Faith making a difference in Aliquippa
Kevin Lorenzi/The Times: Chris Ingram speaks to a church gathering at a "Black Lives Matter" service Dec. 14 at New Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Aliquippa.
By Tom Davidson
Beaver County Times
ALIQUIPPA — Beyond the facts and figures in the sheaf of 150 pages that is the city’s Act 47 recovery plan are the people who live and do business here.
They’ve endured decades of economic downturns and slow decay since the industrial lifeblood of the community — Jones & Laughlin Steel and its successors — left with the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s.
But the city’s people have leaned on another institution, one that many say is even tougher than steel: their churches and what springs forth within them, namely their faith. Despite the city’s financial woes, it has a strong spiritual foundation, and scores of people of all faiths are working to help the city resurrect itself.
"We see united … clergy like we’ve never seen before" crossing congregational and racial boundaries to unite for the city’s common good, said Rich Liptak, pastor of Wildwood Chapel in Hopewell Township, just across the border from Aliquippa.
"There’s genuine love and care for each other. It’s been great," he said.
More than 300 people attended a September service billed as Aliquippa Celebrates Faith, and for five years, each Saturday morning, a group of clergy has gathered to pray at various places in the city, Liptak said. He remembers times when there would be a shooting or stabbing on a Friday night, and the next morning they’d gather to pray near the scene of the crime.
But in the five years, the Saturday group has prayed in every neighborhood of the city, and it’s made a difference. After a stretch of more than a decade where there was at least one homicide each year in Aliquippa, the city saw a 16-month stretch in 2012 and 2013 without a murder, Liptak said.
"We see answer to prayer," he said.
He himself been a witness to the demise of the mills and the jobs they provided. His father, uncle and grandfather were all steelworkers. "It’s been a slow spiral downward" is how he puts it.
Liptak has listened to people longing for the mills to come back since they were shuttered. But the mills haven’t come back, and for 30 years, the city has been stuck in the state’s Act 47 program for financially distressed communities. The city’s latest recovery plan was approved earlier this year, and city officials are working to exit the program and foster a renaissance in town.
"I think we’re poised for improvement," Liptak said. He serves as president of the Greater Aliquippa Ministerial Association, a vibrant group of pastors who work together to make a difference in Aliquippa.
Making an impact
There are also groups including Aliquippa Impact that work to help youth.
Steve Rossi, executive director of Aliquippa Impact, said its main aim is to "foster tangible hope to youth" in the city.
"It’s not just spiritual in nature; it’s practical," Rossi said.
Aliquippa Impact has an after-school program at Linmar Terrace, a one-on-one mentoring program, a city camp, arts education and several summer programs for youth in the city. They try to teach kids what they can do themselves to ensure they have a bright future, Rossi said.
"A lot of it is common-sense stuff," he said. "We want you (the youth they serve) to own it."
The youth in the city are full of potential, he said, and they try to teach kids that they have the answers to the problems they face.
Many of the people involved with Aliquippa Impact, including Rossi, aren’t Aliquippa natives. They came to serve and not to "fix Aliquippa," he said, but to help the people there "fix themselves."
"It is a long-haul ministry," he said, with the long-term goal being that the kids served now will one day be a part of the ministry’s leadership.
A big part of it is "just showing up" to be there for the kids. "We can go so far through love," Rossi said. "It brings hope to families."
Offering coffee — and hope
Another group that’s active in Aliquippa is Uncommon Grounds, a coffee shop and ministry program based on Franklin Avenue downtown that was founded in 2005 by Church Army evangelist John Stanley, an Australian who has since returned to his native land.
The ministry lives on, thanks to Herb Bailey, whose first impression of Aliquippa differed from the persistent negative perceptions of the city that are common in Beaver County.