The church at the start line

The Pittsburgh Marathon is Sunday, May 6th. Tens of thousands of runners and visitors from across the country and around the world come downtown. It’s like no other morning all year.

Our church is just blocks from the start line, right in the middle of it all

A lot of churches are completely blocked by the course on Marathon Sunday. Ours isn’t. You can take the “T” to within half a block of the church. If you drive and can make it to Grant Street, you can park in the Mellon Garage, half a block from the church on Sixth Avenue.

God put our church in the perfect place to be a blessing on Marathon Sunday.

When they built our church building over 100 years ago, the idea of closing streets and churches on Sunday to run a race would have been scandalous. It would never have happened. Even in the 1950s, streets were closed for church events, not the other way around.

For the last eight years, I’ve been out on the street in front of the church at 5:45 AM on Marathon Sunday, blessing runners. I pray with folks in small groups or one-on-one, or over the loudspeakers to the hundreds of runners walking down the street to their corrals.

I’ve discovered that people are nervous about taking on so big a challenge. In those moments before the race, they’re anxious to call on a Higher Power. Many runners are Christians who run for God, and many others run for causes that are important to them. Hearing words of blessing, grace, and peace is important to them.

This year, we’ll again be playing motivational Christian music in front of the church, interspersed with our prayers. Later in the morning (10:45) we’ll hold our worship service outside and preach from our unique outdoor pulpit. God’s Word will be loose out on Sixth Avenue.

What a privilege to be the church at the start line.

Loose in the world

There’s a framed sheepskin deed, dated 1787, hanging in our church office, signed by the heirs of William Penn. The deed grants land to the “Presbyterian Congregation of Pittsburg.” The land included an ancient Indian burying ground and a Revolutionary War Cemetery, where the founders of the church (who later founded the city) were buried. As new church buildings were constructed (four have stood here), graves had to be exhumed and the heroes buried elsewhere. Seventy sets of remains are buried in the crypt in the church basement.

The current building was finished in 1905, and people from around the world still marvel at its unique combination of stone, wood, and stained glass. But two unique features often go unnoticed. Facing the street are stone plaques with the worship times. Yes, there really are things here that are carved in stone. Maybe when they built the place 112 years ago, they couldn’t imagine worshipping at another time. Or perhaps they couldn’t imagine a time when church would no longer be a focus of the culture.

The second feature is the outdoor pulpit, facing out onto Sixth Avenue. People walk by all day long, mostly without looking up. If someone did bother to look, they might not recognize that they were looking at a pulpit at all. But then they would also miss the meaning of the pulpit—God’s Word loose in the world.

This Sunday we’re going to use that pulpit for worship outside. At 6:00 AM thousands of runners will be gathering for the Pittsburgh Marathon, and we’ll be there to bless them. And at 10:45 AM, we’ll gather on Sixth Avenue for outdoor worship, and the Word will, literally, be loose in the world from here again.

Marathon Sunday

Its 5:45 on Sunday morning and it’s still dark, but there are more people on Sixth Avenue than in the middle of a normal workday. It’s Marathon Sunday in Pittsburgh. I’m helping Victor set up the new sound system on the front porch of the church when a lady in running clothes comes up the steps. She’s on her way to the Point for a group photo with her relay team, but first she needs a blessing.

Praying with people before the race is one of my very favorite things about being a minister of this church. Most Christians are reserved about sharing their faith, not sure how they’ll be received. But not Christian runners on race day. They know they depend on a higher power.

We played motivational Christian music over the loudspeakers which you could hear a block away. People loved it. One lady came down the street singing along to Mandisa’s “Overcomer.” Four guys from New York had seen the ad for “Blessing the Runners” and asked me to pray for them. A trembling woman grabbed my hand and asked me to pray for a loved one. A mom asked me to pray for her kids. I approached a big group posing for a picture in front of the church and asked if they wanted to be photobombed by a minister. They joyfully put me right in the middle of their group and asked me to pray for them. Still others left wiping away tears.

I prayed with folks in small groups or one-on-one, and other times I spoke over the loudspeakers to the hundreds of people walking down the street to their corrals.

Adam from New Castle checked in on the church Facebook page: “I wanted to give a shout out to you guys. As I was trying to navigate my way early Sunday morning to my corral for the marathon, I got turned around and started to panic a bit (which I almost never do). I called my wife and asked her to pray as I was nearly in tears because I couldn’t find my way. At that moment, playing loudly from your outdoor sound system was Casting Crowns’ “Courageous”. I immediately became at peace, turned the corner, and directly in front of me was the area with which I needed to be. Thank you so much for the encouragement. Also, praise to Him for helping me on my way.”

What a privilege to serve Christ in the heart of the city.