The Rev. Dale B. Snyder of Bethel AME was dressed in a black Adidas tracksuit when we met at his church office, which seemed appropriate for the pastor/activist who has the bearing of a retired athlete.
Constantly moving between the laptop on the office conference table and the many ancient cabinets he retrieves documents from to make a point, Rev. Snyder’s sweat is as well-earned as it would be on any Sunday morning when he’s wearing his denomination’s colorful vestments. That’s when he encourages his congregants to “run the race” the Apostle Paul insisted all believers must run.
For his part, Rev. Snyder hasn’t stopped running since discovering the history of “Big Bethel” when he arrived to become pastor of the church in 2019.
Rev. Snyder, 63, wasn’t born when the church’s original Hill District site was seized by eminent domain in 1957 to make way for the Civic Arena, but he can still feel the hopes and dreams of those original congregants who prayed for a just outcome to the exile they were forced into by the city and the URA.
“When we got moved out of our building, we had nowhere to take our records,” says Rev. Snyder. “We had nowhere to go. We were homeless. They not only built the Civic Arena, they built a highway system through our neighborhood which further separated us from Downtown Pittsburgh.”
A Seventh-day Adventist church took them in temporarily, but there was inevitable attrition as hundreds of members sought stability at churches unscathed by the latest round of urban renewal.
Forced to settle for a fraction of the market value of what the church and its land was worth, Bethel AME moved into a smaller building that couldn’t accommodate more than half of the congregation at a time. “We had to take out a mortgage to buy an air-condition system,” Rev. Snyder says. “We lost two-thirds of our people.”
Rev. Snyder arrived in Pittsburgh and learned of Big Bethel’s history at a time when the city, the URA and the Pittsburgh Penguins were already deep in discussions about “compensating” the Hill District for historic wrongs.
The Civic Arena had already been torn down and replaced by PPG Paints Arena. While competing Hill District civic groups made their grievances known, Big Bethel was not at the table. No one was addressing its claim that its land and development rights had been stolen and that the city’s oldest African-American institution had been stripped of its financial dignity and autonomy.
Rev. Snyder was stunned. “There was talk of a plaque commemorating the original site of the church,” he says, shaking his head.
As a newcomer to Pittsburgh, he couldn’t believe the paucity of the gesture in light of historical wrongs no one disputed. That’s when he knew he wasn’t dealing with folks who would do the right thing without being pushed.
After putting together a committee at the church to find out what the parishioners wanted, Rev. Snyder enlisted Color Of Change to help him lobby the city, the URA, the Penguins and other interested parties on Bethel AME’s behalf.
He also made presentations at predominantly white churches and initiated local dialogues that resulted in an invitation to address the World Council of Churches, a rare honor. Bethel’s allies now include the Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community, St. Andrew Lutheran Church, the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network and other peace-oriented churches, organizations and denominations.
In the flurry of “memorandums of understandings” that have circulated since Bethel entered talks with the city, Rev. Snyder has experienced moments of great optimism and crushing disappointment. Still, Bethel’s demands haven’t changed: “We want our land back and our development rights back,” he says.
Recently, Rev. Snyder sent out an email update to allies and supporters. My next column will explain why he’s more hopeful than he’s ever been regarding recent negotiations with Mayor Gainey’s office, the Penguins and the Sports & Exhibition Authority.
Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.