Virginia Gwyn grew up on the Northside. After leaving nearly 30 years ago, she’s found her way back to pastor a very new church in a very old building. (Photo/ Henry Clay Webster)
Virginia Gwyn discusses the Bible a lot.
So when she refers to her middle-aged return to her native Pittsburgh as “an Abrahamic thing,” somehow it doesn’t seem out of place.
“I didn’t know what I was here to do, but I knew I needed to be here,” said Gwyn, who left the “emerald beaches” of the Florida Panhandle in 2008 to return to the city of her youth.
Gwyn now knows what she’s here to do since becoming head pastor this winter of Lamb of God Lion of Judah Christian Church, a new congregation that has sprung up on the former site of Mt. Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, a grand old stone church building on Observatory Hill’s main drag that has sat vacant for the last three years.
She is upbeat about the nondenominational church’s mission to affect the lives of Northsiders, especially the young who are prone to flirt with a gang or criminal lifestyle. Troubled youth is one of the main reasons Gwyn couldn’t stay in Florida, she said.
“I was amazed by the number of young people killed up here,” Gwyn said, recalling her thoughts after visiting Pittsburgh in the summer of 2007. “God impressed on me how lawless the poor areas seem to be.”
When she returned to the Fort Walton Beach, Fl. church where she had presided as pastor for several years, she couldn’t get Pittsburgh off her mind.
When she prayed, she thought about Pittsburgh. When she drove her car, she thought about Pittsburgh. Gwyn even started having dreams about her old alma mater, Allegheny High School.
She had built a comfortable life in Florida, where she was the presiding pastor at New Hope Christian Center in Fort Walton Beach for 20 years. She liked being near her children and grandchildren too. There was no reason to leave.
After being in constant motion as the wife of a military officer, living in such far flung climes as California and Holland, staying put carried a sense of luxury.
“Why this bombardment with Pittsburgh?” she asked her grown daughter, Audrey, one day when she couldn’t take it anymore.
Gwyn recalled that Audrey’s response was resolute: “’You go because God needs you there.’”
After that conversation with Audrey, Gwyn said she felt the impulse to leave her comfortable life in Florida to take on a new cause.
When she moved back to Pittsburgh in 2008, Gwyn began an “observing period” where she found herself attending the funerals of youth killed in gang or drug violence.
She didn’t feel the need to ask why this was happening.
As a member of the national honor society, Gwyn had graduated from Allegheny High School fifth in her class. But even with that level of competence, she couldn’t find a job. Being a black woman in Pittsburgh carried with it its own disadvantages back then, she said.
If someone with her skills couldn’t find a job, what about everyone else from her graduating class?, Gwyn asked herself.
“What I saw when I got back was the result of that,” Gwyn said.
When it was time to start a church to minister to these people, Gwyn was drawn to the abandoned church building, which has sat vacant since several Lutheran churches were consolidated in Brighton Heights Lutheran Church.
Built in 1876, the church offers “wonderful acoustics,” and Gwyn has been told that it has just one of three working organs in the city with the original pipes.
“I’ve seen pictures going back to the 1920s, and the building still looks the same,” Gwyn said.
With the added bonus of a large fellowship hall, a kitchen and an attached apartment for her and her husband, the building is a perfect fit.
Since holding the first meeting in mid-January, the 50-member strong Lamb of God Lion of Judah Christian Church has quickly filled the role of providing funeral services to people without a home church. In May, the church held the funeral of a young man who was gunned down in California-Kirkbride while sitting on a front porch. Not too long before, another funeral was held for a woman without many family relations or friends.
Gwyn said she is blessed with the building, which according to her is in good working order. She views getting the lease agreement as nothing short of a miracle, since she has had no financial backing. She said each Sunday service has seen more interest from residents.
“It’s like the ark, God just sent them. Noah’s job was to build the ark, and God sent the animals.”
Rather than choosing a denomination, which she views as limiting, Gwyn instead designates the congregation as a multicultural haven for all kinds of Northsiders.
“The church is multicultural, because I want this place to look like heaven.