Withintrification: Bible Center Church is changing the Homewood community one project at a time

By Teri Bradford

In recent years, Pittsburgh has been highlighted nationwide as an up and coming city. It’s small businesses, eclectic residents, and youthful vibe has lured in big companies like Google and possibly Amazon.
But for many locals whose families have called Pittsburgh neighborhoods home for generations, this new wave of popularity hasn’t done much to support their communities. In fact, many feel the opposite especially in neighborhoods like East Liberty where the need to be trendy has turned into rapid gentrification, and in Homewood that is an unaddressed food desert.
Bible Center Church on Homewood Avenue is a short 71D bus ride from Chatham’s Shadyside campus. The church’s congregation is small, tightknit, and dedicated to uplifting each other. Pastor Cynthia Wallace is the Executive Director of The Oasis Project, the community and economic development division of Bible Center Church, Inc. Wallace sat down with us to talk about the projects she overseas that focus on restoring the Homewood community from the inside out.
“[Bible Center Church has] been here since 1956. My husband grew up in Homewood. I’m not from here but my mother grew up in Homewood and went to Westinghouse High School,” Wallace said. “I don’t know that [The Oasis Project] is a response to [gentrification], but I think it is meeting the needs of the community. Really, the church is taking its rightful place in the community: meeting needs and helping to bring about some community revitalization.”
Instead of talking about gentrification, Wallace changed the focus to a new word: “withintrification.”
The term was coined by Wallace’s husband, Pastor John Wallace, who is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the pastor of Bible Center. The concept takes the regeneration that gentrification claims to do, but gives the power back to the neighborhoods.
“We’re in this community and we’re changing it from within. I think that’s different than someone coming in and saying ‘this is what your community needs’ and then displacing residents. What we’re saying is that ‘this is what our community needs’ and we want to take part in making [change happen],” Wallace said.
The work that Bible Center does through The Oasis Project is ambitious, and effective. The project first began in 2015 with Oasis Transportation, a small shuttle service enterprise created to take East Liberty children to and from school after Pittsburgh Public Schools changed boundaries. Consisting of two buses and two vans, Oasis Transportation takes residents across the city and served 25,000 in 2016.
In the Spring of 2016, Bible Center collaborated with University of Pittsburgh Katz Business School and the Business of Humanity Project to create a Direct Current, solar powered Bioshelter greenhouse. The Bioshelter is experimental, testing alternative energy, hydroponics and aquaponics. Students from Pittsburgh Fasion K-5 often come for tours to learn about healthy eating through the produce like lettuce, kale, and tomatoes that are grown in the greenhouse and sold in Everyday Café, another facet of Bible Center’s Oasis Project.
Everyday Café’s mission is to be “Homewood’s hub for innovation and inspiration,” and a multipurpose gathering space for customers. By selling fair trade organic coffee, and sandwiches and salads with the Bioshelter produce, Everyday Café has been a healthy food option in the food desert that surrounds it since it opened in November of 2016.
Entrepreneurship and education is a theme in Bible Center’s initiatives. Everyday Café employs teenagers and young adults with their first job, providing job training and soft skill development. Even Chatham and University of Pittsburgh students get involved through internships.
“We feel like everyone should fulfill their purpose, whatever that is. We do a lot with entrepreneurship and things like that. Because it’s not that everybody needs to go to college. It is that everyone has lots of potential, we believe it’s God give potential,” said Wallace. “Whatever we can do to help people discover their purpose and to feel fulfilled, that’s what we want to do.”
Outside of The Oasis Project, Bible Center has a project called The Maker’s Clubhouse for Faison K-5 students to participate in STEAM activities, and ministries within in their church that encourage faith and wellness.
Their future plans include opening an African American Heritage Garden, a business incubator, and programing for children during the school day. A partnership with Chatham’s Food Studies program may also come about in the future.
For now, however, they continue to grow projects Wallace hopes will continue in the future.
“We’re place holders. This is the work that we’re doing right now and we’re certain that someone will come behind and build on that. That has to be deliberate. You’re sharing your vision,” Wallace said.
More information about Bible Center Church and The Oasis Project can be found online at BibleCenterPgh.org .