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Joseph BurkeJoseph Burke

JS: Welcome back to the Urban Heroes program for another interview with one of our 2009-2010 urban heroes. This is John Stanko and I'm helping to coordinate the program for the Center for Urban Biblical Ministry. And today in our interview on the phone, we have one of our recent CUBM graduates, Joe Burke. Joe, Good Morning; it’s good to be with you.

JB: Good morning. It’s good to be with you, Dr. Stanko.

JS: Well Joe, we are so proud of you. You recently graduated from CUBM and you were the valedictorian for the class. Was that a surprise for you?

JB: Yes, I was completely surprised.

JS: Let’s see. How long have you been back at CUBM? How long did it take you to finish the program?

JB: it took me almost 5 and one half years to finish the program.

JS: Five and a half years for an associate’s degree in Christian ministry.

JB: Yes

JS: What went into you thinking that it was time to go back to school? How old were you? What were the circumstances in your life?

JB: Well, the reason I went back to school was nothing of my own doing. I had just come off of a vicious 22-year run of alcohol and drugs and I had started going to church. Around my second year of going to church, I felt I needed to be doing something else with my life. I didn’t know what it was at the time. I had no clue it would be school or anything like that.

One day I was working at Allegheny Alliance Center Church on the North Side, and I was mopping the floor late one evening. I just happened to look over at the bulletin board and I saw the pamphlet for the Center for Urban Biblical Ministry. Right then and there when I saw that pamphlet. I went over there and got it and opened it. And I started to read it but I hurried up and closed it because I didn’t feel that that was something I wanted to do.

But in the end, I guess you could say God had His way. And that’s how I ended up at CUBM. I personally had no plans of going back to school for anything. I was just content with being saved and off the alcohol and drugs. To me, I thought that was going to be enough.

JS: But it wasn’t and God had something else in mind. So you looked at the brochure but you didn’t look at it too much. You kind of put it away. What did you after that?

JB: Well I took it home and put it in my drawer and I said, “I’m not going to do it because this is something that I don’t want to do.” For the next couple days, I just kept thinking about it and I kept going towards the drawer. “Maybe I should look at it.” Then I would close it again. The second day I just went on and picked it up and read the whole thing. Once I read it, I knew right away that this is what the Lord wants me to do.

JS: So you then contact the school. You make an appointment and come out.

JB: Yes, I made a phone call to Vivian and she had explained to me over the phone what I needed to do and where the school was located. So, I went out to the school. And I was still apprehensive because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I was newly saved and everything was happening so fast.

But I made it out to the school and she was there and she hugged me as soon as she saw me. She told me to come in. and she said, “Welcome, you’re in the right place.” And from there we sat down and she helped me with the paperwork. And that’s when I met Mrs. Byrd; she came out and hugged me also. And I knew right then and there. I’m at the right school and this is what I’m supposed to be doing.

JS: You were still working though. Did you continue to work while you went to school.

JB: Yes, I was still working. School was months away and I was still working over at Allegheny Alliance Church, fourteen hours a week. I continued to work there for a while but then I got position at another church and it was full time. I ended up taking that position.

JS: Is that where you are today?

JB: Yes.

JS: And where is that?

JB: Over at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church on the North Side. And this is where I’ve been the last five years.

JS: What do you do there?

JB: I do the maintenance of the social hall.

JS: Now that you’ve graduated from CUBM, what are your plans? Are you going to continue to go on for your education?

JB: Yes. My plan is to keep going forward in this education that the Lord has given me.

JS: You know how proud we are of you, Joe. You’ve done a great job and you were an exemplary student. Every teacher loved having you in class. So we only see bigger and better things for you. What were some of the lessons that you learned about yourself over the last five years as you were working and going through school?

JB: One of the things I learned is I never knew what my learning capacity was because I had stopped it, for various reasons, at a young age. And one of the things I learned is I can do much more than I ever thought I could. I’ve learned that I’m a guy of perseverance. And I also learned that, for the most part, I’m a humble guy. I quietly do things and I don’t say a lot or do a lot of talking but inside of me is where my passion is; it’s where my determination is. It’s where I get my drive from.

But for the most part, I’ve grown as a Christian man. And I’m still growing as we speak today. But another thing, I’ve become a better father to my kids. And I can be counted on and I’m trusted with a few things. I’m continually growing.

JS: That is just a great report, Joe. I don’t know why everybody won’t run back to school after they hear your story and after they hear what it has done in your life. Where ultimately do you want to earn a degree? And what do you see yourself doing in five or ten years. Do you have any vision for the future?

JB: In five or ten years from now I see myself – this is what I’ve always wanted to do – I would love to teach theology in a Christian institution.

JS: That’s outstanding. So you want to be a teacher and you want to be a teacher of the things of God and the word of God.

JB: Yes.

JS: Well it all starts with a thought, Joe. It was a thought for you to go back to school and five and a half years later here you are finishing off at the top of your class. There’s no reason to believe that this won’t happen as well if you persevere and are willing to pay the price.

Now let's go back, you were working at Allegheny Center Alliance Church when you came back to school but you said you had just been recently saved or saved not too long before that. Tell us about your testimony and your story.

JB: I had just gone through a 22-year addiction to alcohol and heroin. I started in my eleventh grade year of high school. I started drinking. Back then it was just for fun. My friends and I would get together and we would get beer. We never saw any harm in that. By my senior year I was drinking everyday at all times. So school had stopped being a priority long ago because I would just show up and never do anything.

Well for something that started off to be fun, the drinking, it took me on a run that was so vicious that I ended up in places like Jail (a few times), seven rehabs, fifteen detox sessions, and I even did two psychiatric wards. Because I would be in one of those bizarre states of minds where I would holler that I was either going to hurt somebody severely or I would harm myself.

It just took me on a run where I ended up so helpless, I often thought that suicide would be the best answer. That’s how deep I had gotten into it. I couldn’t get out of it. I didn’t know about going to God with these things. I thought maybe places and institutions could help you out.

I would go to rehabs and sometimes I would come out and do quite well—sometimes a year, sometimes a lot of months. But in the end, I was never spiritually grounded in Christ or anything. I would always resort back to my old ways and my old life. I ran the streets hard for a very long time. People used to look at me and say, “Wow he has so much potential. He’s highly likable. This isn’t the same guy you see when he’s sober.” But I would always end up as a different guy once I was under the influence.

And in the end, I would say the last maybe, five or six years of my run, my health started failing. I started having stomach problems. My liver was starting to register high. When they would test it, it would register with high levels. Basically it had quit processing the alcohol after a while. That last five or six years, I would go in and out of the hospital at least a couple times a month just to get put back together and listen to the doctors try to persuade me to stop.

I would listen but it never would stick in my head what was happening. But the last year, 2003, I was in the hospital. I was in the psych ward. It used to be called Mercy Providence and I happened to look out the window. I could see my old high school. I could see the park where I used to play ball and the basketball court where I used to entertain guys and people. It was that moment that I looked out the window and a tear rolled down my face and I said, “Oh God, please help me, I can’t go any longer.” And as they say, this is what’s been happening ever since. He heard me and now it’s been unbelievable since that day.

JS: So that was in about the year 2003?

JB: 2003

JS: What steps did you take? You were there in the hospital and you looked out the window. And you, I guess the Bible would say, came to your senses. What did you do? Did you connect with someone? Did you talk with someone or pray with someone?

JB: Yes, I had prayer with a chaplain who was visiting in the hospital. And they referred me to a person who had similar problems like I did. I forget the guy’s name, but he had come past the hospital and visited me. And he had talked to me about what I could do or what I needed to do. Basically that’s what happened. He gave me some directions where I could talk to people and get some help.

JS: Did you know right away that something was different? Could you tell? Even though you had taken steps towards recovery or staying clean, could you tell there was a different.

JB: It wasn’t like I had this great feeling come over me but I know at that moment that suddenly I began to feel better. And I don’t mean better physically. It was just like, for once, I had just an inch of hope. And that’s what I felt. I felt the slightest movement of hope that I had felt in a long time. And still to this day, I really don’t know why that happened but I just felt like, “This is it. I’m done.” And I had said that many times before but this particular day it felt like I just had a little bit more hope than I had had before.

JS: So walk us through what happened when you got out of the hospital from that point. Did you stay connected with this person? Did you join a church? What steps did you take? What practical steps?

JB: I went to a program. And when I went to this program I was directed. There was a guy there that I had befriended and he was applying himself and he was working at Allegheny Alliance at the time. His name was Scott Schofield. He works over there to this day. He would talk to me and ended up getting me an application over at the church. He told me about going to church and how he was and how he had felt from going to church.

That’s what happened. I gave him an application and he took it back over to the church. And Nikki Heckman and Charles Schlay hired me. Once I started going to church and started working over there. I had someone to talk to at all times. There were other members over there that had been through what I’d been through—maybe not at all levels but they were coming from a similar background. Going to work sometimes didn’t even seem like going to work. I had somebody I could talk to. I was going to church. I was connected with ACAC. So everything was working out. It felt good.

JS: You didn’t feel any awkwardness going to church, like you didn’t belong or your problems kept you from fitting in. it was a positive experience for you. God had made a place for you.

JB: At first I would say I did feel that, maybe the first few months. But after I got of the initial – most of it probably came from me and maybe from a few people – but once I got over the initial fear of going to church or thinking about the things I’ve done or I didn’t belong, God reassured me: “I saved you from all that. This is where you’re going. Don’t worry about anything. I have plans for you.”

Once that sunk into my heart and I knew that, it didn’t even matter anymore what anybody said or how they looked at me. And it’s like that, for me, every single day. Now that I’ve seen what He’s done to me and the places He has taken me, there’s nothing nobody could say or do to get me off the path anymore.

JS: Do you still attend Allegheny Alliance?

JB: Yes

JS: So church is still a big part six years later of your recovery and your ongoing healing?

JB: Yes

JS: Are you involved at all in the church? I know you’re busy with school and work, but do you have any roles in the church or anything you do?

JB: No, not at this present time. And now that my school load will not be the same as what it was, I will be looking into something over at the church. I had made a lot sacrifices cause school was so demanding that I put some things on hold so I could focus on the school education.

JS: Sure. And someone said that when you put something new on your plate you have to take something off. There was an expert one time that said you can only have five goals. So if you add a new one you have to figure out which one you’re going to take away because there’s only so much you can do. And you certainly were experiencing that when you went back to school.

JB: Agreed.

JS: Now talk to us about you said this experience and your turning it around and god helping you and coming back to school helped you be a better father. Explain that to our listeners.

JB: I think one of the ways I’ve become a better father is being there for my kid—hands-on. Teaching him some of the things I’m learning in classes. Because I’m still learning too and he’s growing up with me as I grow in the Lord. I think my walk with Christ and the way He describes how we should be as fathers and men, I’m trying and praying that I apply those in how I raise my son.

Even with the mistakes I make with him sometimes or sometimes he doesn’t see eye to eye with me. I’ve learned to be more patient. Not so quick, well, no sometimes I still – he tests my patience – but I’ve learned that all comes with it. And I’m learning to be more patient with him, and I’m spending quality time. We’re having talks. I’ve never had those things myself personally—never from a male in any area. So I’m trying to give him the things that were never given to me through Christ.

JS: Joe, this is just such an outstanding story. I am wrapped in listening to your story. And I know everyone who listens to your story will I’m sure be engrossed in it the same way I am. Let’s go back. Are you a Pittsburgher? Were you born in this area?

JB: Yes born and raised on the central North Side of Pittsburgh.

JS: And where did you go to schools?

JB: I went to Martin Luther King, Latimer Middle School and then I went to Allegheny High School. But then they made it into a middle school my senior year so I ended up graduating from Langley High.

JS: All of my relatives were from the North Side and many of my uncles and great uncles graduated from Allegheny.

JB: Oh really?

JS: Yes, that’s on the circle there—on the Allegheny circle. My father was an all city guard at Oliver high School, so we have pretty strong roots on the North Side. Are you still in that area? Do you still live there?

JB: Yes, I live on Monterey Street

JS: Do you ever run into anybody that you… from your past life or from growing up that your able to share your testimony with?

JB: Every day. They come here to my job to see me and talk to me. Every day all throughout the day, I see everybody still.

JS: What do they say about your transformation?

JB: You know, it’s hard for me to even explain it because the looks on their faces, they laugh, they can’t believe it. They like to still tell stories about the things we used to do together. Although they haven’t started coming to church or join me on my walk, they just they come by all the time with a look of disbelief.

A lot of my buddies say that I really give them something to feel good about seeing what happened to me because they know how I was. They were with me. And I think at times we’re all just standing there like, “Do you believe it?” And I always know the same Christ that did this to me is available for everybody.

JS: So even though you don’t have an official role or duty at the church, it seems like you’re very actively involved in ministry as people seek you out for encouragement or just to touch your story..

JB: Yes

JS: You have the kind of job where you can do that. You have some freedom where people can come and go.

JB: Yes, they’re invited. And my family here—that’s what I call them, this is my Greek family—they have embraced me and showered me with love and freedom. And once I started here, my friends were welcome also.

JS: Where’s Holy Trinity? Where’s it located?

JB: 302 West North Ave.

JS: Also on the North Side?

JB: Yes, right across from Allegheny High and Divine Providence and the George Washington Statue in the park.

JS: So within walking distance of ACAC?

JB: Yes

JS: You’re just a North Side guy through and through. I mean you can’t get away from the North Side. We’re sorry you had to come to school on the East End that seems like the only thing in your life that wasn’t involved with the North Side.

JB: I know

JS: Is there any model now, anybody you look now to model your life and ministry after?

JB: I can honestly say that it’s all of you all that I’ve met at CUBM who teach—who preach and teach theology—that’s what has inspired me.

JS: Well that certainly makes it worthwhile for us to hear your story and hear who God can take our lives that seem to be on parallel tracts but in Christ we intersect. And we were able to benefit you and you, Joe, were certainly able to benefit and encourage us in what we do. That’s the amazing part in Christ. People who would never have anything to do with one another or have any connection are together.

And not just together but mutually edifying and encouraging one another and that’s an honor for us as instructors and administrators to hear that kind of feedback. What kind of advice would you have? Somebody’s listening to this and they’re saying, “You don’t understand. I’ve made an even bigger mess” or “My situation’s too difficult.” What kind of advice would you have for someone who may be saying that if they’re listening today?

JB: I remember all the times I used to say that same thing to many people. But my advice to them would be just, if you just can have a little hope in Christ. It doesn’t have to be a whole lot. Just a little bit of hope in Christ, your life will change dramatically.

JS: Take it day at a time and don’t expect too much?

JB: Don’t expect a whole lot of things to happen right away. I went through that. I almost gave up in the beginning because I didn’t see anything happening. And I said, “Oh well, this doesn’t work.” And no matter what I felt or what I thought, I just kept praying and kept hoping. I would say the main thing is hope.

JS: Don’t give up hope. Take those first steps.

JB: Yep

JS: Look where you are step-by-step six years later you are at the top of your class. At the top of your world and God’s made a place for you and among people you would not have had contact with and known. It’s just, as I’ve said earlier in the interview, it’s just a tremendous inspiring story. How about a favorite verse or a passage or something that you go back to regularly that seems to be impacting your life?

JB: Yes, Jeremiah 5: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart. I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

JS: Now were you raised in church, Joe? Did you have church experience?

JB: No

JS: But now you’re seeing that you were God’s idea from the foundation of the world?

JB: Yes (chuckle)

JS: That’s pretty amazing. Isn’t it?

JB: Yes that’s why I started laughing ‘cause I got hit with that unbelievable feeling again.

JS: God is the only thing that’s too good to be true, but He is.

JB: Yes, yes, yes.

JS: And your story, if we can broadcast it and multiply it many times over, I know it will touch many, many people. And truly, Joe, you are, in the intent of the Urban Heroes, a true Urban Hero. You are a product of the city. You live in the city, yet your story is one of hope and inspiration. And we want to honor you and people like you who have made a difference, are making a difference.

I think with you, Joe, the best is yet to come. You are still laying the foundation for a life and a work and a ministry that will impact many people. And as drugs and alcohol use continue to expand and grow in our culture, we know that there will be a significant place for you and the people that you touch to turn and help other people. I want to thank you for your role that you’re playing. We want to that you for participating in the Urban Heroes program and thank you for being who you are.

JB: Wow, thank you. It’s always a pleasure when I see all of you, the staff, at CUBM. You make me feel the same way that you guys feel about me. I feel the same way on the other end. I’m always humbled by these things even this interview and the Urban Heroes article. All that; I’m always humbled by anything that happens to me.

JS: Last night we had to service a church and we recognized retiring missionaries who spent their lives overseas, impacting people who they’ll probably never see again until heaven. And two of the three are battling cancer but the people stood and gave them standing ovations to express their appreciations towards them and to God for what they had done in their lives. When I saw that Joe, I said, “That’s what I want to do. That’s the place I want to be at. I want to run the race. I want to fill my days and do all that I can do to impact people’s lives.” And I sense you have the same objectives. So keep on keeping on, brother. It’s been wonderful talking with you. And we look forward to many more good reports that we can share with our Urban Heroes’ audience of what is going on in Joe Burke’s life.

JB: It’s been my pleasure, Dr. Stanko

JS: Thank you. God bless.

JB: God bless.

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