L. Roger Owens and the Rev. Patrice L. Fowler-Searcy meet at a coffeeshop in the East Liberty neighborhood. Fowler-Searcy has spent two decades serving the church and helping revitalize the community; she shares her wisdom and experience with Owens and his students. Photos by Alexander Catedral
How does a seminary professor keep learning once he has left the parish? L. Roger Owens found a teacher in the Rev. Patrice L. Fowler-Searcy, who has worked to revitalize the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
When I leave my seminary each day, I can see a Gothic spire in the distance. It’s the steeple of East Liberty Presbyterian Church, which reaches higher than any other building in the neighborhood.
And hidden in the labyrinthine halls of this massive building is the office of the Rev. Patrice L. Fowler-Searcy, the church’s associate pastor for mission ministries.
This is her base of operations.
Here is where she writes invocations for protest marches, grapples with the minutiae of housing regulations, crafts prophetic sermons, and listens to the needs and hopes of members of the East Liberty community.
Here is where she imagines how to lead a church in partnership with a local nonprofit to provide housing and opportunity to all who live in the East Liberty community.
And here is where I found one of my best teachers.
I spend my days teaching about ministry as a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Before that, I was a pastor for eight years. I knew when I moved from the parish to the academy that I would need to keep learning, so I have kept my eyes open for those who could teach me.
And I have learned from Fowler-Searcy.
When I was a pastor and thought of the community, I usually imagined my congregation. Fowler-Searcy has taught me to think of community much more widely.
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I already knew it was important to listen, but she has shown me that there are lots of people I wasn’t listening to.
I knew how a church worked, but she has helped me see that a pastor might need to know about community planning as well.
She has taught me how a pastor can help a whole neighborhood flourish in God’s shalom.
God’s work for God’s people
I met Fowler-Searcy at the annual board of directors meeting at my seminary. We were seated at the same table, she on the other side of my wife. Eavesdropping on their conversation, I heard enough to think she was someone from whom I -- and my students -- could learn.
In this interview, the Rev. Patrice L. Fowler-Searcy talks about her pastoral vocation as a minister to the East Liberty neighborhood and how she maintains her passion for the work.
Since then, I’ve invited her to speak to my classes. I’ve watched the students sit in rapt attention as they absorb her wisdom.
She draws from her 20 years of experience in community ministry. She tells them about working with the community -- not just working on its behalf. She explains how important it is for the community to trust the leadership of those who seek to help them.
And she acknowledges that it’s difficult to sustain the work over the years.
But seeing the end result of what she calls “doing God’s work for God’s people” can bring the passion back.
“You have to get outside the doors of the church and walk the community,” she said. “Keep your ear to the ground.”
When she comes to work each day, there are between 10 and 20 messages on her voicemail from people in crisis or who need assistance. She knows their stories; she has become friend and pastor to many of them.
“We’ve shown them the best of Christianity by being willing to come into their world,” she said, “and help them without any expectation that they would come into ours.”
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As she talked to my students, I realized I needed to know more of her story and the story of the remarkable transformation of East Liberty over the two decades she has been in ministry there.
The decline and rise of East Liberty
As I walk from the seminary to Fowler-Searcy’s office, I see signs of transformation all around me: new restaurants and boutique shops, Home Depot, one of the first businesses to move back in, and Whole Foods just around the corner. I have to cross the street because construction has closed the sidewalk.
Twenty years ago, East Liberty -- at one time the third-largest shopping district in the state and home of the Mellons, the Carnegies and the Heinzes -- had been decimated. High-rise apartments had become concentrations of poverty, once-thriving commercial properties were parking lots, and new traffic patterns routed people away from the neighborhood’s economic center.
Cities all over the country can tell a similar story.
Fewer can tell a story like the one that’s transpired here. Home ownership in what are now mixed-income neighborhoods is growing. Crime is falling -- in part because of a strategic plan to buy and renovate nuisance properties. Restaurants, small businesses and anchor stores have moved back in.
This renewal of East Liberty has been reported in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Guardian -- but the articles do not mention the church or its key partnership with the local community development corporation.
Nor do they mention Fowler-Searcy, who has embodied that partnership as a staff person at the church and the president of the development corporation’s board -- in the thick of it for two decades.
A pastor and a leader in community development
In her office, Fowler-Searcy sits in front of a lighted candle and photos of her grandchildren. A few empty coffee cups left over from a meeting occupy a shelf, several carbon monoxide detectors are stacked on a crate, and a sleeping mat for a homeless person rests in the corner.
“When people come in here, I don’t apologize for the mess. I tell them mission is messy, and this isn’t just my office; it’s essentially the mission office of the church,” she said.
Fowler-Searcy came to East Liberty Presbyterian Church in 1996 to direct its ministry with low-income and single-parent families.
As part of her job, she was instructed to get involved with creating a community plan for the neighborhood. That meant joining the board of the development corporation, East Liberty Development Inc. (ELDI).
Community development corporations (often called CDCs) are nonprofits focused on revitalizing particular neighborhoods -- typically, low-income, underserved communities.
“The pastor said to me, ‘You’re our church outreach person; you need to be on the [ELDI] board. We’re going to make that happen,’” she said.
Her first assignment as a board member -- and later, as president -- was to work on the strategic plan, which involved a year and a half of community meetings.
Helping to develop and launch the plan taught her some early lessons: listen to the community, get to know people, and keep their best interests at heart. At the same time, learn about the details of loan structuring, city codes and the intricacies of public-private partnerships.
More importantly, Fowler-Searcy has been able to use her two roles to facilitate real change in the community, because the visions of the church and the development corporation overlap.
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The church was a natural ally for ELDI, which was founded in 1979. The church has been in East Liberty since 1819. But when the neighborhood began to decline in the 1960s, the congregation was forced to reflect on its identity.
“We were a white, affluent congregation, with all-male leadership,” the Rev. Randy Bush, the current senior pastor, told me. “Our ushers wore morning suits.”
Maybe that seemed appropriate when Pittsburgh’s elite lived nearby, but the congregation’s ongoing self-reflection in the late 1960s and early 1970s helped them see that if they wanted to stay in East Liberty, they would need to change to reflect the community’s growing racial and economic diversity.
“When the neighborhood began to decline, we made a conscious decision: we are staying,” Bush said.
This commitment meant that they were one of the few stable, functioning institutions in a changing neighborhood.
Balancing two roles
Fowler-Searcy’s role as a Christian minister gives her a particular perspective at the development corporation.
“I’m always mindful, when I’m at the head of the table leading a meeting there, of what is in the best interest of the entire community from a pastoral perspective, so we’re not denying anyone the ability to be a part of this community,” she said.
That approach can require gentle, prophetic confrontation. When a project comes before the ELDI board, Fowler-Searcy looks at it from the perspective of God’s shalom -- the full flourishing of the community. And not all projects meet this criterion.
“There have been projects that I personally felt were not in the best interest of this community,” she said. “I’ve pushed staff and the board on it.”
The partnership between church and development corporation has thus sometimes been strained, with Fowler-Searcy in the middle.
She was the president of the development corporation in 2002, when it was time for the nonprofit to repay the church a half-million-dollar recoverable grant. The church, with a renovation project of its own to fund, wanted the grant repaid with interest. But the development corporation didn’t have the money.
Fowler-Searcy had not been involved in the original agreement, but she still felt a sense of responsibility.
“That was a really tense moment for me; I may have taken on more than I really needed to, because people weren’t really looking at me personally, but I had my feet in both camps,” she said.
The situation was resolved by restructuring the agreement so that the nonprofit first paid interest and later repaid the principal.
“That was a day when I was so relieved, because I felt responsible as president,” she said.
Sometimes the tension comes from the community as well. One time after Fowler-Searcy spoke to my class, a student who had lived much of her life in East Liberty told me in frustration that the neighborhood was being gentrified -- a common concern when communities rebound.
It’s a complaint Fowler-Searcy takes seriously.
“We take a lot of heat for people being displaced,” she said, acknowledging that the demolition of public housing early in the execution of the community plan could have gone better. There wasn’t enough alternative housing available, and the Pittsburgh housing authority didn’t adequately track the people who moved out.
Now, she said, subsidized, affordable and market-rate housing are interspersed, so that what sometimes looks like gentrification is in fact an attempt to integrate all economic levels into one community, because community members said they wanted no more economic segregation.
The process is going more smoothly now, she said, something that gives her great satisfaction.
She told me about her friendship with many families in a 50-year-old housing development that recently closed.
“I knew these people. I would go over there for their community days, and hang out and serve ice cream,” she said.
The church and the development corporation worked together to make sure all of the 120 families either moved into new affordable housing right away or were put on a list of people who will be offered housing first when it becomes available. All the residents will be able to stay in East Liberty.
“It became exciting for me,” she told me, “when they were able to move into brand-new apartments that had all the amenities they hadn’t had for the last 30 years, and to be invited in to see all the pride they now took in being in a modern home.
“That made me feel proud to be a part of the development of this community.”
Teaching the students
The week after the Orlando nightclub shooting, I was driving to school and heard a story on NPR about faith communities leading a candlelight prayer vigil outside the City-County Building in downtown Pittsburgh.
Near the end of the story, I heard Fowler-Searcy’s voice leading the closing prayer, that same energetic and prophetic voice I’ve heard from the pulpit and in my classroom.
Yes, I thought, as I listened in my car, that’s someone I’m glad my students are hearing from -- someone at home with building codes, serving ice cream at events in public housing and praying in public for justice.
Recently, I worshipped with Fowler-Searcy’s congregation. I saw one of my students standing in line to receive communion. She’s an intern there, and another student in my ministry class interned at the church last year.
During that sacrament of thanksgiving, I gave thanks that students get to see Fowler-Searcy’s ministry up close and learn from her directly.
But she can’t teach all my classes -- that’s my job. And I know that I could learn from her myself. So I went to Fowler-Searcy and asked, “What wisdom can I pass along that you have discovered over these 20 years?” Three themes wove themselves throughout our conversation.
Community development requires deep and ongoing listening. The two community plans that ELDI has launched since 1999 were not developed in isolation. They grew out of intentional listening to the hopes, needs, dreams and gifts of the community. Many of the meetings were hosted by the church, and churches and pastors can initiate such meetings.
Leaders have to learn as they go. Fowler-Searcy didn’t have time to become an expert before she started her work. She had to find people she could learn from along the way. Fowler-Searcy said anyone can pick up a phone and call a community development corporation to find out what they’re doing.
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Stability and trust are keys to success. After 20 years, members of the East Liberty community know and trust Fowler-Searcy. And after nearly 200 years, they know her church as a beacon of hope. Leaders of community development can’t be in it for themselves, she told me. They have to see themselves as part of the community and develop trust. Which, of course, brings us back to the first point -- listening.
When I asked Fowler-Searcy about the fruit of her ministry, and of the church’s long tenure in East Liberty and partnership with the development corporation, she answered, “I like to say the church is really the community center of East Liberty, primarily because our doors are always open.”
Open for the community to come in, and open for a minister like her to walk out and be among the people, in the neighborhood she has committed to serve.