Leeann and Wayne Younger, who planted Cityview Church in Spring Garden back in 2010, draw on their social justice activism, family life, and beliefs when envisioning the future of the Northside.
By Katia Faroun
Photo courtesy of Leeann and Wayne Younger
Leeann and Wayne Younger seem to like the number six—well, at least they did before they got married.
“We were six months together, six months apart, six months of dating, six months of engagement,” they both explain over a Zoom call.
The couple met in 1994 at Gullifty’s, back when the restaurant was still a Pittsburgh landmark. A mentor of Wayne’s, who also happened to be a board member at the organization where Leeann was working, set them up.
“The rest is history,” Leeann says. “A little rollercoaster in there, but it’s history after that.”
Wayne and Leeann each went into their blind date with a vision for their futures. Today, with almost 25 years of marriage under their belts, they spend their days cultivating an intersection of family life, work, and community involvement within their Northside neighborhood. Each day, they walk out of their East Allegheny home with the intention to love their neighbors and create a welcoming space for the most vulnerable in their community—whether that be through their work as pastors at Cityview Church and Pittsburgh nonprofits, such as The Pittsburgh Project, or just by being good neighbors.
“The mission is to make sure that everyone knows that they are loved, regardless of their circumstance and difficulty—whatever is happening,” Leeann says. “I think a lot of our life decisions are shaped by that lens: How do we communicate love practically?”
Pittsburgh: Coming full circle
Leeann and Wayne both grew up in the greater Pittsburgh area. Born in 1967, Leeann spent her childhood northeast of Pittsburgh in Natrona Heights, where her dad worked as a mechanic at the Allegheny Ludlum steel mill. Her mom spent most of her time at home raising Leeann and her three younger siblings. Wayne, on the other hand, was born in 1969 right in the Northside, and was raised in Manchester by his grandparents after his mom died when he was nine months old. He grew up with three older siblings and was the only one to spend the majority of his childhood raised by his grandparents, and with a father figure in the home.
Grateful for the circumstances they were raised in, Leeann and Wayne both give credit to their families for the values they have now.
“My family really stressed education,” Leeann says. “It was just not an option to not be successful in the framework that I was raised in.”
“I had a great childhood. I think it’s one of those interesting things that when you grow up and you may not have a lot of resources, you don’t necessarily know that until you move and you see other people who may have a lot of resources,” Wayne adds.
After graduating from high school, Wayne left the state to study secondary education and history at Asbury University in Kentucky, while Leeann stayed closer to home, traveling north to Geneva College to study psychology. After spending a year or two away from Pittsburgh, both Wayne and Leeann eventually made their way back to their home city: Wayne wanted to be closer to his family and church community, and Leeann found a job as a resident director at Chatham University. Since then, they’ve never left, and have found their home community in Pittsburgh’s Northside.
For them, living in the Northside made sense. Wayne’s family was there and Leeann had close friends in the area. When the time came for them to look for a house, they limited their options to three streets in the Northside—the only streets they had friends living on.
“We chose the Northside not specifically because it was the Northside, but more because we had community here; we were already worshiping here and there were people that we cared about here, and we wanted to be close to that,” Wayne says.
After moving back to Pittsburgh, Leeann and Wayne worked at various organizations throughout the city. After working as an outreach coordinator for Three Rivers Youth, Wayne started working at Family Guidance, where Leeann had been working when they met, while Leeann worked as a principal at Pittsburgh Urban Christian School. They were both involved in the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO) and pastored at Allegheny Center Alliance Church (ACAC), Wayne’s home church.
Much of their involvement in the Northside is rooted to Cityview Church, a Spring Garden church that Wayne and Leeann planted along with a small group in 2010. The church began in a home within the neighborhood where a group of people would gather to eat soup. Since then, it has grown and adapted to the shifting dynamics of the neighborhood, while retaining its original intentions of being a “family gathering.”
The group started the church “with a vision for creating space that built a community of folks who were willing to cross all of the boundaries: racial, socioeconomic, neighborhood boundaries,” according to Leeann. The church began as an intersection of the diverse neighborhood and its distinct individuals, a place where they could meet and join each other on their journeys.
Even as the church evolved to include a worship service, its humble roots still remain: Whenever the church gathers, it gathers with food.
“The table is a way to break down the barriers that exist between people,” Wayne says.
Over the course of the Cityview’s existence, its home neighborhood has experienced demographic and economic changes. In its early years, the congregation was more socioeconomically diverse with about half of its members experiencing economic challenges. In 2010, Spring Garden and adjacent East Allegheny’s mean household incomes were $43,259 and $38,627 respectively, according to American Community Survey estimates. By 2018, Spring Garden’s number stayed the same while East Allegheny’s grew to $56,473—a nearly $20,000 change. As the neighborhood became more middle class, so did the Cityview congregation. But even as the neighborhood changed, the mission of the church remained true to its origins.
“The neighborhood has changed … but the ethos hasn’t changed. It’s really: Sit down, sit with somebody, walk a long, long road with somebody. That’s what we do,” Leeann explains.
Christi Rooke, an assistant pastor at Cityview, met Leeann and Wayne in 2006 while she was attending ACAC at the same time as them. Rooke was a Sunday school teacher and lived in the same neighborhood as the couple. She officially met them late one night when,after her pipes had frozen, she knocked on their door and asked if she could use their shower. They welcomed her in, and the three of them started a close friendship not long after.
Rooke has witnessed the impact Wayne and Leeann have made on their church community and the neighborhood, and boasts of their dedication to inclusion.
“They refuse to acknowledge the hierarchy that we have put in place. Everyone’s welcome at the table,” Rooke says.
Dedication to social justice
In addition to pastoring at Cityview, both Wayne and Leeann have been involved with various nonprofits and have remained dedicated to social justice and activism. After a few years as one of Cityview’s lead pastors, Wayne adopted a volunteer pastor role and began working at The Pittsburgh Project, a nonprofit located on Charles Street that operates after-school youth programs and serves vulnerable homeowners. He started out working as the associate executive director and accepted the role of executive director in 2018.
As the organization went through a period of downsizing at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wayne says he decided to let himself go as the executive director with hopes of preventing other employees from losing their jobs.
“I felt like if they were going to lose some folks, that losing me would probably be the best thing because I was the most expensive employee,” Wayne says.
Charles Chapman, director of organizational development at The Pittsburgh Project and the former executive director of Living Ministry, worked with Wayne after the Living Ministry staff transitioned over to the Project. Chapman was working at the Project for a year before Wayne left, and he recognizes the change that has taken place in the months since Wayne left.
“Sometimes you don’t really realize what you have until you don’t have it anymore, and now that Wayne’s not here, I would say there are significant challenges that we are facing because of that change,” Chapman says.
Chapman met Wayne and Leeann in 2005 when he was a social worker at ACAC. Before Living Ministry officially ended in December 2019, the organization had a partnership with Cityview; they would host events together, such as community dinners. In addition to their work relationship, the Youngers and Chapmans are close family friends and gather together every year for Thanksgiving.
“They are a family that is committed to the Northside and they’re a family that’s really committed to people,” Chapman says of The Youngers.
In between periods at The Pittsburgh Project, Wayne worked as the Northside program coordinator at PULSE, where he helped to establish a cohort of young adults living on the Northside that spend a year working with a Pittsburgh nonprofit. He has also spent some time working at Renewal, Inc., a nonprofit that helps citizens who are returning from the criminal justice system transition back into the community.
Aside from her full-time job pastoring at Cityview, Leeann invests in the community through her involvement as a Democratic committeewoman, where she represents her local precinct by working to “foster engagement in the local political process,” she says, mainly by encouraging locals to vote. Additionally, Leeann writes blogs centered on the relationships between faith, race, and justice, and has dreams to write on other topics that she has experience in, such as leadership and parenting. She is also considering writing a nonfiction book in the future.
“I feel like the menu’s large, but right now the thing I’m most urgent about is the intersection of faith, race, and justice,” she says.
Even with their heavy involvement in the Northside through their jobs, both Leeann and Wayne claim that engaging with their neighbors takes the highest priority in their dedication to the community.
“It’s just like living,” Leeann says. “It’s just making it a point to be in the neighborhood, whether it’s a community council meeting or whether it’s having lunch somewhere in the neighborhood—just presence.”
Family plays an important role in the lives of the Youngers. Wayne and Leeann have three young adult children, all of whom the couple adopted. The two oldest, Shaw and Isaiah, were adopted at four months and 15 months respectively, and within two years of each other. The youngest, Kayla, was adopted a few years after her brothers.
Both Leeann and Wayne knew before they started dating that they wanted to adopt. They started the adoption process almost right away once they married, and when they couldn’t get pregnant, knew that they were prepared to raise a family through adoption.
“We were both committed to adopting before we ever met because we were both just acutely aware of a need for Black parents for Black kids in the system,” Leeann says.
“We knew as young, Black professionals that we had something that we could offer to a kid who was trapped in that kind of system,” Wayne adds. “Both having jobs that were kind of social work jobs that saw the impact of the system on kids prepared us to want to be people who adopted, and we both had that conviction before we ever met each other.”
After they adopted Kayla, Leeann and Wayne felt that the shape of their family made sense. They stopped adopting, but their family never stopped growing: Each new member of their church or the neighborhood is considered family to them, and they don’t want that to stop.
“Part of the plan is to continue to grow our family, and our family is our kids that we adopted, but it’s also the folks that we’ve met through our church, through our life in the neighborhood—it’s a big family, and we want to keep growing,” Leeann says.
Much of Wayne and Leeann’s mission is rooted in their faith. Through inclusion and acceptance of those around them, they say they hope to show others God’s love through their actions and by working for the best of their neighborhood.
“From the perspective of a person of faith, the invitation is to plant roots where you are and fight for the good of the place where you are and for the good of the people you’re with.” Leeann says.
A future grounded in faith
Leeann and Wayne have shaped their vision of the future of Pittsburgh through their faith lens, dedicating their work to building a better, more loving community. For them, some of this means creating a more welcoming atmosphere for the Black community.
“My work is informed by this truth that has become evident in this city: that it is not a place where African Americans thrive,” Wayne says.
“When the water goes up, all the boats rise,” he says. “Pittsburgh is rising … and we’re seeing some boats that just need some repair.”
Wayne and Leeann have always been justice-oriented people, and Rooke emphasizes their commitment to challenging systemic racism and oppression.
“I think they’ve challenged a lot of people to look past ‘individual’ and look at ‘systemic’ and realize that to love God, to love others, means that we’re not only called to help the oppressed but we’re also called to correct the oppressor,” Rooke says.
Over everything, Wayne and Leeann have hopes that the Northside community, and Pittsburgh as a whole, will continue to create a welcoming space for their most vulnerable neighbors and will commit to investing in their lives by walking alongside them.
“It is very easy to focus on improvements and not see people,” Wayne says. “If asked what my vision is for the Northside neighborhood, it would just be that we as a neighborhood centralize the journeys of the people around us, not just the progress that’s happening,” Wayne says.
“I think that if we build a community that works for the most vulnerable among us,” Leeann says, “it will work for everybody.”