Hope and Healing in Pittsburgh

Posted on by Vince Sarfraz

The following story was written for Youth For Christ USA. These are real YFC Stories showing how God is using YFC USA as a vehicle in raising up life-long followers of Jesus all across the nation.

April had an 8-5 job but felt like God was calling her away from it.

When she visited The Cellar for the first time, she knew she had found the place that God was nudging her to.

“I loved it,” she says. “Even after just checking it out a time or two, I was invited into the community by the staff and volunteers as well as the kids. It was a natural place to be.”

April Gratton is now director of The Cellar, a space provided by the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh for Youth For Christ to reach out to local high school students.

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For a city that is just rebuilding itself, Pittsburgh’s Executive Director of Youth For Christ can’t believe the improvements that have taken place.

“It used to be known as the ‘Smoggy City,’ but you’d be amazed at how clean it is now,” he says.

“Growth is at the core of the city. Downtown is beginning to become residential, and the average age has taken a slight drop. There is a resurgence taking place in the city.”

People are reclaiming formerly declining areas and turning them around.

There is a resurgence taking place.

“People are coming here now to find work instead of leaving for work,” says Chris. “New industries are bringing new people.”

Chris also sees unity sweeping across the city, breaking ethnic and social barriers.

There is a particular spread of unity based on three names: Steelers, Pirates, and Panthers.

“This is a sports city,” Chris says with a smile. “There are three major sports teams here and people citywide are very supportive of our teams.”

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For a generation that thinks “anything goes”, reaching them with a Savior who is a spiritual absolute is not the easiest objective. Ministers are learning how to best communicate with a closeminded community.

What’s the greatest need for youth in Pittsburgh? “The Gospel,” says Chris. “Holistic ministry. We have to meet these kids where they are and try to understand them if we want to do ministry with them.”

The plan is simple: invite them to the table and open up the conversation.

“These kids are content where they are,” explains Chris. “They pretend that they understand it all and that they’ve got the world by the tail. Therefore, they’re not willing to engage in conversation.”

Ministries like The Cellar try reversing this bad habit.

They call it a “Third Place” for the students because it’s somewhere they can go besides home or school. Since a lot of the high schoolers come from broken homes, The Cellar is a safe place for them.

“It’s stable. It’s consistent,” says April.

In the heart of downtown Pittsburgh, The Cellar is located perfectly to reach out to urban youth.

“There are kids who are confessing atheists, pagans, and agnostics who voluntarily walk in to the basement of a church to hang out with us,” April says incredulously. “And that opens the door to discussions about Jesus.”

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“We’re trying to tell them that to really be an intellectual, you have to engage in conversations,” explains Chris.

Reverend Tom Hall of the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh has witnessed the effects of opening up communication with urban youth.

“Youth For Christ is operating a ministry of presence,” he says. “They don’t say, ‘Come to Bible study’ because most of these kids would never come inside the church. They are very attuned to where these kids are in their lives, and when the time is right, they reflect on issues from a Christian point of view.”

Monday through Thursday, The Cellar is open for an after-school snack, games, help with homework, and conversation with Christian volunteers. In addition, The Cellar hosts retreats, concerts, art shows, and weekly “Dinner and Discussion.”

“We sit around and eat together while picking different topics to explore,” explains April of Dinner and Discussion which takes place every Thursday night. “We ask them, ‘What do you think of this?’ After we listen, we share the truth of the Bible, and explain what we believe to be true. It opens the door to sharing Jesus.”

Just like a family that sits down to a meal together, Dinner and Discussion provides the space for everyone to have a voice.

The best part is that the safe style of conversation at The Cellar doesn’t push away closeminded youth.

“They’re curious,” says April. “They say, ‘You’re not like the Christians I’ve talked to in the past.’”

“I just think there’s an urgency to introduce them to Jesus,” she concludes. “Not many people in their lives do. They need to meet Jesus during this crucial time in their life.”

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