The Unconventional Black Orthodox Storefront Church in Pittsburgh

Norma Gentry stood in the rear of a storefront church in the Hill District, where a cluster of icons shared a small space with pantry shelves holding canned foods and a rack of donated clothing.

She was dressed in white for her baptism, but before entering the water, there was business to do.

“Dost thou renounce Satan and all his works and all his worship and all his angels and all his pomp?” asked the Rev. Paul Abernathy, pastor of tiny St. Moses, the Black Orthodox Church on Centre Avenue.

He repeated the question three times, to the backdrop of an air conditioner straining against the July heat, and each time she affirmed that she did.

Then she faced toward the altar as Father Abernathy asked three times, “Dost thou align thyself with Christ?”

She again affirmed that she did.

After further elaborate liturgy in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, she came to the front of the church, climbed into a portable tub, knelt down and was baptized by Father Abernathy, entering the water three times face down.

Emerging soaking wet, she then put on a white baptismal robe with colorful embroidery as another church member recited a prayer.

Then, continuing the initiation ceremony, Father Abernathy anointed her with oil several times. Each time he said, “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit,” and the congregation of about 25 people echoed in saying “Seal!”

“Is this not a beautiful day?” Father Abernathy said after the lengthy ceremony. “Make sure everybody gives Miss Norma a big hug and welcome her into the Lord’s family.”

Neither the baptized nor the baptizer arrived at that day via a straight line.

Father Abernathy is a U.S. Army veteran of the Iraq War and a convert to Orthodoxy. He drew on his own experience recovering from post-traumatic stress to create FOCUS Pittsburgh, seeking to help the Hill District and other neighborhoods respond to the community-wide trauma of violent crime, poverty and inequality.

Ms. Gentry, 63, of Carrick, had come to Pittsburgh for an alcoholism-recovery program and already had come to believe in God as a “higher power” to help her quest for sobriety. After she visited FOCUS Pittsburgh for some assistance, she began returning to volunteer and after several years embraced the spirituality behind it.

Such are the stories behind a tiny Eastern Orthodox church that’s taking root in a neighborhood whose African-American churches typically run Protestant or Roman Catholic. In fact, many of the staff and volunteers at FOCUS — providing everything from food-pantry assistance to rapid-response counseling after a violent crime — are not Orthodox, and it serves all, regardless of faith.

FOCUS doesn’t proselytize, and the church itself was founded years after the charity got underway, but “it is for us a very spiritual work,” said Father Abernathy.

“In some traditions, they say, ‘We are going in to save these people,’” he said. “We say, ‘We are going in so that we can be saved.’”

Father Abernathy, 39, with close-cropped hair and a short goatee, speaks in a voice that mingles a military-like crispness with a pastoral warmth.

“This is a very deep expression of the Orthodox faith in action,” Father Abernathy added.  “Even our approach to community development is heavily informed by our experience of the Eucharist,” a quest to bring wholeness and holiness to the world.

Father Abernathy grew up in South Fayette of part African-American, part Syrian heritage. His family was Catholic, attending the former St. Agatha Parish in Bridgeville while also visiting the nearby St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church for occasional devotions on behalf of his Syrian forebears.

As an undergraduate student at Wheeling Jesuit University, he studied for a summer in 2000 at the University of Aleppo, Syria. Wanting to familiarize himself more with Orthodoxy ahead of that trip, he visited St. George again.

That’s when it clicked.

“I had a really profound experience of the living God in the liturgy, … so mystically inexpressible,” he said.

He began to study Orthodoxy and, after his return from Syria, went through the lengthy process of entering the church.

Father Abernathy, a fourth-generation military service member, took part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq as an Army combat engineer. What was hyped as a short war soon morphed into a long-running insurgency.

After one year of service, “I really came home not well,” he said, learning first-hand the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The support of his family helped him through it.

So did the timing: His arrival home coincided with the start of the Orthodox season of Great Lent.

Its disciplines of repentance and forgiveness gave him a framework to process his trauma positively, even as he saw some fellow veterans take self-destructive turns.

In 2005, while earning a master’s degree in public and international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, he spent another summer in Syria, studying how Orthodox Christians were living out their faith and aiding refugees from Iraq.

Their commitment was “absolutely humbling and inspiring,” he said.

He felt called to the priesthood and studied at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Eastern Pennsylvania.

With his bishop’s encouragement, he ultimately settled in the Hill District, where in 2011 he launched a local division of the Orthodox charity FOCUS North America.

The FOCUS Pittsburgh work is shaped by what Father Abernathy calls “trauma-informed” community development, with an assumption that communities are suffering traumas as surely as individuals do with the endless plagues of violent crime and systemic poverty and inequality.

He “had spent a year at war,” he said. But “there were people in our community who had spent their whole lives at war.”

Others began donating and volunteering.

“There were folks here, Orthodox Christians, wanting to support something but didn’t know what that was,” Father Abernathy recalled. “We were wanting to do something but didn’t have the means.”

Now there’s a staff of 10 full- and part-time workers and hundreds of volunteers, the majority not Orthodox.

In the tight quarters of a two-story walk-up on Centre Avenue, FOCUS hosts medical, dental and behavioral health clinics on specified days and has advisers for job seekers and others in need. It also runs other programs, such as a program packing backpacks with food for schoolchildren to take home on weekends.

FOCUS also has launched a trauma response team, a trained set of volunteers who show up to scenes of shootings and other violence.

The volunteers, wearing distinctive reflective vests and trained in “psychological first aid,” arrive at the location of traumatic events soon after they occur, recognizing that the entire neighborhood is affected, and offer assistance to people who “are shook to their core,” Father Abernathy said.

The team was out in large numbers in Squirrel Hill on the nights after the Oct. 27 Tree of Life synagogue massacre, but often the team is responding to shootings that barely make the news.

A few days after the Squirrel Hill shootings, Father Abernathy recalled, he was with a small team of responders consoling the South Side family of a shooting victim.

It “was a powerful moment,” he recalled. The family was looking for “spiritual support and healing.”

Many of the staff and volunteers have professional training in their fields.

“We have taken the knowledge of the world, we baptize it and use it in service to God,” he said.

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Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette