When I moved to Western PA the summer of 2004, I thought I was settling in Center Township. I didn’t realize that I was also settling in Aliquippa. Had I known this at the time, I might have been off-put; as it is, I feel that God was locating me here to be part of his unfolding mission of love for this little corner of his world.
The first I heard of Aliquippa was the common refrain around Beaver County: “Don’t go to Aliquippa; you’ll get shot!” Indeed, the county paper chronicles more shootings in Aliquippa, and fewer positive stories, than for any other town here. Also, as I learned my way about my new locale, I found it full of quaint towns with main streets and park gazebos. But Center didn’t seem to have such a main street. Brodhead Road is the closest thing—a curving 40 mph 2-way named for Fort Pitt’s horseback courier to the French-and-Indian-War era Fort McIntosh outpost on the Ohio River a mile from my house.
It took me a year to make it down to Aliquippa, even though my post office is there. What I saw was the cutest little main street/ghost town ever. And I realized it was MY main street. But what had been its former glory? And what went wrong? My heart started longing for healing and restoration.
I learned Aliquippa’s story: Jones and Laughlin Steel Mill, whose works sprawled seven miles along the Ohio, had built this company town. Franklin Avenue cuts down through a steep-sided valley to the mill; company housing plans still crest the surrounding bluffs. Some-teen-thousands—Italians, Serbians, Polish, and African Americans, found lucrative employment at J&L…until the summer of 1985. Overnight the company disappeared, leaving the city with the mess and with no pensions. In the interim, races clashed, and white people fled up the hill…to Center Township. In the wake of J&L’s disappearance, poverty and despair fueled the devil of a drug trade. Now city residents number far fewer than the mill’s employees, and a sizeable percentage lives below the poverty line. It’s as if the county has consigned this forlorn town to the dustheap.
A couple years later I met two remarkable people who were already doing what my heart was longing for. One is the colorful Australian, Captain John Stanley, of the Church Army USA’s baseplant outreach to the poor, the equally colorful Uncommongrounds Café. (www.uncommongroundscafe.org) When the Stanleys came in 2000, they realized that Aliquippa didn’t need a 49th church, but rather a safe community space in which stories could be heard and healing take place. “How do you help a city grieve?” says John. “Aliquippa needs to honor its past, but let go and take responsibility for its future.”
He also asks, “What would it look like if the kingdom of heaven we pray repeatedly will come actually comes to Franklin Avenue?” One thing it definitely looks like is several grass roots organizations webbing together in solidarity in incarnational ministry. The other remarkable person I have in mind is Joel Repic, Copastor of Crestmont Alliance Church, and Executive Director of Aliquippa Impact Ministries. (www.aliquippaimpact.org) AIM is a youth development organization that targets at-risk youth, furnishing mentors for individual students, and running a top-notch summer program emphasizing literacy, global awareness, and the arts. Growing out of daily street presence, AIM staff have gained respect and welcome and are able to be involved strategically in Aliquippans’ lives.
But that web, the evident working of the Holy Spirit, continues to grow. I have mentioned only two of its key players; there are others. Plus, for a year now, every Saturday morning at 6:30, members of the white ministerium and of the black ministerium have met together for prayer at the Café! And also now, people who love the Lord and the prospects of his work in Aliquippa are moving back down the hill. Some AIM summer staff have chosen Aliquippa as their permanent home. Another young couple, 2010 Geneva College graduates, are buying their first home there, to be part of what God is doing. And another couple my age, already AIM mentors, are moving down to Franklin Avenue to manage AIM’s residential properties.
I’ve been able to house three spring break mission teams from Geneva College to work at and around the Café. Also, I now serve on AIM’s Board and as a writer of “stories that tell the story.”
There was a day I learned that Joel, then a college student, had started AIM in 2004. My spine literally tingled: that was the summer I had moved…to Aliquippa. I pray, write, and watch for the Spirit from my front doorstep. And I invite you: come to Aliquippa! The Lord is there.
John Stanley and family returned to their home in Australia, and many feared the end of the Café. Not so! God has brought Herb (and Angel) Bailey as Ministry Director, and Scott (and Sue) Branderhorst, as Operations Director. Herb is too large a man to give the teddybear hugs he does. He has dreds that are ten years old. He rides a Harley. He paints amazing art all over his house. Angel is from the Ragu family (as in spaghetti sauce). Together they pursue racial reconciliation, throwing “’Erb’N Angel” dinners. New supervised homes for people recovering from addiction are about to open.
My own church, elsewhere in Beaver County, and other churches, send mission teams to help repair homes and farm in the city garden.
Aliquippa Impact has expanded to offer in-school mentoring, and now after-school programming. AI’s first cohort of kids graduated from high school; some are pursuing their dreams to go to college.
The Lord IS there in Aliquippa. AI’s most recent board meeting met a month ago, in gathering room of the Community of Celebration. I remarked to the board about the deep blessing of the Lord on AI. Joel reminded me of the story of the Community of Celebration. Back in the hippie era, there was a movement of the Holy Spirit in Houston, Texas. Among joy and healing and miracle, and prolific song-writing, a community was born. They chose to formalize as the Community of Celebration, adopting an Episcopal, Benedictine Rule of life. Celebration had cells around the world. One cell settled on an island off the coast of Scotland, until the Lord called them to urban ministry. That call led them to relocate to Aliquippa! In 1985!—just as J & L was abandoning the town. They settled into a row of houses on the “elbow” of Franklin Avenue, added an elegant little octagonal chapel, started growing flowers, opened their doors in hospitality, and prayed the hours—in the heart of Aliquippa—for Aliquippa. Of course there is no pinning down the movement of the Spirit, but Joel is right to postulate that that blessing on Celebration is now flowing out in Aliquippa.
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