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Urban Mission looks to past and future

THE COFFEE’S ALWAYS HOT — Such was the welcome when Urban Mission began in 1959 as the Mill Men’s Hostel. Holding special coffee mugs in honor of the mission’s 60th anniversary with the Rev. Ashley Steele, the mission’s executive director, are former directors the Rev. Bruce Hitchcock, left, and the Rev. Roger Skelley-Watts, second from right, and Joe McCurn, board president. -- Janice Kiaski

STEUBENVILLE — Urban Mission Ministries is celebrating its 60-year anniversary throughout the year to the theme “Love Works,” a four-part observance that began on Valentine’s Day with a “Love Our Community” giveaway at all of its locations.

July 11-13 is phase three, bringing tours of the Urban Mission and its outreach locations with interested individuals or groups encouraged to register a tour day and time through the mission’s website at www.urbanmission.org.

The fourth and final event will be a 60th anniversary worship service set for Oct. 20 in the Urban Mission sanctuary at 301 N. Fifth St.

But April 26 was occasion for an informal celebration at the Seventh Street Plaza in downtown Steubenville, which the mission is working to purchase and transform 30,000 square feet of what was the site of former grocery stores into a central hub for the local community to gather, learn, serve and work, as well as a place of opportunity for those seeking a fresh start in life, according to the Rev. Ashley Steele, the mission’s executive director.

The event was a time for through-the-decades displays, memories, thank-you’s, reflections and visions and a time capsule with attendees encouraged to share mission dreams, experiences and words of encouragement.

Mission board President Joe McGurn extended the welcome, noting that, “It is our hope and our prayer that as we enter into this time of celebration that we will hear the stories that have changed lives, and that you would find yourself in the story of the Urban Mission as each of you are a part of the history, the present and the future of the Urban Mission.”

The Rev. Benjamin L. Calvert II, pastor of Mount Carmel Community Baptist Church in Steubenville, offered the opening prayer and noted the purpose of the event was “to thank God for birthing this ministry and allowing it to thrive, to thank you and those who have gone before us and laid the foundation for the mission so we can stand here and say thank you to all community supporters, that no person is left behind, left out or left without knowing they are loved.”

Steele introduced guests in attendance, including former directors — the Rev. Bruce Hitchcock, now superintendent of the United Methodist Church, Ohio Valley District, and the Rev. Roger Skelley-Watts, director from 1988-92 — and former employees, among them Neighborhood Community Development Center founder Sharon Kirtdoll, Gay Warren and Sue Rogers.

Cynthia Lytle, program director, and Patti West, warehouse secretary, led an in-memory portion of the program, acknowledging the recent death of the Rev. Robert Henthorn, who founded the mission. Lytle also introduced current mission staff.

Tiffany Beckwith, community engagement director, shared the history of the mission, which started in 1959 as the Mill Men’s Hostel, an outreach of the United Methodist Church to workers of Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. Today, the ecumenical Christian social service agency is one of the largest charities in the Upper Ohio Valley, providing food, shelter, clothing and other essential needs to the less fortunate.

“It has been a true honor to delve into the Urban Mission history,” Beckwith said. “I’ve come to realize that each picture, each news article, each memory shared all tell the stories of how love works. These stories are important, they honor our history and preserve our history and serve as tools to pass on this history, one generation to another. They are stories of how God has been ever present in the life of the Urban Mission,” she said of the special displays that highlighted the mission’s varied services and outreaches.

Steele led Hitchcock, Kirtdoll and Skelley-Watts through a series of questions, asking first for them to share an instance where they “saw God at work in a powerful way through the Urban Mission” during their times of service.

Skelley-Watts recalled the Lincoln Avenue flood, the pouring rain, the phone call from then-Mayor Dave Hindman about the need for evacuations and to “meet at the mission in 5 minutes.” He said the evacuation involved 35 people, five dogs and three cats. “It was an amazing experience, he said, recalling, too, the phone call from the Rev. Michael Scanlan at the Franciscan University of Steubenville that brought shovel-bearing students to help with cleanup.

“The shoveling and cleaning up after the flood led to the JOSHUA program that led to our JOSHUA house that led to the creation of the Hutton House Shelter for homeless families that led to an ecumenical outreach that we never, ever would have done on our own, so tragedies in many ways turn into triumph,” Skelley-Watts said.

Kirtdoll remembered how a mission recipient became a mission giver. “He had been a kid at the mission, and his mother and his sister were constant recipients of the mission,” she said. “He brought $200, and he was so proud to bring that in to the mission, and I thought about that. The atmosphere he came out of and all the trials his family went through, flesh and blood didn’t tell him to bring that money in — it had to be God working in his life, and I say evidence of bringing something back to us is that the mission did something in his life that led him to want to give back.”

When Weirton Steel retirees lost their health care and pensions were cut, Hitchcock said mission food giveaways became huge. When volunteers set to help with a Christmas distribution were unable to do so, Hitchcock appealed to those being helped to help others in their midst.

He likened that unfolding scenario to Advent scripture coming to life. “I think that was one of the most holy days of my life. Christ was right there in everybody,” Hitchcock said.

“What did you love most about the mission when you were serving here” was another question Steele posed to the trio.

“It was the generosity,” came Skelley-Watts’ quick response. “All you had to do was put the word out. It was truly an inspiration, every day a miracle. I was there in the late ’80s and ’90s, and the thing that struck me was nobody looked down their noses to people in need, because they had been there or knew someone who had been or maybe they would be the next one,” he said. “Everyone pitched in and worked together to do what needed to be done. I felt completely alive, that God was using whatever graces and gifts he had given me to the max.”

Kirtdoll loved the people the most, including the many who supported the mission in so many ways. She recalled the story of a father who brought a black dress coat to donate for the annual giveaway. It had belonged to his daughter, who had died from breast cancer.

“He told me his story,” Kirtdoll said. “It was like he was carrying her in and handing her to me. He was giving up much more than a coat,” Kirtdoll said. What the mission lacked, people provided, whether it was stamps for mailings, a bag of school supplies or a trunk full of needed items, she added.

“People just kept responding — that’s what you love about the mission, that God touches other people so that we can be in mission. It happens over and over again, and we hear why people give and why they support the mission,” Kirtdoll said.

Added Hitchcock, “Urban Mission is all about love and all about people, the people you have met. It’s one of those places where all people can come together and find a place to love, care and honor God. It pulls everyone together.”

At Steele’s urging, the trio shared their vision for the mission’s future, too.

Skelley-Watts gestured at the surroundings, and said, “to fill this place up with great opportunities to help people become self-sufficient, to feed them spiritually and physically.”

Kirtdoll made an appeal for ongoing and new support of the mission.

“There are so many people out there who need the resources, and so many people out there who have the resources, but not contributing,” Kirtdoll said. The plaza acquisition and development constitute “a big undertaking,” Kirtdoll said, but noted, “The Ohio Valley does have a big heart, and I think we can step out further and make this happen, that you can help us find resources and encourage others to give and support the Urban Mission.”

Hitchcock said, “My hope and prayer is that the Urban Mission will always be a community open to having its heart touched by the holy spirit, that compassion would be alive in us and that no matter how big it grows, my deepest prayer is that it will be a community whose heart can be touched and moved with compassion, pity, love, joy and mercy.”

Steele said the mission’s future includes moving toward purchasing the plaza and renovating the former grocery store space.

“It has been something of a dream for a while, a dream that is pretty bold,” Steele said of the mission’s positioning to be the light of Christ.

“We feel that’s one of those things that God is pressing on our hearts and continuing to work toward because we don’t want to give up on this town, this area, or valley or certainly not on its people, so as a result we want to firmly place ourselves in spaces where we can reach more people, more diverse people and to be that light of Christ that we feel this area and this world so desperately need to see.”

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