Patrice L. Fowler-Searcy: You have to listen to the community

The Rev. Patrice L. Fowler-Searcy answers the phone in her office at East Liberty Presbyterian Church. Photo by Alexander Catedral

A pastor who has served church and community for more than 20 years in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood shares what she has learned about sustaining a ministry of community development.

Today, the East Liberty area of Pittsburgh is a marvel of urban renaissance. It’s full of trendy restaurants and boutiques, and a growing number of major retailers -- Home Depot, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s.

Twenty years ago, the landscape was quite different. White flight and bad urban planning had damaged the once-wealthy neighborhood. Poverty and crime rates were high.

The Rev. Patrice L. Fowler-Searcy -- who serves two roles in the community, as a pastor and a leader in the local community development corporation -- has been part of this transformation.

It was natural for her church, East Liberty Presbyterian, to join forces with East Liberty Development Inc. (ELDI), she said.

“The church will celebrate 200 years in East Liberty soon; we’ve been here and seen the community go through many changes,” she said. “We’ve probably been the most stable entity in the neighborhood.”

The work has not been easy, but Fowler-Searcy says it’s an important way to “show Christ through our actions, words and deeds.”

Fowler-Searcy earned an M.Div. from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where she also serves on the board of directors.

She spoke to Faith & Leadership contributor L. Roger Owens about how she has managed her two roles over the years. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: How have the roles of pastor and president of the board of a community development corporation come together for you?

When I came to East Liberty Presbyterian Church in 1996, East Liberty was our mission field. I was the director of outreach ministries, leading a program for primarily low-income and single-parent families. We didn’t do much outside of this community -- most of our mission money was spent in the East Liberty community.

The pastor at the time said to me, “You’re our church outreach person; you need to be on the [ELDI] board.” A couple of years later, I was elected president.

Q: Why was the church a natural partner for a community development corporation?

I don’t know the mindset of the East Liberty Development Inc. board in the late 1970s that led them to say, “Let’s knock on the church’s door.”

But I think that one of the reasons they felt it would be a good partnership was that the church had been a stable presence throughout the entire history of the community. The church will celebrate 200 years in East Liberty soon; we’ve been here and seen the community go through many changes.

We’ve probably been the most stable entity in the neighborhood.

I like to say the church is really the community center of East Liberty, primarily because our doors are always open and we welcome the community in -- for community meetings, for 12-step programs, for choir rehearsals, for youth programs. You name it.

We’ve done it for so long, it was just natural for the community development corporation to say, “Let’s see if they want to be a part of the redevelopment of the community.”

Q: What helps you to see being involved in community development as part of your pastoral vocation?

I think about Nehemiah wanting to rebuild the walls of the city. We are standing in the breach for those who may not have a voice. I am not speaking for them but providing a vehicle for them to be heard.

Because if I’ve learned anything, it’s that people know what they want. They just might not know how to effect it, how to make sure they receive it.

Pastorally, I don’t presume to speak for anyone. Within the community, I feel like my role is to make sure that people have a vehicle to be heard.

Q: What advice would you have for young pastors or leaders interested in community development?

First, be prayerful.

They need to make sure that if they feel a call to community development, they do it from a perspective of listening to the community. That’s the first key. You absolutely have to listen to those who are in the community and have been there.

And that’s not necessarily the members of your church, because church members come from everywhere into a community.

You have to get outside the doors of the church and walk the community and identify who the key stakeholders are. It might be some grandmother sitting in a house who’s been in the community for the last 50 years.

Keep your ear to the ground to find out what’s going on, what their successes are. Because you want to celebrate their successes, then find out where the gaps are.

Second, pick up the phone and call organizations that are in the business of community development. You need to call the executive director of a CDC [community development corporation] and say, “Hey, can we have coffee?”

Talk with them about what your interests are, what you’ve heard in the community, and what you are able to do.

If there’s a CDC in the community, that’s the easiest way to get involved, particularly if they realize that you are sincere and that you have a real interest in the community, not just your own church.

Q: What makes you most proud when you think of your congregation’s involvement in community development?

I’m really proud of the fact that at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, we care about bringing members in but that’s not all we care about. What we do in the East Liberty community is not about that.

If they never come in for worship, we’re OK with it, because we’ve shown them the best of Christianity by being willing to come into their world and help them without any expectation that they would come into ours.

I really had to learn that over 20 years of being there and recognizing that we just had to be selfless and show Christ through our actions, words and deeds.

Q: You’ve been at this ministry of community development in East Liberty for 20 years. How do you sustain your passion for this work?

Your passion does wane. Twenty years -- can I do this for another five or six?

But again, it’s not about you. It’s about the people within the community. When you get to know them on a personal level, even though your passion may wane, there’s something about doing God’s work for God’s people -- it comes back.

There’s a refreshing, something new there.

Most recently, I knew a lot of the families who moved out of a recently closed housing project and into new homes. So it became exciting for me when they were able to move into brand-new apartments that had all the amenities they hadn’t had for the last 30 years, and to be invited in to see all the pride they now took in being in a modern home.

That made me feel proud to be a part of the development of this community, and it also gave me that boost to say, “We’re doing good work; we’ve got to keep going.”

It’s the people that can pull you back into it and ignite that passion again.