Plain Dealer, The (Cleveland, OH) – April 19, 1998

For five years, Cleveland Catholic Bishop Anthony M. Pilla has pushed his followers to help revive Northeast Ohio’s older cities and to bridge widening differences between urban and suburban dwellers.

He is quick to admit his vision of regional harmony and rejuvenated cities is still far from reality. Pieces of that vision, however, have come into focus.

The broad, ambitious initiative Pilla launched in 1993, called “Church in the City,” has been translated into concrete steps by many in his flock.

For example, Church in the City has spurred Catholic parishes to participate in house-building and renovation; begun a program to teach teens the importance of revitalizing cities; formed a committee to promote regional planning to help older cities; and collected $150,000 in diocese and private grants for groups that promote Pilla’s vision of regional unity and city revival.

And, in what the bishop believes may be the most encouraging sign of success, Church in the City has started partnerships between suburban and city churches – partnerships that range from a Brecksville and a Cleveland church uniting children in choirs and sports activities, to five Akron-area churches forming a job-training program for unemployed city residents.

Pilla, through Church in the City, has tried to call attention to the racial and economic gaps created between cities and suburbs as Northeast Ohio’s population moves farther out.

The church’s interest is both moral and practical. Pilla has used Church in the City to prompt suburbanites to examine their moral responsibility to help create a better life for less privileged city residents.

From the practical standpoint, urban Catholic parishes have shrinking populations, dwindling finances and aging churches, while booming growth in suburbs has demanded new churches and larger parish staffs.

But have the early results done enough to rejuvenate cities such as Cleveland and Akron? Are suburbanites universally heeding the bishop’s call not to turn their backs on urban centers?

Pilla knows the answer is no. But for the spiritual leader of nearly 850,000 Catholics in Northeast Ohio, the returns thus far are cause for enthusiasm.

“We still have a long way to go,” he said last week. “But we’re seeing great signs of hope.”

Tomorrow, to honor the five-year benchmark for Church in the City, the diocese is holding a symposium on issues such as regional land use and redevelopment in urban centers. Corporate, academic and community leaders will join Pilla.

The location of the symposium, The Temple-Tifereth Israel in University Circle, is an indication of Pilla’s desire to have his movement influence people of all faiths, not just Catholics.

“The bishop’s vision never was strictly a Catholic vision,” said Rabbi Ben Kamin, leader of The Temple-Tifereth Israel. “The moral implications of it apply to anybody. I would like members of our community to study it and consider what we need to do to become involved in it.”

On Friday, many of the same land-use and urban-revival issues will be tackled by another group. The First Suburbs Consortium, a collection of mayors and city council members from the older suburbs surrounding Cleveland, will hold a conference in Shaker Heights with their counterparts from cities around the state.

Members of the consortium, formed by the leaders of such cities as Euclid and Lakewood, are concerned they will increasingly face issues of poverty and blight – as Cleveland has – if people continue to move farther from the center of Cuyahoga County.

The brainstorming session is on how to remain economically healthy. The goal is to build a strong, statewide coalition of inner-ring suburbs.

The timing of the conference, in the same week as the Church in the City symposium, is coincidental. But leaders of the First Suburbs Consortium acknowledge they and Pilla are allies.

“Bishop Pilla has made a moral argument,” said Judy Rawson, a Shaker Heights councilwoman and consortium member. “We have agreed with that analysis and said, `OK, let’s talk about remedies – practical, economic and political remedies.’

One of the obstacles Pilla and the inner-ring suburban leaders face is skepticism from many residents in outlying communities who feel they are being unfairly made to feel guilty.

Pilla insists no one is blaming people who have left city life behind. He said the key to stemming the migration is to provide strong schools, good housing and safe streets in cities.

“The answer is not to beat up on the people who live in suburbs,” Pilla said. “The answer is addressing the situation that caused them to leave.”

To that end, Pilla has called for unity among Catholics – whether they live in Cleveland or Medina – to combat blight and poverty in cities.

One example of Pilla’s mission is a partnership between Divine Word Catholic Church in Kirtland and St. Phillip Neri in Cleveland. The churches are working together to turn a former convent at St. Phillip Neri into a home for foreign refugees in Cleveland. Church members also have joined for fund-raisers, retreats and social events.

“The Church in the City programs are sometimes perceived as the suburban parishes going to help the city parishes,” said the Rev. Norman Smith, pastor of Divine Word. “Our goal is the two parishes working together.”

Since Pilla launched Church in the City, about 85 Catholic parishes and schools have formed partnerships, said Sister Rita Mary Harwood, the diocese’s secretary for parish life.

As for the future of Church in the City, the diocese has a plan for broadening current achievements and taking on new roles, such as raising funds for affordable housing projects, encouraging parishes to get involved in planning in their communities, and trying to involve people of other faiths in the initiative.

“This is about building relationships, about raising awareness, about asking, `What is my responsibility?’ Harwood said.


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