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Earlene Coleman

Earlene Coleman is one of a growing group of women pastors in the Western Pennsylvania area. Earlene was born and raised in McKeesport and now she finds herself a pastor in the very town in which she was raised. Yet she seems to be right at home, both in the ministry and in McKeesport as you can tell from this portion of her Urban Heroes interview.

JS: I want to welcome pastor Earlene Coleman to the Urban Heroes program. Pastor Earlene, welcome.

EC: Thank you so much, Dr. Stanko.

JS: It’s so good to have to. We’re honored, I’ve heard so much about you, so I can’t wait to let our readers and listeners in, a little bit, as to who you are. So why don’t you just go ahead and give us some background and bring everybody up to speed of who you are and what you’re doing today.

EC: Well, as you’ve already stated, I’m Reverend Earlene Coleman. I’m the pastor of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in McKeesport. I have lived here all of my life; born and raised right here in the city. Born and raised in Bethlehem Baptist Church, which is definitely an oddity in itself that I was called out of my home church. The church is 125 years old and I’m the first female pastor of the church. I have lived about two or three blocks away from the church as a child. So I was never very far from there. Attended schools here in McKeesport. I’m a graduate of the McKeesport Area High School, and I’m also an inductee of the Alumni Society for the McKeesport School District. Worked for the McKeesport School District for 30 years, and was able to take early retirement from there and really thought that I was going to be sitting still, but God had another plan.

JS: What did you for the 30 years in the McKeesport Schools?

EC: I started out as an assistant in the classroom, in the reading labs. And then I moved on from there, and ended up my career in the school district in the business office, and I took care of all the purchasing; created the purchasing files that they had when we went into computers, and that tells my age, when we started with the computers. And then I ended up doing the banking, and some of the investing.

JS: And were you pastoring at the time?

EC: No. I was not.

JS: Thinking about pastoring?

EC: No I wasn’t. I really wasn’t. We had a pastor who came to Bethlehem Baptist Church, from Washington, DC, Pastor Auber Iswan, who has gone on to be with the Lord now. And he caused such a fire for the word. And as I said, I had been born and raised in the church, and he brought back a fire that someone we had in the church called Mom Curry, who used to sit us down and use the flannel board to tell us the accounts of the Bible. And he brought that back, and I just began getting back into the Word with that hunger again. And God just took that and began moving me in directions that I had never thought.

JS: Let’s go all the way back. You were born in McKeesport. Tell us about your family.

EC: Wonderful mom and dad. My father worked in construction, and my mother was a housewife; she stayed home and took care of us. So we always had, maybe not the greatest, because with one person working. But my dad did not want my mother to work. He wanted her to be at home, and take care of me and my older brother; there was just two of us. And so, we lived right there in our house. At first we were living in the first ward, and so I wasn’t in a family that moved around a lot. We lived in an apartment, and then my dad looked for a home for us, and we moved up here into the house, and that’s where I grew up and spent all my years. And my mother passed away from there, and so did my dad. Yes, they’re both in heaven now.

JS: And so, Bethlehem Baptist was their church.

EC: Yes.

JS: So how was it? Did you have to go to church a lot?

EC: Yes. There was no question. I was never asked. I was involved in church, and that’s one of the bad things I kept saying: when I’m an adult, I’m not going, because I have to go. There was no question, when there were speeches and plays, I was there. When I was the secretary for the Sunday school, I was in the junior choir, and my mother never asked me; this is what you’re going to do.

JS: Now when you became an adult, did you fulfill your promise? Or did you keep on going?

EC: Yes, I did. I fulfilled my promise, and I stepped away for a while, and that was not a good thing. But before that, I made one of the mistakes that some of the young people do. And I became pregnant at 15. And then got married, because of course back then that was just not an option.

JS: Right, right.

EC: And my dad took us to the aldermen, and they performed the marriage ceremony, and we got married. I went on and came through that. It was a very abusive relationship. But God kept me. And I have two lovely girls out of that union. So then, after that, I just began to work towards trying to make a way for me and my daughters.

JS: Was it tough?

EC: Yes, it was tough. And sometimes I was working two and three jobs. And one day, I was changing clothes to go to a third job and my one daughter looked at me from the dinner table and said, “Mommy, all we ever see of you is you’re feeding us and changing our clothes, and taking us to the baby sitter.” And I said, “Okay, wait a minute, I’ve got to stop. I’ve got to slow down. And I’ve got to find another way.” And so then, I kind of went back and was taking some classes at CCAC. And then I got hired at the McKeesport School District, and worked my way up through the district.

JS: For 30 years.

EC: Yes.

JS: And what are your girls doing now?

EC: My one daughter is the chief risk officer for Holy Family Institute. And my other daughter works for BNY Mellon. She does special functions and gets that information disseminated, and all of that, when people are coming in. And my youngest daughter, the one that works for Holy Family Institute, is now running for City Council in the city of McKeesport.

JS: So she’s in McKeesport too.

EC: Both of my daughters are. The oldest one that works for BNY Mellon, she did move away for about 17 years to Denver. And about five or six years ago, she came back.

JS: McKeesport called her home.

EC: Yes. McKeesport called her home. She came back.

JS: Talk to me about your journey back to the church. You got away and you kept your vow; “When I’m old enough, I’m not going to go.” What brought you back?

EC: My journey back to the church really came through a dream. Because of the older church that we had years ago, I would have this dream every night, and it would be my father sitting on the last pew looking at me standing outside of the door, and saying, “You need to get back into church.” And the dream just kept coming back. And I said, “Okay, alright, alright already.” And then there came a Sunday morning when I got up and I went to church.

JS: And that was at Bethlehem Baptist?

EC: Yes.

JS: So you came back home.

EC: Yes, I came back home.

JS: And here you are the pastor. It’s remarkable. It really is. So when did you become the senior and lead pastor at Bethlehem Baptist?

EC: It was ten years ago, 2003.

JS: Talk to me about the ten years.

EC: The ten years. The ten years have shown me, number one, why churches don’t call from within. Because relationships have to change. And that’s a struggle. For people to begin to see you in another light, and for you even to be able to see them in another light. And so that’s an added struggle that you really don’t need as a new pastor coming in, because you need to be able to move on with what God would have you to do. But you have to fix that first because you can’t move on until that’s fixed. And so besides having that going on, we had a wonderful pastor who had passed away. So people were still needing to heal from that. So there were so many things that God was running through my spirit. But I knew that He wasn’t saying for now. Because I couldn’t come in and begin to change some things and add new things with people who were still hurting and struggling with figuring out “Who is she?”

JS: Yeah. What’s your favorite part of pastoring?

EC: I’m really surprised that it really is my favorite part of pastoring is teaching. Because Pastor Swan kept telling me when I came to him and told him that I was called to preach. Afterwards he kept saying, well you are also a teacher, and I said, “No I’m not. No I’m not.” And he kept telling me. I do enjoy teaching. I’m very nervous before, scared to death, but once I get my feet in, it’s like okay, we can keep doing this. Let’s keep going with this class.

JS: You’re a lifelong resident of McKeesport. What’s happened there? What are the dynamics? And how, as you as a pastor in the church, trying to address those dynamics.

EC: The dynamics here are pretty much the same as most of the communities in the Mon Valley. The loss of the steel mills, and it’s a shame that after all these years, that people are still suffering from that loss. That they really have not come back from that. And so, therefore, there’s a lot of single moms struggling really hard. Daycare costs have gone up so high that they’re having difficulties trying to make it. So that’s one of the things that we’re trying to touch here in the church. We created a ministry that touches the young mothers that are struggling, and it’s called “Truth.” And that they would understand the truth, that they need Christ to be able to make it through their struggle, looking at the unemployment here in the city. And when I came on as pastor, I called up the mayor of the city, because God spoke to me and said that I’d have a difficulty trying to deal with and help your people inside your building, if I didn’t help them outside. And so I went and met with the mayor. And I said, okay, you’re the mayor, I’m the pastor of one of the churches. You’re not going anywhere, and I’m not either, so let’s work together.

JS: And are you?

EC: Yes. I’m on the new mayor’s select committee against crime and violence. I’ve been on the Weed and Seed committee, working with the law enforcement committee. We now have a brand new project that we’re working on. And I’m part of the sub-committee, it’s myself and another pastor, we’re leading, it’s called the Respect Campaign. And we’re getting everyone in the city to put signs up that say “Respect, Love, Dignity, and Hope.” And we were working with the school district, and the school district is having some young people from the 9th th the 12th grade writing essays. And the ones who write the best essays, we’re giving them Kennywood picnic tickets.

JS: Alright! Okay! I may write an essay myself. But that’s right, Kennywood is right in your backyard there.

EC: Yes.

JS: Much push back with you being a female in ministry?

EC: Not really. I really haven’t.

JS: That’s what Barbara Gunn said, too. She was an Urban Hero. She’s never had any. So you haven’t either?

EC: No. I really haven’t. And people have really just been very kind and very helpful. One of the other things that God spoke to me to do in the community, is to do the Noah’s Ark Community Center. And that’s a place definitely with a name. It’s talking about safety, and coming together. And so then we went out and we purchased an entire block, and we are now doing fundraisers to put that community center in, once again, working with the school district. The culinary department there, we are hoping to put in a café, where the young people that are learning how to cook, will now come there and learn how to run their own business. And then that’s a possibility of a business coming into the city.

JS: Any advantages do you think you have as a [female] pastor. Anything you can see a little better, a little easier, or be able to address the current state of affairs in McKeesport, or the urban community?

EC: I think the sensitivity that a female has. That definitely is a plus. A plus for being able to see the hurt, the pain, the struggle. Because many times people put smiles on, and they pretend. But, the sensitivity of a female can sometimes draw that out, that they would reach out for that help.

JS: Have you had any seminary training? Did you have a chance to go to school?

EC: No.

JS: Is that in your future? Or do you not think that is something that really God is speaking to you?

EC: I’ve tried, and I don’t really know. I went to Reformed when they had one of the days that they had where you go in and you visit, and open. And I did, at the First Theological Seminary, I was invited, and I had a wonderful opportunity to be a part of a weekend with Jeremy Kriech. And we were studying and looking at the book of Joshua. And so that was a wonderful experience. So what God has been doing is taking me from this place to this place to this place and learning. Now I went through the Pastor’s Excellence Program for three years with the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention. And I received a diploma from the Seminary of Zimbabwe.

JS: Oh yeah! I did a lot of work in Zimbabwe.

EC: My last year, we were supposed to go to Zimbabwe, and that’s when they had so much unrest.

JS: And the economic situation was just terrible.

EC: And the village we were supposed to go and stay in, Dr. Mugabe called and said that they were even struggling trying to eat. And there was a possibility that we would get in there and not be able to get out. So we had to go to Johannesburg instead.

JS: Well, Johannesburg isn’t chopped liver. So that’s pretty nice.

EC: Right!

JS: So you traveled to Johannesburg? Have you been any other places?

EC: So I went to Johannesburg and preached and taught there. And then also, Guyana, South America and Jamaica, West Indies. That was part of our program that we had to go through for three years. And we also had papers and testing, and all of that. So it was coming out of the seminary in Zimbabwe, but we couldn’t go in. So Dr. Mugabe was sending the things to our team leaders here in the States for us to do. And then we went to Duke University on the fourth year and we had our graduation there.

JS: Nice. What do you do to stay fresh? What do you do to stay connected or just ot replenish what it is that you are constantly having to give being in ministry?

EC: There’s a retreat that I try to make sure I go to, which is at the end of April each year, to just go and reflect and spend that time with the Lord. And when I’m at home, I try to take time to just turn off everything and just play some music and just spend that time with Him. Now before I became pastor, and I was still working, I was in ministry but I wasn’t a pastor. I used to take what I called my spiritual r&r day. I would shut off everything, and tell everyone that if you want me, you leave a voice message, because I’m not answering any phones today. But you can’t do that as a pastor. You can’t say, “I’m not answering the phone, I’m not talking to anybody for 24 hours.”

JS: Now you said you like teaching the best. What’s your greatest challenge in the pastoral ministry?

EC: My greatest challenge is finding out how to reach our young people. That’s my greatest challenge.

JS: As a pastor in an urban community, what’s the future? What do you see for the church and our communities, and their relationship, and their involvement? Is there hope? Can we adapt and adjust? What are you sensing? What are you seeing?

EC: I sense and I see that there is hope because just kind of quietly doors are being opened up. There are cracks coming open and people that normally did not want us there are asking for us to come in now.

JS: Like the schools?

EC: Yes. Yes. And so I see the hope. Because they’re beginning to understand that the spiritual and the physical go together. We have to have both. And so that’s where I see the hope. There are programs that are starting and they’re asking, such as Penn State Greater Allegheny; they called me up and asked me if I would come on board to be part of the advisory board, because they felt that they needed someone from the clergy on the board. And so that was about two or three years ago. So I see that people are saying, “Wait, we’ve got somebody missing from the table.” So that’s where I see the hope coming.

JS: Looking back now, when we get to be our age, we can get very reflective. You shared about your early days, and your family and such. What are some of the other things that you see that have shaped you as a leader, that helped shape your values that allow you to make your decisions that you make today?

EC: One of the things that, it’s just a statement that my parents would make, and it was “Do the right thing.” Do the right thing. It may not always be what you want, it may not always be what you think is good. But when it’s the right thing, do it. And that statement sticks with me all the time. I had one of my deacons ask me, “How do you do what you do?” And I said, because I remember my parents always taught me, “Do the right thing.” And then there were others that were around me. I was just kind of thinking about it today on my way back from Pittsburgh. “You know what God, I did have a lot of struggle in my life. There’s always been people around me that were there to help, there to give a word to me.” If I looked like I was doing something that was really out of character, there was always an adult that would pull me to the side and say, “Now you know that’s not you. You know that’s not how you act.”

JS: And so, what do you think mom and dad would think today if they knew you were a pastor?

EC: Oh they would be excited.

JS: And they had a big role in your development, obviously.

EC: Yes, they did. I thank God continually for the mother and the father that I had. They were good people, hard working people. My mother made sure, you know I lived one of those lives, my elementary school was not far, so I went home for lunch. And when I walked in the door, lunch was already there. In the winter, a hot bowl of soup and a sandwich was already there.

JS: Yeah, that’s old time Pittsburgh. I was raised in Baldwin and we did the same thing. We walked home. It was nice. It’s a day gone by though, pastor. What have you been preaching on? What’s your emphasis been in ministry lately?

EC: Well my emphasis in ministry, as we’re coming upon Easter, was the fact that we look at the Cross and we celebrate the Cross, but do we really celebrate what the Cross brought us? I say that it’s terrible when you have a gift that someone has given you, and all you do is hold the package, and you never open it up and look inside. And so I’ve kind of been preaching to the congregation about looking inside and living what God has given us. And stop living beneath the privileges that Christ died that we would have.

JS: How far out do you prepare your messages?

EC: I try to do, I start begging on Monday. But you know what, I cannot do anything, I cannot put it all down on paper until Saturday. And it will be rolling around in my spirit. I get a scripture, and the direction. But I cannot sit down and put it down on paper until Saturday.

JS: So do you read? You do a manuscript?

EC: Yes.

JS: It works. I’ve watched Richard Wingfield, he, ooh, he can preach off a manuscript.

EC: He is so good.

JS: He really is. So you said you enjoy teaching. Is there a particular theme or several themes that you, when you’re on, you feel you are most anointed or most effective when you’re teaching?

EC: When it’s self-help. I just taught at the round up, and it was about furthering the Gospel. And then they had a subtitle: “It’s personal.” And so I put in questions to ask the pastors that taught the pastors seminar. You know, what does it mean to you for it to be personal? And I’d like to start that way with a class, to draw them through. And then, let’s dig into it together. I’m not a lecturer. I like to have response. I need that feedback. And my theme is when I can give you what God is saying, to make you feel better about yourself. To make you realize that God has called you to do a work. That you’re no longer back there where you used to be. When it’s that theme, I love it.

JS: Any writing? I know that you write your manuscripts. Have you written anything else? Published anything? Think that’s in your future?

EC: I think it is. I started something and probably have about three chapters done. Because one of the things I love is how God showed me that, if you want to excel in leadership or anything with God, you first have to learn spiritual authority, how to be under authority. And so many people do not understand being under authority. I was saying to some of my ministers when I was talking to them, “Do you realize when you go to the store that you are under the authority of that salesperson.”

JS: Yeah. Or the security people.

EC: Or the security people. That’s right.

JS: Or whoever may be there. If you had your, in an ideal world, and you had the money and the opportunity, what things are yet undone? What things would you do for the church or the community that would be on your heart to do?

EC: First of all would be to fix Noah’s Ark Community Center, and get it going, just up and running. Doing something, going back to the old way, where we had these playgrounds that we have there in the city that are just dilapidated and done. And going back to paying for supervisors. You know, fixing them up and then actually having the playground supervisor that is there to help direct. I remember that when I was younger. They gave us games and all of that to play with when we went. So doing things that would cause a safe, secure life. And cause young people to be kids again.

JS: It’s funny you say that, because I was driving through Homewood the other day, and the Westinghouse Park was there, and I guess at the center of the park they have restrooms. And I thought, wouldn’t it be great; first of all, what a testimony to the days gone by that we had that. And people would safe enough to frequent that. But there it is. And just, wouldn’t it be great if we could do that again. Now, the Noah’s Ark Community Center; is this something you are raising money towards?

EC: Yes.

JS: So if anyone is reading or listening, how can they contribute?

EC: Well, we do a golf outing. This will be our fifth one this year on June 14th. We hold that at the Youghiogheny Country Club. And so they could call the church, and we have packets that mailed out, and information we could get to them. If you would like to just donate, you can donate and just write the check out to the Noah’s Ark Community Center, and mail it to the Bethlehem Baptist Church. We also, we’re looking for anyone that would give us items that we use at our auctions, at the golf outing. We do a live auction and also do a basket auction. So we’re doing those kinds of things right now, and we’re looking forward to trying to do some greater things. We do have a booth that we do at the International Village. And we also take part in Good Neighbor Day in downtown McKeesport.

JS: And I don’t think I gave you enough opportunity to express or explain the full vision you would have for Noah’s Ark Community Center. So go over that one more time, even if you’re repeating yourself.

EC: Well, first of all a banquet facility. Because I looked at our area, and we really don’t have anything here that is close, to do receptions and parties, and even meetings, or whatever. And the other part that we’re looking for is to do a café, that we would have the young people come down to from the school district, and be able to run that café and learn how to be an entrepreneur.

I also would like to be able to go back, once again you can tell I’m from the old school, to have a little corner there where the guys come in and play checkers, and they can sit and have a pot of coffee and feel safe.

And also we’re working with the YMCA to have the silver sneakers in the building. And at the end of it, we’re having an area where we’re renting out another probation office, the Allegheny County Probation Office used to be there. They rented from us for about 2.5 years. And now it’s empty. So we have a real estate agent who’s trying to find another company or someone to rent it.

JS: So you actually have a facility? Someplace you will run this?

EC: Yes. The block that we bought, the buildings that are there, we had an architect come in and he checked it out, and it is feasible for what we want, so we didn’t have to tear anything down. We just need to do the work inside. And we’re working also with the construction class from the McKeesport School district. They’re going to come down and help tear apart some of the things, the floor and all of that to be able to get that going. So right now, we’ve gotten an estimate from the architect, and it looks like we might get started pretty soon.

JS: Nice. Well, if people aren’t afraid, the urban areas are great opportunities. I mean there are buildings, there’s land, there are parking lots. But it takes vision, and resources follow vision. And it sounds like you certainly have it. Of course I’m over at Allegheny Center Alliance, and we try to do all we can in the community, besides just being a good church. We want to be a good neighbor and do what we can to stimulate the area. And as we close, and I’m just going to say to you, you’re going to need to tell your full story one day. I think a lot of people need to hear it. And whether it’s spoken or written or both, I think it will be a tremendous encouragement. But as we close, what encouraging words would you have. What wisdom would you have for someone who’s listening to this, and they say, I don’t know if I can make a difference, or maybe they’re intimidated by some of the situations they see in our urban communities? What do you say to them?

EC: I say to them, that the vision I came into the church with was the word change. And I wanted us to use that, the word change, saying we are a church, helping all to navigate to greater expectations. And I would say, be encouraged because you don’t have to stay where you are. You do not have to stay there. There is always another step, another level, another place. You just need to open your eyes, and begin to see yourself as God sees you, and not as the world has tried to shape you.

JS: And I think that’s the foundation for self-help that you are passionate about.


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