Methodist bishop cites highs, lows

Written by Peter Smith on .

photo 8In his second-to-last address as spiritual leader of Western Pennsylvania's 170,000 United Methodists, Bishop Thomas Bickerton offered a best-of-times/worst-of-times portrait of the denomination's status here.

There are "amazing stories of growth" in some churches, with some new ministries being launched. But at the same time, there are a "growing number of churches that are ending their ministry," he said. "These once vital and independently driven churches can no longer sustain a ministry and maintain a building and are closing their doors."

Some, he said, are closing gracefully, looking for a way to pass the torch to other ministries in their community. Others "can only see their immediate future and are unwilling to discuss how God might use them to usher in a new chapter of what it means to be church in that region."

Bishop Bickerton made the comments in his annual state of the church address before the annual meeting of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, taking place this week in Grove City. The denomination has about 800 churches in 23 counties, and it's the largest Protestant body in the seven-county Pittsburgh metropolitan statistical area.

Bishop Bickerton, who was first elected to the position in 2004, is ending his tenure here next year.

He lamented there are cases in some churches of racism and opposition to women clergy, but he took heart that some of them are trying to do better.

He ended with a note of hope, saying he's seen "place after place that, on paper, don't look like they stand a chance. ... Yet they press on, you press on to be the church of Jesus Christ."


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Presbyterian membership down 5% again

Written by Peter Smith on .

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) lost 5 percent of its members and more than 100 of its churches to other denominations in 2014, matching both of those figures from each of the previous two years.

Newly released statistics by the church show a membership of 1,667,767, down 5.25 percent from 2013 and 15 percent since 2011. Some 101 churches were dismissed to other denominations, bringing to 359 the number since 2012 with a growing wave of departures.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has well under half the 4.2 million in the mid-1960s when its two predecessor denominations were at its peak, as were several other historic Protestant denominations that have since been in numerical decline. 

Many of the congregations have left to join more conservative Presbyterian bodies in reaction to liberal trends in theology and sexuality, such as the approval of the ordination non-celibate gays and lesbians in 2011. Earlier this year, the denomination also authorized same-sex weddings in its churches nationwide, and the Pittsburgh Presbytery added its assent to that move on Thursday.

While there are plenty of anecdotes of people joining Presbyterian congregations because of their progressive stances, the net result has been in the red.

The membership loss has also been compounded by the denomination's aging membership and low birth rate. 

The statistical report was underscored separately by a survey by the Pew Research Center released on Tuesday that found the denomination dropping to 0.9 percent of the American population in 2014 from 1.1 percent of the population in 2007.


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John Oliver's hilarious take on failing infrastructure (and failing Congress)

Written by Jon Schmitz on .

Congress’ inaction on funding infrastructure has attracted the attention of “60 Minutes,” Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” and now is the subject of a fabulous and funny 21-minute sendup on “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver. You’ll laugh and maybe shed a tear and shake your head at the inability of our elected leaders to do anything about a deadly serious problem.

Online ConnectCard site: Beware

Port Authority is set to debut its online payment option for ConnectCard users on Thursday. The important thing to bear in mind is that online purchases will not show up immediately on your card — the data is uploaded to bus fareboxes when they are at the garage. So if you buy a pass or add value, it might take up to three days to be available to you. If you buy a weekly pass on Monday morning, the fareboxes aren't going to see it on your card until Tuesday.

If you have regular access to a ConnectCard vending machine, that will remain the far better way to replenish your card. It takes about 30 seconds and the transaction shows up immediately on your card. The online site will require you to enter your 10-digit ConnectCard number, which by itself might take longer than the entire vending machine transaction.

The online site will be useful to those who want to replenish their cards or purchase passes at regular intervals (for example, buying a monthly pass on the 25th of each month, a weekly pass every Thursday for the coming week or add $50 every two weeks). It can be set up to do that. Occasional card users who don’t remember how much is on their cards can check the balance at the site.


roadworkaheadIn case you missed it, you can read up on the forthcoming Parkway West closures here. The inbound side is closed all weekend.

Construction begins Thursday on a long stretch of Penn Avenue and Butler Street in Pittsburgh from the 31st Street Bridge to 57th Street. Alternating one-way traffic will be in effect weeknights at 8 p.m. until 6 a.m. the next day, with some Saturday work possible.

Bridge washing will cause traffic restrictions on the ramp from southbound Interstate 79 to the outbound Parkway West starting at 7 p.m. today (Wednesday) through Friday. Flaggers will control traffic. Work concludes by 6 a.m. daily.

Liberty Bridge inspections won’t affect traffic on the bridge but may cause restrictions on First and Second avenues and Municipal Court Drive under the bridge from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays through April 22.

Tree cutting to prepare for bridge replacements will cause these restrictions from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.: on Thursday, Saxonburg Boulevard in Shaler will be reduced to one lane at Little Pine Creek; on Friday and Saturday, Bull Creek Road in Fawn will be reduced to one lane at Bull Creek between Huston Drive and Jones Hollow Road; on Monday and Tuesday, Center Street in White Oak will be reduced to one lane at Long Run, south of Long Run Road. Flaggers will direct traffic.

Streets Run Road and Baldwin Road in Baldwin Borough will have alternating one-way traffic from 7 p.m. today (Wednesday) to 6 a.m. Thursday for water line repairs.

Mayor Bill Peduto will demonstrate a new mobile pothole patching machine at the corner of Sandusky and General Robinson Streets, North Side, at 4 p.m. today. The city is leasing it for a four-month trial. Hope the demo doesn't tie up Pirates traffic.

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Countering religious violence a challenge

Written by Peter Smith on .


Usama Hasan says his heart sank when he saw English-language propaganda from the self-proclaimed Islamic State — and realized it was quoting the English translations he had done long ago of ancient religious texts.

Today, Mr. Hasan is senior researcher at the London-based Quilliam Foundation, which works to counter Muslim extremism from within the Muslim community.

But it was a long journey to that point for Mr. Hasan, who grew up the son of South Asian immigrants who were alienated by the increasingly secular and sexualized climate of England of the 1980s.

He told a University of Pittsburgh audience Friday he had memorized the Quran by age 11. He rallied around the ideology of Muslim supremacy, opposing against what he and his comrades perceived to be a decadent and oppressive West. He translated Arabic religious texts and helped spread the ideology of Salafism, a puritanical form of Islam, and even fought briefly in Afghanistan against Soviet occupiers.

But bit by bit, his extreme views faded. The idealism of the Afghanistan resistance crumbled as jihadis turned fiercely on each other. He began to see extremist Islam as oppressive of women and minorities.

The Sept. 11, 2001 murders of thousands of Americans deepened his soul-searching, as did the brutal murders of schoolchildren in Beslan, Russia, in 2004.

Then came “7/7” — terrorist bombings on the London transit system on July 7, 2005 by Quran-quoting suicide bombers.

“Not only was it an attack on my city, it was an attack on my religion, on its most sacred symbols,” Mr. Hasan said. “For me that was the last straw. I had begun speaking against extremism before, but after 7/7, I realized there was no time to sit back. We have to take on the extremists openly.”

Mr. Hasan spoke at the the conference, “Countering Violent Extremism in the United States and European Union,” held at the Twentieth Centurty Club in Oakland Thursday and Friday. It was organized through the European Union Center of Excellence and European Studies Center, part of Pitt’s University Center for International Studies.

The conference brought together leading scholars from North America and Europe in the growing field of countering violent extremism — which even has its own acronym, CVE, among those in the field — along with government employees and Muslims working to within their own communities, from Pittsburgh to London.

“It’s been a fantastic opportunity to learn from these people,” said Michael Kenney, associate professor of international affairs at Pitt and organizer of the conference. “We want to increase awareness without creating hysteria.”

Multiple speakers agreed there’s no easy way to identify a potential terrorist who claims to act in the name of Islam.

Of those radicalized in the West — still a small minority of Muslims and even rarer in the United States than in Europe — some are deeply religious, some aren’t. Some are converts, some aren’t. Some have criminal records, some don’t.

And experts pointed out that many people, like Mr. Hasan, embrace extreme ideologies without ever engaging in terrorism.

Mr. Hasan said Muslims need to do their part in cultivating a religion that comes to terms with modernity, including the scientific method and democracy.

“Islam is a beautiful religion and has many things to offer the world, but so does Western society,” he said.

Targeting Muslims and mosques with blanket suspicion, is counter-productive, speakers said.

“As much as looking at radicalization is important, we need to keep in mind the numbers are extremely low, and a focus on radicalization might actually increase biases against Muslim communities in the U.S.,” said Barak Mendelsohn, associate professor of political science at Haverford College near Philadelphia and a researcher into radical religious groups.

He said the United States may not be able to solve the roots of terrorist groups in the chaos of such lands as Syria, Iraq and Libya. But he said the nation needs a strategy.

“If the U.S. really wants to make a difference, it needs to think really hard about what it's doing in the Middle East,” he said.

Photo by Bill Wade/Post-Gazette
Moderator Michael Kenny, Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, left, and Usama Hasan, senior researcher at the Quilliam Foundation in the U.K., and a former radical salafi activist, listens to another speaker April 10 at the Countering Violent Extremism in the United States and European Union conference by the University Center for International Studies and held at the Twentieth Century Club.


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More orange barrels to pop up next week

Written by Jon Schmitz on .

Repaving of Greentree Road in Scott and Green Tree will continue Monday through next Saturday, April 18. On Monday through Thursday, from McMonagle Avenue to McKinney Road, traffic will be restricted to one lane in both directions in the three- and four-lane sections and will be in an alternating one-way pattern in the two-lane sections, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. On Thursday and Friday, the single-lane and alternating one-way restrictions will occur from Cochran Road to Potomac Avenue during the same hours. On Saturday, alternating one-way traffic will be in effect from Elmhurst Road to Potomac Avenue from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. No work will occur on April 19.

Traffic on Route 50 in South Fayette will be shifted to the eastbound lanes at 7 a.m. Monday, with single-lane traffic in both directions separated by temporary barrier. Construction will occur on the westbound side. When the westbound lanes are completed, probably in June, traffic will move over and the eastbound side will be rebuilt. Left turns from eastbound Route 50 to Route 978 will be eliminated during the project.

Construction to repair two landslides will close Weyman Road in Whitehall between Provost and McRoberts roads starting at 7 a.m. Monday and continuing around the clock through June 12. The posted detour uses Baptist and Brownsville roads and Route 51. Alternating one-way traffic will be in effect at times on Weyman from McRoberts to Baptist. Port Authority’s Y45 Baldwin Manor Flyer will detour. After slide work is completed, paving will reduce Weyman to an alternating one-way pattern from Provost to Baptist through mid-August.


Thoms Run Road in Collier will close north of Steen Hollow Road for a bridge replacement project starting at 7 a.m. Wednesday. Traffic will be detoured via Battle Ridge Road and Route 978. Work is scheduled to be completed in mid-June.


Northbound Route 19 in Jackson will have a lane closure just south of the Route 528 intersection starting Monday for a widening project.

portauthoritylogoPort Authority will single-track rail vehicles from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday in the Mount Washington Transit Tunnel during track work. All vehicles will use the outbound track. Inbound buses that use the tunnel will be detoured via Allentown and outbound service will use the Wabash Tunnel.

Be sure to check yesterday’s post for all the details of Parkway West chaos and other impending traffic restrictions around the city.

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