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Stuart P. Simpson

Stu took quite a while to decide whether or not he wanted to be an Urban Hero. He wasn’t quite comfortable with the recognition, not wanting to draw attention to himself or his work. That is the reason, however, he was nominated and accepted, for since his retirement, he has given himself selflessly to helping those in need, whether they reside in prison or in one of our impoverished neighborhoods. We are glad Stu consented to be part of the program. When you read this interview, we trust you will be, too.

JS:Today I want to welcome Stu Simpson to the Urban Heroes program. Welcome Stu.

SS: Good afternoon.

JS: And Stu was nominated by one of our board members, Jay Gilmer. So tell me a little bit about Stu Simpson. Where are you from? And tell me about your family as you were growing up.

SS: I grew up in Detroit, Michigan. Parents were both Scottish immigrants to this country. Had what I would call a very normal young life, and was brought to, I’ll call it Christianity, more by a friend who invited me to go to church with him. Although my parents would say they are Christian, we didn’t attend church. But I became very active in church. Got to what I would call regular church attendance and carried that through going to college in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

When I graduated from college, I went to work for Westinghouse Electric. They were headquartered here in Pittsburgh. I spent my first six months of my career with Westinghouse here at the educational center that was in Wilkinsburg. And after that, moved to various places around the country and around the world. I married woman who was born and raised in Washington, DC, and we have four children. We not only lived in Philadelphia together, but Tampa, Florida, and then our first visit to Pittsburgh.

From Pittsburgh, we went to live in France for a couple of years. From France we went to live in Spain for a few more years. And then returned to the U.S. and lived in Washington, DC for a couple of years, and then returned to Pittsburgh. So although we’re not native Pittsburghers, we’re very happy to live in the Pittsburgh area.

JS: And all of this was for Westinghouse?

SS: All with Westinghouse.

JS: So your whole career was with Westinghouse?

SS: Exactly. A week and a half out of graduating college to retirement, at the beginning of 1997.

JS: So take us back to the Detroit days. Your parents were immigrants. How recently had they come to the United States before you were born?

SS: They both immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1920’s, independently. They met in the U.S., and I was born in 1937. So I would say that I’m a product of the end of the depression period. My parents were obviously influenced by depression kind of activities; conservative financially.

JS: So brother and sisters?

SS: I have one sister. She continues to live in Michigan, north of Detroit, near Port Huron.

JS: So how old were you when your friend invited you to go to church, and what kind of church was it?

SS: It was a Lutheran church, and I was 13. I was very active sports. And in the Detroit area, the churches had sports league. And he recruited me to play baseball for his church team. That was his motivation. And his parents, part of it, if you were going to play for the church team, the pastor that was in church, said that you had to attend church Sunday before the game. And his parents, went and picked me up, and took me to church for six months, before my parents suggested my sister go with me. And after a few more months, they began to attend and became leaders in that Lutheran church.

JS: Oh wow. So you’re involvement got them involved in a local fellowship.

SS: Well, that’s right. I say that friend may have had the wrong motivation, but he sure did bring a friend to Christ.

JS: That’s great. So how do you remember faith impacting your teen years?

SS: I’d say the church was also a center for social activity. The youth group activity at that church was strong. They always had Saturday youth activities. We did things like paper drives, and other things. So the church was a good center of youth activities. And so I think it had a strong influence on those years.

JS: And you stayed active in sports throughout high school?

SS: I did. And tried to stay active in college, although I always say I was good enough to be the backup in a lot of sports.

JS: And so you went to public high school?

SS: Public high school.

JS: And upon graduation, what were your thoughts educationally? Where did you go and what were your educational objectives?

SS: My father was an engineer, and I had that kind of analytic capability, which is where I did well in high school. So I went to engineering school at Michigan Tech, in the upper peninsula of Michigan. That was a period when atomic power was coming into focus. President Eisenhower promised that we’d be able to create electricity too cheap to meter. So the nuclear field was an attraction to me, so that’s where I went.

JS: So what was your major?

SS: Mechanical engineering. Engineering mechanics and nuclear.

JS: And undergraduate, or did you do graduate too?

SS: After I joined Westinghouse, I started after a master’s in engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. But before I completed that, we moved to Florida, and then I started an MBA program, and before I completed that, we moved to Pittsburgh, and I gave up.

JS: If they keep moving me around, I’m not going to try to finish this degree.

SS: That’s right. JS: So you graduate, obviously a four-year program, at Michigan Tech? SS: Correct.

JS: And is this still in business?

SS: Oh yeah! It’s a big, big school. It graduates more mechanical engineers than any other school in the country.

JS: So how did you and Westinghouse hook up? Did they come to the campus?

SS: They came to the campus and again, history of nuclear power application, the Nautilus had just been successfully launched. And that was very attractive to me, that they were going to be big in the nuclear energy field. They were an attractive employer. I had several opportunities, but I chose Westinghouse. I think I was very fortunate. I’m a person that believes the Lord was acting in my life, helping me make the right decisions.

JS: And you know, by directing you through what you loved and what you enjoyed and the doors opened. Now in college was your faith still strong?

SS: Yes. It was another friend, during our freshman orientation, they invited the local churches. And I think there was an opportunity to drop out, but the Lutheran church in that community, the person was there and I talked to them. There was a woman and she indicated that the church was five miles away from the college campus, and I indicated that probably made them geographically undesirable. And she said, we’ll pick you up every Sunday .

JS: And they did?

SS: They did. And so I stayed faithful to Sunday attendance in those years as well. I would say I was always a regular attendee of church. There was another hinge in my walk, where it goes from being an intellectual pursuit to being a heart pursuit; that occurred very much later.

JS: Can you share any circumstances around that transition?

SS: Jay Gilmer would be familiar with some of this, because he was also active in this movement that was in our Episcopal Church. There was a program called CURSILLO. And I attended a CURSILLO weekend. And it was on that weekend hearing other lay people witness about their activities a little bit, like maybe you’re trying to do with Urban Heroes, that I began to understand it wasn’t the ministers work, it was my work too. And I’d say it moved from my head to my heart. And that really changed how I viewed what it meant to be a Christian.

JS: And what changes did you see? Internally, externally. What were the results of that head to heart.

SS: I call it rather than giving an hour and a half or two hours a week to the Lord, it was a 24/7 job. One of the comments that both my wife and I would make [is that] we changed from thinking the church was to serve us, to we were supposed to serve the church. So it was a big change.

JS: Did she go to the weekend with you?

SS: Yes.

JS: And you both kind of made the transition together?

SS: No, I think she was ahead of me. But this caused us to be maybe on the same trajectory.

JS: And so how did you start serving the church?

SS: Well, I served the church first in leadership by a local parish, the local congregation. But I also was called to serve some leadership in this movement, called CURSEO. And as a result of that, I served the local diocese leadership on several occasions. Plus, I met an individual on the weekend who got me interested in a ministry that leads the least, less, and the lost. And I think that was a big turning point. And it’s driven a lot of my activities since.

JS: Tell us about that. Are you still involved?

SS: Oh! I’m over involved! My wife says I work my hours than I did when I was working, I just don’t get compensated with money. Well, first of all, I started the maybe first heavy involvement with an organization called The Church Army, which serves the least, less, and lost. The people, and I call it the Matthew 25:31-46, the sheep and the goats story. And that has always resonated with me.

And so, the homeless, the encountering of that group of people here in the streets of Pittsburgh was a big transition. If you don’t touch them, you think of them as strange people. If you meet them and work with them, you really see a lot of great people, who are just in an unfortunate situation. The Church Army served what I call the least, less, and the lost.

I served on the board of that organization for 12 years, and did a lot of work with them and contributed funds to them. But in addition, a friend who I had met through that movement, called me and asked if I’d get involved with prison ministry. And I think that’s maybe why Jay identified me with you, with the KAIROS prison ministry. We go into a prison, SCI Greene County down in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. This is the maximum security prison in Pennsylvania.

JS: Right. It’s where Jerry Sandusky is.

SS: He’s there. This is where death row is. It has the maximum number of what they call restrictive housing units, which is where Jerry is. So we do a program there with, I’ll say, introducing prisoners to the fact that God actually loves them. And it’s a four-day retreat, and starts on a Thursday afternoon and then runs through Sunday evening. And we do that twice a year; that’s what we’re allowed to do.

And it’s a very intensive program. We go into it at seven o’clock in the morning and get out at 8:30 at night, sleep on the floor of a local church. So we’ve been doing that for seven years. And then, the key to this program, I go back almost every Friday night, and meet with those residents, we call them, who have graduated from the program. And that is to reinforce the fact that there is a hope in life.

It’s a very successful program. It’s run in 33 states. In Pennsylvania, it’s in nine of the state prisons. So, I’d say that’s where I spend the most number of hours. In fact when you originally said 3:30 on Friday, I think I said, no, because I usually spend every Friday from 3 o’clock until 9:30 involved in doing that follow-up program.

JS: What do you do on the weekends? What’s your role?

SS: Well, first of all, a lot of what I do, I like to do in teams. I don’t think that I’m an individual flashy star in that sense. There’s a very strong organization concept in KAIROS; a manual that you do. We give talks. I usually give a major talk, which might be on Christian action. And, I sit at a table between two of I’ll say Pennsylvania’s finest inmates. Obviously on Thursday afternoons it’s kind of awkward, they don’t know that they can trust me, and I’m sitting there maybe wondering what they’ve done. But by Sunday night, they hate to see us leave the institution.

And so it’s developing a relationship with them, in that short period of intense time, and carrying on conversation constantly with them. We give talks and then we sit and discuss what the talk means to us and to them. And so, there’s a lot of singing that goes on. So it’s a very effective program. I’ve been the leader of the weekend; you’re only allowed to lead one weekend. But I’ve served in every position on the team.

JS: And what do you do when you go back in on Fridays?

SS: On Friday night, we go back in, and it’s called “Prayer and Share Fellowship.” And we sit in small groups, usually six to eight residents in a group, and hopefully with a volunteer in each group. Sometimes we don’t have enough volunteers, then don’t man every group. But they are asked to talk about how they have practiced their relationship with the Lord in the last week.

I’ll give you the four principle questions they have to answer. The first one is, “When have they felt Christ’s presence in their life in the last week?” And we’ve been telling them throughout the number of years that we’ve been there, that Christ is there 24/7. So when did they recognize the fact that He was there.

The second question they have to answer is “What have they studied in the last week that has increased their understanding of their faith?” It can be that they watch the television program, or that they read something in the Bible; a Scripture that came across differently. So, what have they studied in the last week.

The third one is, “When have they shared Christ’s love with someone else in the last week?” Now if you can imagine, this is a tough assignment in this maximum security prison.

And the fourth questions is, “When have they had a difficult time sharing with somebody in the last week?” It can be with a cellmate. It can be with a corrections officer. Whatever. In doing this, and doing it week after week, it makes them feel like they have to understand that they’re supposed to represent Christ in the environment.

JS: And do you do this one-on-one?

SS: Well, normally I’m sitting with a group of six to eight.

JS: Just by yourself, or with other team members?

SS: Well, there would probably be in the neighborhood of 40 to 50 inmates that show up every Friday night. And we might have three to seven volunteers.

JS: And so you eat in the prison too?

SS: We’re allowed to. Most of us don’t. What we do this weekend for instance, my wife does women’s prison ministry, and she goes into Cambridge Springs, which is where the sisters are going to spend their time. Or politicians. On a men’s team, going into a men’s prison, there’s only been the spouses and other women serve on an outside support team, and they make a breakfast for us.

We eat breakfast at six o’clock in the morning. We go in. There is a lunch that we could eat. I go over and have some salad. And then we could have a dinner there. And then we get back at about 8:30 or 9:00 and they serve us a later supper. So most of us do not eat a lot of the prison food. It’s not very good.

JS: Yeah, I’ve done my share of prison ministry, and it’s not something you look forward to. Did you ever think you’d be involved in prison ministry?

SS: I never did until I’ve said this least, less, and the lost, getting focused on Matthew 25 is the issue of when this person and acquaintance called me and asked if I’d be willing to start up this prison ministry here in southwestern Pennsylvania, I was ready to say yes right away. Because it always gnawed on me that, when have you called on the prisoners. And as I say to these men, on Friday nights when they talk about the difficulty of being in prison, I say, where was Paul most effective? It was when he was in prison. And I say, your job here is to represent Christ, be a light in a dark place. This is the devil’s playground. So to me, I was over-ready when someone gave me the opportunity.

JS: And you’ve been doing this for how many years?

SS: Seven years at SCI Greene. JS: Now, any other activities? Or is this pretty much you’re focusing on prison ministries?

SS: No. For instance, on the prison ministries, I just retired as the treasurer for the state on KAIROS. I’m on the standing committee of our diocese. I’m on the board of trustees out at Trinity School of Ministry.

JS: At Ambridge.

SS: Yes. And I’m very active out there. I’m the chair of the board development committee. Probably outside of the board chair, maybe the most active trustee out there. So a lot of things I’m involved in. This is something you can’t call a ministry, but I do. As Jay has maybe indicated to you, we’re in a property fight in our denomination. A group of former Episcopal congregations decided that they weren’t happy with the drift of the Episcopal church and realigned into what we call the Anglican church of North America. And this has led to property disputes with the Episcopal church claiming that they own the properties of those congregations.

And for the diocese, I am the coordinator for those property disputes. So that occupies a lot of time because there are 40- some properties. The other one which connects, which I spend a lot of time on and which I think is one of the jewels of Pittsburgh is Shepherd’s Heart Ministries in uptown. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. They’re what I call a 24/7 ministry. They have 15 veterans who live there, in the church building, and transitional housing. And they are certainly a ministry of hope to the homeless. They have, for instance, a Sunday night service at 5:15, and at the end of the church service they serve a meal. And I would guess that 80% of the people who attend that service are homeless. And so they do not survive on the plate collections or pledges of the congregation. They survive on the contributions made by other organizations. And they’re supported by more than 150 organizations. And I am the chair of a financial advisory task force that helps that ministry run.

JS: Your wife’s right. You’re busier now than when you were when you were working.

SS: Yeah. But sometime, if you don’t know Shepherd’s Heart, you should actually touch it and pay a visit to us.

JS: I will. Yeah, I pastor over at Allegheny Center Alliance on the North Side, and so we’re pretty involved with Light of Life and other ministries, but that sounds like a great ministry.

SS: Well, Allegheny Center Alliance Church is very involved. It has people that are involved with Shepherd’s Heart. Although it’s an Anglican denomination ordained minister, pastor Mike Wurschmidt. It’s about as non-denominational as you can get as far as support.

JS: What do you do to stay fresh? You’re pretty busy. What do you do that energizes and strengthens you?

SS: What I tell people is that this prison ministry is the most rewarding ministry I’ve ever been in. Just these inmates who have in many cases are lifers, and you would think have little to hope for, are so grateful for us just showing up; civilians with civilian clothing. To me, it’s an oasis in my life. And my wife says she loves it when I come home Friday nights and we just sit there, and I go over what I witnessed. And there’s one of our ordained ministers that serves on the weekends. When you’re on the weekend, it’s like sitting on the 50-yard-line of the football stadium and watching Jesus perform miracles.

JS: Wow, that’s a great analogy.

SS: It really does energize me. There are so many ministries where you think you pour a lot into and you’re not sure what the fruit is. But in this case, it is so evident that the Holy Spirit is there in that environment that you just come away really energized.

JS: What words of wisdom would you have for somebody listening and they’re not engaged, they’re not involved, maybe even a little shy, maybe even a little afraid. What do you tell them about getting involved in ministry like you’re involved with?

SS: Well, a couple of things. When I retired, I felt that it was obvious to me that the Lord had really blessed my life. And so I said, and made the statement, that I was going to give my time to the Lord in retirement. And I think it is true, that so many people have been blessed to live in this country, to live in this area, to have rather rich lives, if you compare yourself to any other world country, and think about it. And I think we have an obligation to return some of that back.

And one of the things I found; I did do some volunteer work with the Executive Service Corp, and with other non-profits as long as there was a faith-based component in them. And what I found was there are so many people out there who want to do good, and I have skills that I’ve learned from Westinghouse training and experiences that were so valuable to these ministries. And it wasn’t that I could give them the support they needed to be even more effective in their ministry.

And I found that working on teams; I’m big on this isn’t individual stars. This is getting out there and locking arms with other people and truly being like the body of Christ. If I bring administrative skills, if I bring other financial skills to a team, I can make those other people even more effective. So I really think it is, yeah, was there fear the first time I went into prison? I was scared to death. But now, as I say, I consider it to be the oasis in my life.


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