By Stan Friedman
PITTSBURGH, PA (September 18, 2013) — Tim Smith, pastor of Keystone Covenant Church, says that before he accepted the call to lead the church in 2000, “I found the idea of pastoring just completely repelling to me, completely repelling.”
Smith’s father, Virlie Smith, had pastored the church until he died in 1997. Tim had seen what pastors do, and he found it too confining.
“I’m an activist,” he states without apology.
Then as he considered the invitation to serve as the church’s pastor, he asked himself four questions: “What did Jesus say he was going to do? What did Jesus do? What did he tell us to do? And, most significantly, what’s he going to talk to us about when we see him?”
He found his answer to the first question in Luke 4:18: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.”
The answer to the second question was, “He took the gospel to the people.” His third answer was, “Go into all the world,” and the fourth he found in Matthew 25, where Jesus separates the sheep from the goats based on how they had treated “the least of these.”
As he found his questions answered, Smith knew he was being called to serve as the church’s pastor. But, he says with a puckish grin, “I get to pastor my way.” As an activist.
Smith is a mix of humility and unabashed self-confidence. He is polite even as he states strong opinions. A former investment banker, he remains bullish on Hazelwood, the Pittsburgh neighborhood where he lives and serves.
Hazelwood is a neighborhood of 5,000 to 6,000 people with no schools or recreation centers. All of the students are bused to other areas of the city. The dropout rate is high. Drugs and prostitution are solicited out in the open. It is a place where, Smith says, “People don’t call the police because the police don’t come.” He adds with a mixture of sadness and anger, “I bury more young people than I do old people.”
Smith moved to the neighborhood because he felt called to live out the answers to the questions he was asking. He loves the people there, and he is invested in them.
He compares Hazelwood to a small town. “Everyone knows each other,” he says.
At first residents fought the arrival of drug dealers in the area, but eventually they stopped resisting. They gave up hope in the possibility of change.
Yet Smith sees another side of the story. Not all of the drug dealers want to sell drugs, and the prostitutes don’t want to sell themselves. Many do it because it is the only way that they can support themselves and their families in a community where jobs are scarce and opportunities seem limited. “But they also want to see better schools, places to shop, and to get food,” he says.
A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Smith states, “When you’re listening to someone like that, you’re in school.” Listening is essential, he emphasizes, in order to help the people here. Prefabbed plans just won’t work in Hazelwood.
Finding answers entails making connections, a gift that Smith possesses. “Tim is one of these guys who is seemingly in the middle of a thousand different social webs and is one of the people who makes Pittsburgh a smaller place,” Rob Stephany, the Heinz Endowment’s director of community and economic development programs, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Once you’re connected to him, other people are connected to him. He takes seven degrees (of separation) down a notch.”
Narrowing the separation gap begins with connecting youth and mentors. Smith helped start Hazelwood Handyman, an organization that connects youth with men to work together to fix peoples’ homes. The youth, many of whose fathers are not present in their lives, learn skills and develop relationships with their mentors.
In the mid-2000s Smith’s two sons and some friends began rehearsing jazz in the family’s basement. Smith, who also is a musician, gave them guidance. He also began to work with students who were interested in hip-hop and jazz and started KRUNK (Kreating Realistic Urban New-school Knowledge) movement. The name is a play on a southern style, high-energy hip-hop called “crunk.”
Wanting to help improve the lives of teens and pre-teens in the area, they researched health disparities in the community, as well as self-destructive behaviors of youth, most of whom had no one to talk with about their issues.
KRUNK incorporates jazz, hip-hop, dance, recording engineering, visual art, and equipment management to communicate positive messages about mental and physical health to young people. They perform in schools, recreation centers, and other venues throughout the city.
The movement is designed as a production company and also serves to teach students how to start and run a small business. Smith says it is important that KRUNK be set up that way so students can take those skills with them when they get older.
Smith references the adage, “If you give someone a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach someone to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” He adds his own entrepreneurial spin. “If you teach them to own the pond, then they can put others to work and learn how to create new ponds.”
KRUNK is part of the faith-based Center of Life (COL) program, an outreach of Keystone. Since Smith founded COL in 2005, it has grown to include a jazz program that has produced musicians who have earned top honors at the prestigious Monterey Jazz Festival and traveled with top artists. COL also includes organized athletics and after-school activities, music and arts education throughout multiple schools, and financial literacy.
The programs have attracted the admiration and participation of others in the city. The Heinz Endowment last year awarded a three-year $1.35 million grant to help expand COL’s programs.
The programs are infused with Smith’s focus on making connections and engaging in a holistic means of improving the lives of individuals and families. The after-school tutoring program, Fusion, mandates that parents be involved at least one day a week so that they can better understand their children’s homework.
Earlier this year, Smith looked around the gym of a local Catholic church where students in the Fusion program were getting lessons from teachers who volunteered their time and materials, and from young adults in the community. (It has since moved to the Hazelwood Library.) Some of those young adults were former gang members or were once struggling students themselves.
He pointed to Darnell, who had been involved in COL programs. But he also had been kicked out of six schools. “I fought for him each time. I lost every time.”
Then in tenth grade something clicked, and Darnell decided to apply himself. He is now attending law school on a Heinz Fellowship. He volunteered with COL because he knew the difference it had made in his life to have someone believe in him.
“We knew he was smart,” Smith says. “We just didn’t know how smart.”
Smith points to another young adult who once was a gang member dealing drugs. “I get a lump in my throat that they would be here—to see where they have come from,” he says. “I don’t want to bury any more.”
He began to tear up. That’s what pastors do.