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For years, Jessica King (C 96) walked past the grey stone church on the corner of Negley and Stanton in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The dominant landmark on that corner for more than 100 years, it must have been a magnificant house of worship when it first opened its doors as home to the second Presbyterian congregation in the city, resplendent with ornate staircases, elaborate light fixtures, custom-built fireplace mantles and contoured wooden benches. The sunlight that streamed through more than 100 stained glass windows infused the interior in a warm, rich glow.
However, by the time Jessica moved to the Highland Park neighborhood, the onceproud Union Baptist Church was a wreck. Over the decades several denominations had used the church; the final group was no more than a dozen parishoners. Neglected and abandoned, the building was home to hundreds of pigeons and occasional vandals. The roof leaked. Historical light fixtures had been pilfered. The 15,000-square-foot building was without heating, plumbing or electrical systems.
When a prominent public space, such as a landmark church building, slides into ruin it leaves a wound in the spirit of a neighborhood. This one stood at the crossroads of three diverse communities and three doors down from Jessica's home.
Transplanted to the big city in 1996 after graduating from EMU with a degree in English, Jessica joined PULSE, a part of MennoCorps volunteer program started by John Stahl-Wert (C 81). The program provided a context for Jessica to "wholeheartedly engage the painful history of urban America and engage it as my own story and my own challenge."
Jessica points to her EMU cross-cultural semester led by Carroll Yoder to the Ivory Coast and France as "some of the best preparation for the life I'm leading now. The trip was my first, extended, in-depth, relational experience with diversityamong my racially and culturally diverse trip-mates, within the poor ghetto of Abidjan and the changing climate of France with the influx of Muslim immigrants."
"My time at EMU taught me that I can handle the truth, even though it's often horribly difficult. But I can also dream dreams full of hope." And it is through those eyes that Jessica and other young Mennonites, "blinded by idealism and buoyed by energy, saw more than a ramshackle old Union Baptist Church. Instead, we saw the place restored and reinvented as a gathering and working space for artists, community builders and people of faith."
The Union Project (www.unionproject.org) is the name of the organization Jessica helped found and now leads as its executive director. From their statement of core values, under Faith: "We hope in things not yet seen which creates the basis for taking appropriate risks on behalf of the community." And under Servant Leadership: "We believe hands-on service cultivates investment and leadership."
"Urban barn raising" is how Jessica describes the task of gathering supporters necessary for the building's renovation, of raising over a million dollars toward the effort and of tapping into the energy of 14,000 hours from more than 1,000 volunteers across the city, state and beyond.
One of the largest single items on the group's "master shopping list" was a million dollars to professionally restore the stained glass windows. The amount looked undoable, until Jessica and Justin Rothshank, the project's associate director, had an creative idea. Knowing that Pittsburgh is rich in deteriorating stained glass (all homes built during a certain era have it) and given the fact that the craft of stained glass restoration is dying out, maybe there's a hunger to learn how to restore stained glass. And so they decided to offer stained glass restoration classes for the community, taught by a professional stained glass artist and using the church's actual windows as their hands-on projects.
Less than two years later, more than 100 students have enrolled in the classes and half of the windows are fully restored. With the success of the stained glass classes, Jessica and Justin are considering ways to apply the same creative methodology for other components of the Union Project, perhaps offering classes in woodworking and plaster skills.