The morning worship service at Pittsburgh’s Fourth Presbyterian Church is almost over. Even so, some of the worshipers are just arriving. During the singing of the final hymn, four black children wander into the sanctuary. They casually stroll down an aisle, looking for a familiar face. They are not out of place; no one is embarrassed.

James Stobaugh, the church’s pastor, glances over his hymnal at the newcomers. His slightly chubby, boyish face seems incongruous with his stately robe. He squints and grins. He knows these children, and he knows they belong here.

Black children own Stobaugh’s heart. It started in his own childhood in southern Arkansas. He vividly remembers wiping the steam from his school bus window and seeing black children waiting with tattered, hand-me-down schoolbooks. He remembers an elder at his church blocking the path of a black youth, telling him “niggers are not welcome.” He recalls asking his mother if his beloved Mammy Lee could sleep in his room. Her response: “Nigras do not sleep in white people’s houses.”

At James Stobaugh’s house, they do. He and his wife, Karen, have four children, three of them adopted and of mixed race. By the time he came to Fourth Presbyterian in September of 1983, four other rural and suburban Presbyterian churches had expressed an interest in him; they liked his preaching and his credentials. But each time they met his family, their interest waned.

“They said some people in their congregation weren’t ready for that,” Stobaugh says. “That’s unconscionable. It’s scandalous that the church of Jesus Christ would choose not to have fellowship over race.”

Stobaugh remembers when he told Fourth Presbyterian about his family situation. The church responded by welcoming him as its new pastor. Since then the gray stone church, grayer with decades of steel-mill soot, has been his home.

Arriving in Pittsburgh, Stobaugh found a church in trouble. Officially, membership was at 178, but weekly attendance was only about 35. “Our choice was to survive for a few years and die,” he recalls, “or we could become radical and risk everything to do God’s work. I chose the latter path.”

He instituted an unusual requirement: to be members at Fourth, people had to become involved in some missions or ministry activity. “We wanted membership to mean something,” he says. “We almost lost the gamble.”

Long-time members, including some big givers, decided to worship elsewhere. The official roll has fallen from 178 to under 100. But weekly attendance has gone from 35 to over 100.

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As Fourth has grown, it has come to reflect the diversity of its pastor, himself a study in contrasts. “Confessionally, I’m a charismatic,” he says. “But I’ve been raised on the milk of tradition and I love liturgy and order.”

At Fourth, staid, traditional Reformed Presbyterians sit next to neo-Pentecostals. Stobaugh has added charismatic elements to the worship service, including contemporary “praise” music and healing services. There have been disputes with the various factions in the church, but Stobaugh emphasizes to them what they have in common. It is another characteristic of the church that bears its pastor’s mark: a vital interest in serving their community.

The east-side neighborhood around the church seems tame enough. The small, rustic building blends into its surroundings, as in a portrait. The distinctive, aged homes crowd one another. The streets are too narrow for fast traffic, so the birds are easily heard. In summer, green, leafy trees block the sun, but not the breeze. They provide a sense of containment, of security.

Fourth Presbyterian stands at the edge of Shadyside, one of the city’s wealthiest communities. But just two blocks away is Garfield Hill, one of the city’s poorest sections.

Behind the church’s closed doors lie the insecurities that accompany economic decline. The nickname “Steel City” is almost a cruel joke. Pittsburgh’s transition to a white-collar economy has meant the loss of thousands of jobs.

The effects of such decline are never subtle. “People go home and drink,” says Stobaugh. “They turn to drugs, they abuse one another in the home. In our neighborhood we have all the problems.”

Some 70 percent of the church’s parishioners are on public assistance. But church members also include a former vice-president of National Steel and a computer programmer with a six-figure income. “It reminds me of the early church,” says member David Steele, orthopedic specialist for the Pittsburgh Steelers. “It’s a very strange mixture. But we’re all drawn together by the love of Christ.”

This love has reached out. Fourth provides volunteers for a food closet and soup kitchen. A friend of the church, an executive with Nabisco, keeps them supplied with cookies. Another friend, a minister with a Ph.D. in psychology, uses Stobaugh’s office two nights a week to do free family and marital counseling.

Stobaugh coordinates an outreach to interracial families. The church is used by a Narcotics Anonymous chapter; hundreds attend meetings two nights a week. In winter, homeless people sleep in the basement.

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Working with an organization called Jubilee Housing, volunteers from Fourth Presbyterian restore abandoned houses in Garfield. Poor people then buy these houses for whatever monthly payments they can afford. A lot of the work is done by young people Stobaugh refers to as “Joe’s kids.”

“Joe” is Joe Bellante, Fourth Presbyterian’s “street worker.” He was formerly employed by organized crime—“an enforcer type,” he says. “I made sure people paid their bills.” He once held the barrel of a gun in another man’s mouth and considered it routine.

Bellante now supervises weightlifting clubs at local high schools. He holds Bible studies with students. On Wednesday evenings more than a hundred of “Joe’s kids” gather to sing, worship, and pray.

Stobaugh says Bellante’s unorthodox and disorganized style “bugs the dickens out of the Presbyterian in me. But I have to understand that I like to go by the book and he’s a street person. I can’t argue with results.”

He and Bellante, with the other people who make up Fourth Presbyterian Church, worship and work in less than ideal conditions. Sometimes Stobaugh wonders if he’s “been there” too long. He struggles with his own attitudes of cynicism and sarcasm about comfortable suburban churches. He craves fellowship with other urban pastors. But his commitment has stayed firm. Twice in its history, Fourth Presbyterian has relocated away from urban dilapidation, toward suburban comfort. Stobaugh doesn’t want it to happen again. “We’ll die before we move out, if I have anything to do with it.”

By Randall L. Frame

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