Pittsburgh: A Hurting City

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.

In 1963, Henry “Hank” Bahnson became the head of the Department of Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh.

After he performed Pittsburgh’s first heart transplant and continued making strides within such a risky and controversial medical field, Pittsburgh was established as the organ transplantation capital of the world.

It still holds that distinction today: the expert in heart transplants. The leader in the field of swapping organs, of changing hearts.

But Pittsburgh as a whole needs its own heart transplant. A different kind.

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The second largest city in Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh is on the upswing after a hard hit in recent history.

“We’ve been seeing a decline in population growth,” says Chris Thompson, “until the last census.” Chris is the Executive Director of Pittsburgh Youth For Christ and considers himself a “homer” of Pittsburgh as he has lived there since he was two years old.

According to Chris, the boom of the steel industry in the twentieth century pushed much of the population out to the mills along the river as people searched for work. As a result, the city today doesn’t have so much of an “urban core”; instead, urban centers are dispersed among the different mill towns.

“In other cities, you might be able to draw a circle around the urban area you want to target,” Chris explains. “For Pittsburgh, it’s more like little bubbles across a five-county region. The urban community is dispersed.”

While downtown Pittsburgh is a major target, it is not the only location where ministries want to reach out to urban youth.

“We have multiple smaller areas to reach,” says Chris. “And we don’t have the presence we want yet.”

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The First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh is located right in the heart of downtown.

One of the oldest Presbyterian churches in the nation, its classic décor includes beautiful 112-year-old Tiffany stained glass windows. The historical treasure is placed in the perfect location surrounded on all sides by a very modern city — and multiple local high schools.

Its placement is perfect for Kingdom work.

Reverend Tom Hall of the Presbyterian church says the location is ideal for outreach to high school students: the future of the city.

“The different high schools in the area represent many mixed cultures,” he explains. “Our location works really well and we have a space in the basement that seems to lend itself to this kind of ministry work.”

A partnership with Youth For Christ has resulted in The Cellar, an after-school space for local high school students.

April Gratton, director of The Cellar, knows that they are in the right place for a divine reason.

“So many of these kids come from broken homes,” she says. “The Cellar is somewhere they can come to feel safe.”

“Everyday folks are volunteering on the frontlines of ministry in this city,” Tom says of the people who work with youth like those who come to The Cellar.

Youth in the city certainly need safe spaces to congregate—as well as safe places to talk.

One of the biggest issues discovered to be blighting youth in Pittsburgh is gender confusion.

“It’s recommended not to use gender-specific pronouns here,” says Chris.

“What’s on a kid’s mind today? A lot of it has to do with gender identity,” explains Reverend Tom.

At The Cellar, volunteers attempt addressing important issues about life and faith with kids who come from a variety of backgrounds.

Another major problem is drugs. “Pot is huge,” Chris says.

Pittsburgh is in need of a heart transplant.

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In settings like The Cellar, Youth For Christ and other ministries have the ability to look in the eyes of Pittsburgh’s future leaders and gauge their values and struggles. It also gives them the opportunity to speak truth into the lives of youth in need of a Savior, even if they aren’t aware of their deep need.

Chris has experienced that the youth population is largely made up of atheists.

“They’re antagonistic,” he says. “So many of these kids are just spewing anger.”

The greatest challenge, he explains, is communicating with a generation that thinks they are all-knowing. Even more so than gender confusion and drugs, ministers to youth in Pittsburgh have to overcome arrogance and closemindedness.

“These kids are content where they are. They have landed on a worldview and don’t want to change; they aren’t in the searching mode. They pretend that they understand it all and that they’ve got the world by the tail. They’ve got it all figured out; therefore, they’re not willing to engage in conversation,” he says.

“My roles and my views are right” is the pervasive attitude of Pittsburgh youth.

“It affects their behavior and lifestyle,” says Chris. “It’s the doormat for an attitude of ‘anything goes.’”

“Many are upset in regards to religion,” April adds. “They think, ‘I don’t need Jesus; I’m good on my own. I’m more free without Jesus. I grow more without Jesus. I’ve got this myself. I’m an independent person.’”

To share about Jesus, then, is to ask the kids to open their minds.

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


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