"There's genuine love and care for each other. It's been great," he says.

More than 300 people attended a September service billed as Aliquippa Celebrates Faith, and for five years, each Saturday morning, a group of clergy has gathered to pray at various places in the city, Mr. Liptak says. He remembers times when there would be a shooting or stabbing on a Friday night, and the next morning they'd gather to pray near the scene of the crime.

But in the five years, the Saturday group has prayed in every neighborhood of the city, and it's made a difference. After a stretch of more than a decade where there was at least one homicide each year in Aliquippa, the city saw a 16-month stretch in 2012 and 2013 without a murder, Liptak says.

"We see answer to prayer," he says.

He himself been a witness to the demise of the mills and the jobs they provided. His father, uncle, and grandfather were all steelworkers. "It's been a slow spiral downward" is how he puts it.

Liptak has listened to people longing for the mills to come back since they were shuttered. But the mills haven't come back, and for 30 years, the city has been stuck in the state's Act 47 program for financially distressed communities. The city's latest recovery plan was approved earlier this year, and city officials are working to exit the program and foster a renaissance in town.

"I think we're poised for improvement," Liptak says. He serves as president of the Greater Aliquippa Ministerial Association, a vibrant group of pastors who work together to make a difference in Aliquippa.

Making an impact

There are also groups, including Aliquippa Impact, that work to help youths.

Steve Rossi, executive director of Aliquippa Impact, says its main aim is to "foster tangible hope to youth" in the city.

"It's not just spiritual in nature; it's practical," Mr. Rossi says.

Aliquippa Impact has an after-school program at Linmar Terrace, a one-on-one mentoring program, a city camp, arts education, and several summer programs for youths in the city. They try to teach kids what they can do themselves to ensure they have a bright future, Rossi says.

"A lot of it is common-sense stuff," he says. "We want you [the youths they serve] to own it."

The youths in the city are full of potential, he says, and they try to teach kids that they have the answers to the problems they face.

Many of the people involved with Aliquippa Impact, including Rossi, aren't Aliquippa natives. They came to serve and not to "fix Aliquippa," he says, but to help the people there "fix themselves."

"It is a long-haul ministry," he says, with the long-term goal being that the kids served now will one day be a part of the ministry's leadership.

A big part of it is "just showing up" to be there for the kids. "We can go so far through love," Rossi says. "It brings hope to families."

Another group that's active in Aliquippa is Uncommon Grounds, a coffee shop and ministry program based on Franklin Avenue downtown founded in 2005 by Church Army evangelist John Stanley, an Australian who has since returned to his native land.

The ministry lives on thanks to Herb Bailey, whose first impression of Aliquippa differed from the persistent negative perceptions of the city that are common in Beaver County.

"It was a beautiful vacation town with a lot of mom-and-pop shops," Mr. Bailey says his first thoughts were as he rolled down Mill Street into the city. Coming from East Nashville, Tenn., a little more than a year ago, he thought of Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg, Tenn., Bailey says.

Once he got to Franklin Avenue, where he took a job as ministry director of Uncommon Grounds Cafe, he wasn't put off by the desolate rows of empty and falling-down storefronts.

"I saw a place that had been abandoned," he says. But he also had a vision of a future when the city could be vibrant.

"I saw all these beautiful colors," Bailey says. "I feel that God was preparing me to be here."

Bailey was born in Detroit and was accustomed to bullet-proof glass at gas stations and corner stores. He also lived in Memphis, Tenn., for a time, when it was a murder capital of the South, and he moved to East Nashville before it became a gentrified section of the Music City. It took a tornado and a lot of devastation before East Nashville became a place to be instead of one to be avoided, Bailey remembered.

"We lived through that growth," he says. "I think the Christians in that community had a lot to do with it."

Bailey towers over most people at 6 feet 6 inches tall, with a long swath of braided hair. When he speaks, words of wisdom flow, thanks to his grounding in faith. The foundation of that faith is that this life isn't his to lead, but that it's all a gift from God.

"I didn't choose this at birth," he says of his stature. "We're born with what we're born with, and we have to do well with what we're given."

That's the vantage point from which his outlook begins.

"My faith is based on forgiveness, on this idea of grace," Bailey says. "I don't deserve anything. The idea of self-made is a misnomer."

People benefit from the advice and support of those around them, he adds.

In ministering to the people of Aliquippa, Bailey tries to instill a sense of forgiveness and hope. He understands that "people are hurt and people are afraid," he says.

After six years in Nashville working as a community minister, on staff at two churches and a middle school, and working as a chaplain at a substance-abuse treatment center, Bailey applied a year ago for the job to direct the ministry of Uncommon Grounds.

He enjoys working with and encouraging the people who live in the city, saying that if he can help one person improve his or her life, he's doing his job.

"Each one of us reaches out and says, 'I'm going to sacrifice my time,' " Bailey says.

Uncommon Grounds is staffed by volunteers who do just that, he says. They listen to people's dreams and foster hope in them.

"That they can dream there's something else, that what has been is not going to [always] be," he says. "I think the awareness is happening. People are saying, 'We can make a difference.' It seems like this old mindset of 'the mill is going to provide for us' is changing."

He likened the work of the various faith-based groups in the city to the ripples caused by pebbles thrown into a pond.

People bond over coffee at Uncommon Grounds, and the regulars look after one another.

"It becomes that dignity piece" of the puzzle, instilling in folks the idea that "people know me," he says. "It's family. It means a lot to a lot of different people."

The coffee shop aims to be a sanctuary of love and a safe haven for people, he says. "A place of peace. A catalyst for change."

A call for community

That change is on its way was evident during a "Black Lives Matter" worship service Dec. 14 at New Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church. The service, held in response to recent police shootings involving African Americans at places across the country, was also a call to action for local cooperation.

It was a service of unity and reconciliation, says the Rev. Jeannette Hubbard, pastor of New Ebenezer. "To see what we as a community can do to make the community better. We want this to be a starting point for all of us to work together," she says.

It's time to "get rid of all the clutter," Aliquippa Mayor Dwan Walker told the approximately 100 people who attended the service.

That means ending the bitterness and anger that have festered in many, he says.

"My dad always said, 'If you ain't in the fight, why are you talking about it?' " Mayor Walker said. "There's work to be done."

His faith led him to pursue leading the city, he says.

"I asked God for this challenge," Walker says. "This city needs you now. I need you now. I can't wait to see what he's [God's] going to do for this city.

"I love this city with my whole heart," Walker says. "I love L.A. [Lovely Aliquippa]. When no one out there loved us, she [Aliquippa] loved us."

He asked people to pray for the city and to work for the city.

"No one man can fix this city. A council of men can't fix this city," he says. It will require a higher power to do that. "I am not Moses. It will not happen on my watch," but God and the people of Aliquippa are working to make it happen, he says.

"Are we going to play church, or are we going to be a church community?" New Ebenezer member Chris Ingram said, challenging those who came to the service. It's time for church members to work together as a family and look out for one another, he said. "We have work to do when we ride past and don't say a word of encouragement. We've got work to do, church."

It's not "us versus them," the Reverend Hubbard adds. "This is a clarion call for 'we.' What can we do? It's about what we can do in our community."

"We can't expect for anyone to solve our problems but us ourselves," she says. "We are our brother's keeper. Every life matters. It is not over. This is just the beginning."

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