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Pittsburgh offers homeless and addicted a 'shepherd's heart'

By Ronda Carman
[Episcopal News Service]  Clergy and delegates attending the 136th convention of the Diocese of Pittsburgh witnessed an unusual sight on opening day November 2, 2001. A processional marking the admission of the diocese's newest parish, Shepherd's Heart Fellowship, passed through the convention ballroom. What was truly exceptional about the processional, however, was the makeup of its members. The group composed of homeless, recovering addicts, clergy and laity represented the uniqueness of this congregation.

Shepherd's Heart, a ministry for the homeless and addicted, began in the summer of 1993 as a missionary outpost without a parish home. The Rev. Mike Wurschmidt, then a seminarian at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, began walking the streets of Pittsburgh's Oakland district in search of the homeless and needy, bringing along food, coffee, blankets and clothing. 'As we continued to visit and pray with the homeless they began asking about coming to a church service,' commented Wurschmidt. It was then that Wurschmidt realized it was time to expand the ministry and find a place to meet for public worship.

In August of 1995, the first Sunday night service took place in a local storefront. 'We knew that many of our members would not be able to wake up in time for a traditional Sunday morning service, so God led us to begin Sunday night services,' said Wurschmidt, now the rector of Shepherd's Heart. Additionally, with many feeding programs closed on Sundays, Shepherd's Heart decided to offer a hot meal following the service.

The initial congregation of seven quickly grew, as word spread of a service being held in the evening, accessible to homeless and addicted that served a free meal after worship. 'Our Sunday evening attendance now averages 100 or more people,' said Wurschmidt. Worship is informal, with Holy Eucharist being celebrated once a month. 'Many of our members have been addicts for so long that they can't process a lengthy sermon or liturgy. We sing contemporary worship songs and deliver a very simple message telling them of God's love and salvation in Jesus Christ.'

In 1999 Shepherd's Heart moved to its current location, a former Roman Catholic church. With the growth has come the growth of the leadership team. The parish offers training opportunities in urban theology and ministry for both lay people and clergy. 'They are a paradigmatic 21st century church,' said Pittsburgh's Bishop Robert Duncan. Although Shepherd's Heart continues to send ministry teams to the streets, the church is finding there are fewer homeless in the area.

'I've seen a huge difference these past five years,' says senior warden Jim Chester, also a University of Pittsburgh police lieutenant. 'There just aren't the panhandlers in Oakland there were before. I believe it has been prayer and this ministry that has brought this change.'

What is Shepherd's Heart's response to the last eight years? The parish vision sums it up: 'To share the heart of Jesus our Shepherd in the streets of Oakland and to the ends of the earth.'