Where the People Are
First Trinity Lutheran Church reaches out to everyone — the homeless, the blind, college students and more — to spread the Gospel in Pittsburgh.
On a typical weekend, every inch of First Trinity Lutheran Church is in use. The aroma of meal preparation and the delightful sound of flute music greet all who enter. The deaf and their hearing friends’ busy hands engaged in silent conversations catch one’s eye, as do the white canes guiding the blind through the halls.
The pastors, vicar and deaconess are there too, joining the parish members with joy-filled energy and determination.
First Trinity, formed in 1837, is proud to be the mother church for most of Pittsburgh. Nestled amidst the cultural, academic and medical center of the city, its stately limestone structure blends in with the mansions of Shadyside and Oakland, two of Pittsburgh’s historic neighborhoods.
People Need the Gospel
In its heyday, First Trinity had 1,500 members. That number declined to 20 in 1990 before rising to today’s membership of 165.
“Historically, we’ve been closing churches [in the cities], but that has to stop,” says the Rev. Dr. Douglas Spittel, who with his wife, Leigh, live next door in the rectory.
It’s a reality playing out in cities across America. Within Pittsburgh city limits, there are only six LCMS churches — most are struggling, and one is a mission.
“This is where people are, and this is where the Gospel needs to be preached,” says Spittel. “People need the Gospel. They need to hear about Jesus Christ.”
It’s not pious talk. Spittel and the members of First Trinity are all in.
The blind mission serves about 40 people, and the deaf ministry about 20. The homeless who come are hard to count. Some 70 students are enrolled in the flute academy. And the congregation’s campus ministry draws students from five nearby universities.
‘This Is a Big Deal’
On the second floor of the parish hall, people line up to receive clothing and toiletries from volunteers. The people are audibly grateful for the Word of God and the prayers Spittel offers before they enter.
“I love helping people,” says Lisa Davis, a volunteer who is eager to offer a hug and words of encouragement. She first heard about the outreach when she fell on hard times some years ago.
“[The community] love them here,” says Davis. “This is a big deal here, there’s a lot of respect for this church.”
The homeless ministry began 10 years ago. Director Dr. Angela Hadbavny manages the $6,000 annual budget. “We do a lot with very little money,” she says, noting that support comes from area congregations, granting agencies and individuals.
‘Go and Do It’
“The reason that we were successful in all of this is that we have an operating board that doesn’t get involved in all these missions,” explains Mike Fenger, First Trinity’s treasurer. “The ministries started because someone stepped forward with an idea. The pastor and the board eagerly say, ‘Go and do it, and we’ll support you in terms of volunteers and enthusiasm for the mission.’”
Each ministry has its own budget, apart from the parish budget. Each lay leader creates a written plan that includes finding funding and volunteers. When one ministry falls behind financially, its leaders have a year to get it back on track. In the meantime, the other ministries assist as they are able.
Seeing, Hearing and Believing
“We are now into the blind community as a result of a parish member who started the blind mission,” says Fenger, who explained how a rent-subsidized apartment complex for the blind opened near the church 30 years ago. The Pittsburgh Lutheran Center for the Blind was opened in 1999 as a prototype.
“I started coming here in 2004 because of the blind ministry,” Hadbavny recalls. “I went to catechism and got confirmed and joined the church in 2008.”
The worship bulletins and other materials are printed on the blind center’s Braille printer. A Braille theological library occupies a small corner of the fellowship hall, and a monthly meal and Bible study are held on Saturday afternoon before Vespers.
In another room, Pittsburgh Lutheran Deaf Ministry provides Bible studies and other resources in American Sign Language. Many of these materials come from Lutheran Friends of the Deaf, an LCMS Recognized Service Organization. Deaf interpreters Cindy Fenger and director Debra Terhune lead the gatherings and interpret worship. A monthly luncheon and social is held for the deaf following the Sunday service.
First Trinity also is home to what may be the Synod’s only flute academy. This unique ministry is led by professional flautist and First Trinity member Wendy Kumer. Drawing students from both the parish and community, group sessions prepare flautists to help lead the church’s song in worship.
The full-time campus ministry, led by Pastor Eric Andrae, supports students from five nearby universities and sends them out into their vocations ready and eager to share their faith. A number of students have also matriculated to LCMS seminaries to become pastors or deaconesses.
There is also a weekly English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) class, as well as Intro to the Bible and Christianity classes for ESL students.
In addition, Spittel and Vicar Timothy Kern have plans for a new ministry. Their sights are set on the hillside community of Hazelwood, once home to a thriving steel mill. More recently, the area had fallen on hard times, but now a billion-dollar investment by local industry and government is underway to bring in jobs and an influx of new residents.
Kern was tasked with exploring the neighborhood and writing up a plan for planting a new church. The mission is building on the efforts of a handful of people who kept the doors of an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) parish open with a clothing and food distribution center.
As this story was being prepared, Pittsburgh Area Lutheran Ministries, an LCMS Recognized Service Organization, agreed to buy the ELCA church property for $1. A $20,000 grant from the 2019–22 LCMS National Offering will enable expanded outreach to the Hazelwood neighborhood and the eventual chartering of a new LCMS parish, Holy Cross Lutheran Church.
“You really answer God’s call to feed and clothe people,” Spittel tells Walt Brooks, who with his wife, Ginger, helped lead the effort. “If we can put those things together, your ability to get people together and our ability to bring the Gospel to those people, it’ll start slowly, but it will happen. People will be turned to Jesus. That’s how a congregation is formed.”
On a recent Saturday morning, in a room at the local library, Brooks and the others gathered with Spittel and Kern — who have brought along their district president, Bishop Jamison Hardy of the LCMS English District — to discuss the next steps.
“Picture a time someone you know was in a battle and they were losing because they didn’t have any resources,” says Hardy. “The cavalry is coming over the hill, and we’re coming to reinforce the line. … We are coming here to reinforce what you’re already doing.”
They’ve waited so long. May God grant it.
- If your congregation is interested in learning more about starting similar ministries or planting a church, there is help through the Synod’s Making Disciples for Life initiative. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
Pray with Us
Lord of the church, Your people at First Trinity Lutheran Church in Pittsburgh are working to serve where You have called them. Bless their outreach and service, that all around might know the love of Christ through the proclamation of Your Word. Stir up Your church wherever You place Your people, that everyone might see the opportunities for service and love. We pray that You would provide for Your Word to go forth to all, that they might trust in Your Son as their Savior, in whose name we pray. Amen.
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Deaconess Pamela J. Nielsen
Associate executive director for LCMS Communications.