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Embracing the sacraments and the community

Pittsburgh church forges bond between faith, education and outreach

by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service

Crafton Heights United Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh decorate a communion cloth at a recent family retreat. (Photo provided)

Crafton Heights United Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh decorate a communion cloth at a recent family retreat. (Photo provided)

LOUISVILLE – A family retreat for members of Crafton Heights United Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh opened up possibilities in inter-generational learning, deepening commitment to faith and attendees understanding of God’s relationship to humanity.

Held in early October at Camp Crestfield in Pittsburgh Presbytery, the weekend retreat was structured around times of prayer, discussion and education, including plenty of time for the church’s rapidly growing number of children to have fun with their parents and guardians.

The Rev. Dave Carver, pastor at Crafton Heights for the past 25 years, said the event was a “real treat” for him and the congregation, providing a time to help families grow in their ability to have discipleship conversations, and to have conversations about what it means to be a community that passes the faith on to our children.

“We try to pick a topic that will be of interest to everybody—something that focuses on Christian growth and discipleship,” he said. “We chose to use that time to concentrate on the sacraments—how we talk about them as a church, how we discuss them in our families and how we share these amazing gifts with our children.”

Groups of 4-6 people, half children older than kindergarten age and half adults, attended various sessions Saturday and Sunday on the topics of baptism and communion. Discussion was tailored to each age group and allowed an exchange of ideas and questions that were age-appropriate in addition to explaining the church’s practice of the sacraments.

The communion cloth created by children from Crafton Heights United Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh at a recent family retreat. (Photo provided)

The communion cloth created by children from Crafton Heights United Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh at a recent family retreat. (Photo provided)

“It was so much fun to see older people whose kids have grown up or are childless to engage with kids,” said Carver. “And to see kids build relationships with folks who weren’t mom or dad.”

Carver acknowledged the group’s diversity—noting the need to talk about the difference in baptismal and communion practices between Christian traditions and the various understandings of sacraments in the ecumenical community.

“We were able to ask, ‘What does it mean for us to celebrate the grace of God in our lives even before we recognize it?’” said Carver of the church’s usual practice of infant baptism.

Following the discussion on communion, as the adults were taking a deeper dive into the theology and history of Eucharist, the children took what they had learned and decorated a communion table cover to be used at the retreat and at church up their return.

“The next week, when we came into church and had communion,” said Caver, “to see the kids running up and pointing to the communion cloth was incredible. A couple of the kids took the sacrament of communion for the first time that day.”

Even children whose parents opted for them not to participate in communion were filled with excitement, according to Carver, pointing out the images they’d draw on the communion table cover and expressing what they’d learned during the retreat.

“In the last couple of years we’ve just had this explosion of kids [coming to the church,]” said Carver of the church’s average attendance being composed of 25-30 percent children. “There are a lot of little kids running around.”

Carver attributes the growth in children and young families at the church to the outreach and mission of the churches Open Door youth center. A fully funded endeavor of Crafton Heights, the Open Door offers after school programs, mentoring, summer camps and recreational activities in what was the neighborhood movie theater. Following the theater’s closure the space took on many incarnations in the working class neighborhood until the church bought and began converting it for its current use in 1987.

A vignette from the Exodus story on the communion cloth created by children from Crafton Heights United Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. (Photo provided)

A vignette from the Exodus story on the communion cloth created by children from Crafton Heights United Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. (Photo provided)

“The kids in this neighborhood would be considered, statistically, at risk for something or the other,” Carver said of the community’s condition. Prior to the area’s public school closing a year ago, the principal had confided to carver that 93 percent of the students lived in families at or below the federal poverty line.

“We’re looking for ways to continually engage kids,” said Carver of the Open Door’s activities, adding the tagline of the ministry is “The Open Door is a place where children that God loves, can meet people who love God.”

The Open Door’s programming is offered free to attendees, supported by the church, limited foundation funds, partner churches in the presbytery and individual support. Additionally, paid summer camp staff is selected from among church and neighborhood children who had previously attended Open Door activities, providing leadership opportunities for participants.

Likewise, Carver is emphatic that the exchange has been mutual. “The Open Door has had a big impact on the church,” he said. “As young people are growing up in the church, the church youth group or Sunday school program, we offer them opportunities to be involved in the Open Door.”

A surprising result of growing up in and around the Open Door programming is that some former participants, now young adults, are returning to the neighborhood to buy homes and raise their families in proximity to the ministry, the church and the faith community they cherish. “There are probably a dozen families that have chosen to stay in this neighborhood because it provides them with an opportunity to continue with some of the ministry,” he says. “And that’s catching on… The Open Door the church have fed each other in some really wonderful ways.”

Tim Salinetro is one of those who grew up in the church going through Open Door programs and decided to remain. He now serves as an adult mentor at Open Door.

“I’ve grown up in the church,” he says. “We meet together every Sunday night for a Bible study together. Our hope is that through this youth group—as they go through everything middle schoolers and high schoolers go through—they have this friend that they can turn to, to talk about anything. That’s our real hope.”

Salinetro also leads the youth in an annual mission trip, giving them experiences they would not otherwise have. “It’s those memories and those experiences that you hope to build and give those kids,” Salinetro said.

Carver believes the interchange and commitment seen in Salinetro and others is an example of sacramental living—finding grace in a particular time and place in a community experiencing God together.

“It’s been a lot of fun to see the children and the adults come to understand that our participation in the sacraments is never complete—and it’s never ‘one and done,’ he said. “We experience the sacraments in the body and in the lives that we have on that day. And then the next time we experience those sacraments, we’re different people, so we’re going to experience them in different ways.”

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Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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