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Pittsburgh church offers dramatically different worship

Drama is an integral part of worship at Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community in Pittsburgh. The unconventional congregation is co-led by a United Methodist pastor and meets in a rented cafeteria. UMNS photos by Michael Henninger. 

By James Melchiorre*
Sept. 12, 2007 | PITTSBURGH (UMNS)

Jim Walker is wearing two T-shirts, two jackets and a trench coat - even as the temperature approaches 90 degrees outside of the Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community.

It's all part of the co-pastor's costume for the congregation's weekly drama, which has become a defining element of Sunday worship at the unconventional United Methodist church in Pittsburgh's eclectic South Side neighborhood.

Walker is playing himself in today's scripturally based drama, while co-pastor Jeff Eddings takes the role of a contemporary Jesus. The theme: answering the call of God to serve.

An infant is baptized during a Sunday morning worship service.  

"Are you ready to follow me?" Eddings asks.

"Can we talk about the weather, the Steelers?" Walker answers. "I'm busy."

"Yes, busy. All that Internet time; you got the iPhone last week," Eddings says.

"Why don't we just take a layer or two off? I'm trying to get to the real you."

As dialogue continues, Walker gradually removes his unnecessary clothing and, finally, Eddings repeats his original question: "Are you ready?"

"I'm not ready," Walker responds, "but I'm willing."

Looking on are about 300 people sitting inside the cafeteria of a Pittsburgh building owned by Goodwill Industries and rented each Sunday for worship.

Building bridges

While the weekly drama does not always totally replace a traditional sermon at Hot Metal Bridge, it does offer another way to present scriptural messages with a contemporary spin.

"If you're just hearing a story read, you can just zone out and stare at the walls," said Jennifer Lawrence. "But if it's unfolding in front of you, you get pulled in."

A student at the University of Pittsburgh, Lawrence herself was "pulled in" to Hot Metal Bridge when a classmate invited her to Sunday worship. Now she's a regular, arriving at 9 a.m. each week to join a team of workers who transform the cafeteria into an in-the-round worship space - moving chairs, hanging lights and setting up a sound system for whichever visiting band or soloist is providing music.

"The room starts as a cafeteria, ends as a cafeteria, and is a church in between," Lawrence says. 

“We started meeting people on the street who were different from us. They had orange hair, purple hair, blue hair and we just loved them as Jesus would love them.”
–The Rev. Jim Walker

Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community began after Walker and Eddings, both youth ministers and longtime friends, began working with a Christian outreach program at a local tattoo shop.

Walker had shared with Eddings his "waking dream" in which both were running across the Monongahela River on a span called the Hot Metal Bridge. The bridge took its name in the heyday of steel production in Pittsburgh when molten steel was transported across it to be poured into molds.

Although Walker is a United Methodist and Eddings is Presbyterian, the two friends decided to begin a new congregation in the community of South Side and serve as co-pastors.

"We thought it was a good place to reach young adults, reach the counter-culture, reach poor people," Walker said. "We started meeting people on the street who were different from us. They had orange hair, purple hair, blue hair and we just loved them as Jesus would love them."

Attendance at Sunday worship in the cafeteria has tripled in the past two years. Eddings and Walker look out over a congregation that includes, among others, senior citizens holding their grandbabies, young adult devotees of body piercing, and families from some of Pittsburgh's wealthier suburbs. Each week, at least four or five worshippers come from the South Side's homeless community.

No walls

"Let's do what the Scripture says," Eddings shouts during the worship service. "I want us to lift up what we're feeling thankful for."

The diverse congregation includes grandparents, young tattooed adults, homeless people and wealthy
suburban families.

A cacophony of voices responds, often speaking at once, naming specific people or circumstances. Later in the service, Eddings and Walker baptize three people including a father and his pre-teen son. The pastors issue an open invitation, and two more young adults come forward spontaneously to profess their faith and kneel at the baptismal fountain.

"You see a room full of people, but we didn't just put up a sign and people came," Walker said. "We didn't do a commercial. We didn't put out a flyer. The only way people really knew this existed was through personal relationships."

Doug Stadnic manages the congregation's outreach to the homeless. He credits the congregation's unconditional welcome for its appeal to so many different people.

"I was talking to a woman today who came to church for the first time," Stadnik said. "She lives an alternative lifestyle; she's been uncomfortable in other churches. I told her, if other churches reject you, come here. We don't put any walls around anybody. It's just as Jesus taught: Love first, and let good things happen."

Nobody seems to be in much of a hurry at Hot Metal Bridge. Worship begins with 15 minutes of meeting, greeting and hugging. 

Chuck Martin, a recently released prison inmate, gives his faith testimony and reads Psalm 100, followed by 20 minutes of singing, including contemporary rock versions of Methodist hymns such as "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing." 

Announcements include the time and location of the weekly ultimate Frisbee game. And when worship is over, everybody sits down to lunch.

Walker doesn't try too hard to analyze the growth of his congregation, but he does keep coming back to what he considers a key idea: koinonia, the anglicized version of a Greek word translated as fellowship .

"Creating a bridge that people can get to God, that's our job," Walker says. "To bear witness to Jesus, to point out where the Kingdom of God is. So when we see all those different faces, hopefully, for a moment, we get a glimpse of what heaven might be like."

*Melchiorre is a freelance producer based in New York City.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community

Western Pennsylvania Conference

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