In Pittsburgh

On Friday afternoon I sat with my harp in a small second floor chapel in a former orphanage that has become a personal care, skilled nursing, and hospice home. The chapel is serene, scented with a hundred years of beeswax. There are honey colored wooden floors. Light streams through windows that overlook a beautiful courtyard.

I was there to play for a memorial service for the residents who have died at Canterbury Place during the past year. The service was woven together with prayers from the Anglican, Catholic, and Jewish traditions, to reflect the dominant faith traditions of the people who live and die there. Candles were lit. Stones were placed. Lilies were given.

Pittsburgh was once called the City of Churches. In every neighborhood, churches and chapels and synagogues stand. The faith of the men and women who built this city is written in stone and glass, rooted in faith and reaching for the heavens.

Pittsburgh was born out of fire and water. A city of three rivers, where the Allegheny and Monongahela meet to form the Ohio, the site initially offered settlers smooth transport for glass, born in fire and shipped down river. Later, the white hot transformation of iron ore into steel heated the economy to a fever pitch and created a massive demand for men to work the mills. Immigrants from Eastern Europe streamed into the city. Economic migrants, these men and women brought with them their traditions, their faith, and the hope that this new world would offer them a better life. In this new world, they gathered together to celebrate their faith.

The very first Jewish congregation in Pittsburgh was the Tree of Life Synagogue.

On Saturday morning I sat in the cavernous basement of a massive Presbyterian Cathedral while my daughter danced in a studio above. The church is located in the heart of a struggling and rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, and offers a vibrant array of arts programs in music, dance, and theater to the wider community. Slowly the news passed through the large and echoing room, in whispers. An active shooter, a synagogue in Squirrel Hill, a mile away. Four dead, and they haven’t caught him yet. It was like a game of telephone but with nothing lost, every detail distinct. You watched the person at the next table freeze in horror at the whispered truth.

A child at the next table said “Many of my friends are Jewish and they live in Squirrel Hill and go to synagogue there. What will happen to them?”

Later, walking out into the cold rain with my eight year old daughter, I’m searching for the words to answer her questions. Is this really happening? Is this happening here?

When I was young I wanted to save the world. I tried to imagine my role on the world stage, what it would contain. I wondered how I would possibly develop a philosophy brilliant enough to change the whole world. The older I get the more that I realize how much humble my role is. So much of the work I have been given is simply to serve my family, and the people that I encounter in my daily life. To wash diapers and wash the feet of an elderly woman. To visit the lonely. To offer the widow and the orphan a space in my own home. To protect the innocence of my children in the face of the darkness in the world, and to nurture the light of their faith.

I have had the privilege to work with people who are close to death. To teach classes and play music for people facing their final years with dignity and grace. I have sung at a deathbed while holding a newborn child. I have entered a room just as a soul was leaving it. The more time I spend with those who are dying the more confidant I am in the truth that the dead are not gone, but remain in communion with us.

It is not death of the body that we should fear, it is despair. Despair that causes us to live in darkness, to lash out in darkness, to unleash evil into the world.

We are called to believe in the grace of God in the face of suffering. To trust in the grace of God in the face of horror. To preserve the life of grace within the soul, and with that still small light to light the world around us. To root our lives in faith.

On Saturday night the people of Pittsburgh spilled into the streets for a candlelit vigil around the Tree of Life synagogue to gather together and light the darkness.

In Pittsburgh there are candles. There are lilies. There are stones.

In Pittsburgh there is mourning.

In Pittsburgh there is faith.

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