Faith, Race, Place

Confronting Pittsburgh’s religious past to understand and heal present divides.

Jan. 31, 2022

“We're here to provide a safe, welcoming Muslim environment for everybody to gather.”

“I am Sarahjameela, the daughter of Mary Ellen, who was the daughter of Sarah, who was the daughter of Nancy, who was the daughter of one kidnapped and enslaved in America.”

“People are converting to Judaism younger ... a big chunk of them come from the LGBTQ community ... whereas I don't think that 15 years ago or 20 years ago people felt very welcome. Now it's way more diverse.”

Pittsburgh’s religious landscape is fragmented. Rarely do people’s social groups reflect the city’s religious diversity. And rarely do religious communities reflect the city’s racial, economic or political diversity. Often, racial and religious segregation go hand in hand.

This didn’t happen by accident. Immigration and the Great Migration, industrialization and class divides, rivers and hills all shaped where, when and how Pittsburghers worship.

“Faith, Race, Place” confronts this past as a means of understanding the religious present. What factors led to religion in the Pittsburgh area as we know it? What role did houses of worship play at key moments in Pittsburgh history? Why (and when) would it have made sense for one neighborhood to have, say, 11 churches?

This project also showcases the individuals and communities who are working to bridge historical divides or heal past wounds. That kind of healing takes intentionality; deep divides don’t mend easily. But Pittsburghers have faith.

Why does my neighborhood have so many old churches and synagogues?

House of worship-heavy neighborhoods like the Hill District or Homestead didn’t form by accident. Immigration patterns, racism, industrialization and rivers all played a role.

85% of adults in the Pittsburgh metro area identify as people of faith, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center. That compares to 78% of U.S. adults.

Storied Pasts

The stories in this section offer glimpses into Pittsburgh’s religious past. They are snapshots of the diverse religious landscape; they are not comprehensive in their coverage of any one tradition or their picture of Pittsburgh religions as a whole. Still, together, they show important dynamics from Pittsburgh’s religious history that help us better understand faith in action now.

Stories by Chris Hedlin

“You need to understand history … so that you can reflect on whether you want to continue that same pattern or veer in a different direction.”

Healing Wounds, Building Bridges

“The Church was complicit in the racial divide in this country, all the way back to slavery and even pre-slavery … Anything that has been divisive between us, we have to name it, recognize it, admit it, acknowledge it and sit with the harm done. Lament over it. And then, in our lamenting, we've got to invite God into the space to help us heal. Healing cannot happen without lamenting. That's why the issue of racial reconciliation is really an anathema in this country. Because you can't reconcile what has never really been in harmony.”

—Rev. John C. Welch, pastor of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church