Pennsylvania church plant focusing on center cross
Pastor & writer
Church planting & multiplication
Center Cross Church stands for one thing ― and one thing only ― in Monroeville, Pennsylvania: the man in the middle, Christ Jesus.
“The working of Jesus on the center cross is the main thing,” pastor Edward Heard said of the new Converge church. “That is the main focus. I still hope that people see that is what we stand for above anything else.”
The new church started on Easter Sunday 2022, an 18-month process that began with a conversation between Heard and Converge MidAtlantic regional president Brian Weber.
“God was leading me to start something new, something that goes against the grain of western Pennsylvania,” Heard said.
There’s plenty besides Jesus they could focus on
That something new is a multicultural church in the small northeastern Pennsylvania town where the 44-year-old grew up, a place he said suffers from overt racism, opioid abuse and violence. If Heard drives 15 minutes east of his home, he said there are zero multicultural churches. Fifteen minutes in the opposite direction are 17 Black churches.
“We wanted to slow walk it,” the pastor said about starting a multicultural church. “We knew it would be a hard work.”
Some of that hard work has included the effects of a lack of diversity in their community. Heard, who is Black, and his wife Stephanie, who is white, have experienced racism during their relationship.
Moreover, three years ago, their daughter was prematurely born with a hole in her heart. She was in the NICU for 10 weeks. Heard said people treated them in varying ways during this time. Sometimes being a reverend had a positive influence. Other times, people who saw a biracial marriage with a child responded negatively.
In addition, one of his brothers-in-law died of an overdose five years ago. Add to that the death of his mother and the stress of planting a church, and Heard developed health issues of his own.
These hardships have given him empathy and cultivated an appreciation for sharing the gospel. He recognizes the apostle Paul’s commitment to preaching Christ alone. At the same time, Heard emulates the undeniable vulnerability of the apostle who shared his life with fellow believers.
That authenticity is what drew Kevin Parker to Center Cross Church. He met Heard when the pastor introduced himself at the 8000-member church they were attending at the time. What developed between them enriched Parker’s life.
“To be able to connect with someone like Rev. Heard, it was a blessing for me,” he said.
What’s creating the defensiveness?
Many people in the Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania area are born-again Christians who were raised Catholic, often leading to many feeling disenfranchised and spiritually wounded.
Parker said men and women with lives like that ― those having accepted Jesus as Lord, only to be judged or turned away by the church community ― are precious to Center Cross Church.
“What happens when you go to the hospital and they say, ‘there’s nothing we can do’ or they make the problem worse?” Parker asked.
Even after such experiences, people near Pittsburgh are still interested in a spiritual life finding God. These same people are coming to Center Cross Church, still open to trusting in the truth of the cross. And Heard is ready to meet them where they are.
“There’s so much church hurt that people don’t trust church,” he said. “Those who feel they are hurt and scarred by church are the people we want in our pews. A lot of our leadership, we have church hurt.”
A church that won’t speak up for those that hurt is one source of this pain. Heard wants to listen to others, be their shepherd and create a family inspired by the Italian family of his wife Stephanie.
“I want to know their angst, I want to know what makes them tick,” he said. “I want them to know that at the end of the day somebody is there to listen to them and listen with them, should trouble arise.”
Center Cross Church organizes gatherings to allow for those types of conversations. For example, the church hosts dinners after worship on Saturday nights. Plus, they have pizza with the pastor.
“There’s somebody out there who wants the church ― who needs the church ― to be their advocate and champion when their voice isn’t being heard or can’t be heard,” he added. “We want to be an advocate to the voiceless. Who’s going to speak up for them? We want to speak up for them.”
But don’t be mistaken about who’s advocating for who. Heard’s trauma means that other people in the church minister to him when they listen to his story.
“Maybe you need to hear something about how I talk to God,” he responds to those with church hurt. “Maybe I need to hear something about how you talk to God. If God was with me in these weighty moments, why would he not be with you in these weighty moments?”
Races can worship together when the cross is at the center
At Center Cross Church, the worship leadership team offers contemplative worship and worship through arts alongside expressions common to a predominantly African American church. He said that such a ministry isn’t common in his area’s microculture.
Many people under 35 at Center Cross Church are thinkers, belonging to that culture of young people who want to be engaged in their minds and hearts.
“There are so many competing elements in the mind because of the speed of our world,” Heard said. “[Young people] want to contemplate. ‘How’s the Spirit speaking to me?’ We just want to speak to the minds and hearts of people.”
Contemplative worship, he explained, has been a way to ground people and help them slow down for an extended time each week.
“We think it’s something that all cultures are seeking,” he said. “It can speak to the Black single mother as much as it can the white college student from Carnegie Mellon.”
Center Cross Church has also shown the Monroeville community that churches can unite when Jesus is more important than everything else.
For example, nearby Hillcrest Presbyterian Church offered their building to Center Cross so they could worship on Saturday nights. That generosity enabled Center Cross to start on Easter weekend, plus the new church didn’t have to find space, technology, chairs or musical equipment.
Additionally, Center Cross has accomplished more ministry in the community because of local support.
The church has served at a women’s halfway house. They’ve donated baby clothes, children’s toys and 1500 pounds of diapers, as well as contributed financially to the halfway house. In addition, Center Cross Church is funding scholarships for college students.
“As believers and members of Center Cross Church, our aim and our focus are to not only make you feel welcome but to do what Christ commanded us: share his love through fellowship with people in a nonjudgmental and accepting way,” Parker said.
Ministry from the middle cross
Looking to the center cross empowers this core team as they continue sharing their trauma and triumph in Christ, all in hopes that others might sustain their hope.
The church recognizes some people believe in a god of various manifestations while others think they don’t need the Lord. To Center Cross, however, there is only Christ Jesus. In him, they see the vertical relationship between people and God and the horizontal relationships between people are straightened into a sanctifying community.
2 Corinthians 5:14-15 offers strength and clarity to Heard and his team and the people in their community. The Biblical explanation of how the love of Christ controls believers reminded Heard of a seizure he experienced last fall.
He was standing at the bathroom sink one night in September when it started. At first, he had an iron grip on the sink’s edge. But he realized, as the feeling intensified, that he needed to let go, trust the God who loved him and get to the floor to safety.
“Once I let go, get to the ground and let God hold me on the floor, that’s when everything gets worked out,” he said. “When you’re safe in the hands and bosom of God, there’s grace and all the attributes of God.”
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.