Eric Ewell acted fast when he learned the congregation of Grace United Church of Christ in Duquesne planned to disband and close its worship site late last year.
Ewell, pastor of Divine Restoration Church of God in Christ, a Duquesne congregation he founded eight years ago, envisioned Grace United’s century-old, stone church on South 7th Street as an ideal space for worship — and to expand his congregation’s outreach that includes providing food, clothing and technology access to residents of this impoverished community along the Monongahela River 12 miles south of Downtown Pittsburgh.
The pastor started Divine Restoration in space at Duquesne’s Boys & Girls Club and six months later it started leasing space at First Baptist Church in Duquesne.
He pitched the idea of taking over Grace United’s facility to its members at a November meeting and on Jan. 1, the building donation — including a stocked food pantry and other supplies — became official.
“It’s hard to explain how at peace they were” with the deal, says Ewell. “They were worried it might become a brewpub or a restaurant. The work we were doing gave them peace of mind.”
The church, built in 1920, features sparkling, Gothic-style stained-glass windows, bright red wooden doors at its arched entrances, and original pews in its sanctuary.
New furnaces and a sump pump were installed in recent years and regular maintenance by the former congregation left the facility in “excellent turnkey shape,” for the transition, says Ewell.
The basement houses a commercial kitchen equipped with dishes and utensils, two refrigerators, and two freezers filled with donations from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
The church operates a weekly food pantry, distributes fresh produce to seniors twice a month, and in late April, plans to launch a monthly, free hot dinner for anyone in the community.
In addition to the kitchen and activity space, the church basement houses an area filled with gently used clothing and accessories that Divine Restoration distributes monthly to those in need. The inventory includes items suitable for job interviews.
Grace United was among many churches in Duquesne and other Mon Valley towns that “thrived during the heyday of the steel industry,” says Ewell.
U.S. Steel shuttered its sprawling Duquesne Works in 1984 and as the city’s fortunes and its population declined, many of Grace United’s congregants, who were mostly white, relocated to nearby suburbs.
While some continued to travel to Duquesne for services, by last year, the church had only 22 members, many of whom were elderly. It opted to disband because of challenges holding services during the pandemic, says Ewell.
His church, by contrast, is growing.
Divine Restoration — whose congregation is 70 percent Black — has 110 members including children, and during the pandemic revved up its work to help the needy in Duquesne.
In May 2020, POISE Foundation of Pittsburgh awarded the church $15,000 to respond to pandemic-related needs.
The grant was part of POISE’s Critical Community Needs Fund launched early in the pandemic to provide money to small- and medium-sized Black-led organizations in the region, including churches, that assist people in vulnerable, Black communities.
The funds helped Divine Restoration “broaden our reach,” says Ewell, who at the time noted most of those receiving assistance weren’t church members.
During the pandemic, the congregation distributed food, including hot meals for seniors and helped local residents pay rent, utilities “and whatever the needs were at the time,” he says.
“We responded before the government,” Ewell adds.
“You can’t always wait for the government so churches need to respond.”
A second grant of $15,000 that POISE awarded to the church in November is helping Divine Restoration expand its existing food and rent assistance programs and funds a health education program and the launch of an internet cafe.
Twice weekly, a church member facilitates the cafe where people have access to four new laptop computers, a printer and high-speed connections. Participants can also bring their own devices and get help with resumes, job searches and school assignments.
The church holds weekly worship on Sunday mornings and a prayer service on Thursday evenings.
It began streaming services over Facebook, YouTube and Zoom early in the pandemic and has continued to do so to accommodate members who have health challenges and can’t attend in person.
Ewell — who works full-time as a facilitator of the Mon Valley Launchbox, a small business incubator at Penn State’s Greater Allegheny Campus in McKeesport, and is director of continuing education at that campus — doesn’t earn a salary as a pastor.
His wife, Sonia Ewell, 42, an English teacher at Avonworth High School, is the “main volunteer” at the church, he says.
They reside in Duquesne with their four sons and are convinced their church’s ministries can help improve the lives of people in the small city where the population now hovers around 5,000 and about 35 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level of approximately $27,000 for a family of four.
Ewell, 44, was raised in Duquesne after its manufacturing base collapsed.
As a youth involved in sports and other activities, he recalls that people who led church and civic organizations “gave us light.”
Sonia Ewell, 42, grew up in nearby Clairton where her grandfather was her pastor.
“I’ve been doing this work my whole life,” she says of church ministries. “It’s our turn.”
“Duquesne is in a rough position,” says Ewell. “During Covid, we shifted from in-person services to services through our actions.”