North Hills prayer vigil focuses on immigration, police shooting

The simple sanctuary in a quiet North Hills neighborhood is miles from the city streets that have been scenes of violence and protest — and thousands of miles from border scenes of family separation.

Nevertheless, 125 people gathered for an interfaith prayer vigil Monday night at St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Hampton to learn about concrete ways they could help local residents as well as immigrants escape poverty and violence.

"We're a suburban church, but we have to be part of what's in the larger area," said the Rev. Jeff Sterling, lead pastor of St. Paul's. “We feel these are justice issues.”

His relatively affluent, mostly white suburban congregation and its visitors Monday night included business leaders and others “in positions of prominence, such that they might speak to the right people, help with some of these issues,” he said.

Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project, echoed the comment: “Some of you gathering tonight are in a position to ... increase the possibility of hope for a different future.”

That could include taking steps to help their companies hire a diverse workforce. Or it could include joining with those protesting the killing of Antwon Rose II, a black teenager shot in the back by a white police officer in East Pittsburgh. He urged them to join in calling for the revocation of bail for the officer, who is charged with homicide, and for the case to be turned over to the state attorney general.

Sister Linda Yankoski, CEO of Holy Family Institute, spoke of the Emsworth group’s housing of unaccompanied migrant children who had been detained at the U.S.-Mexico border, some of whom had been separated from parents under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policies.

She said Holy Family staffers have connected all of the separated children with their parents.

“Even though they aren’t with them, even though they may be thousands of miles away, (the children) can talk with mom and dad about what they had for dinner, what they learned in school,” she said.

Sister Yankoski said while many people have offered to help the institute, others have denounced it for what they see as aiding and abetting the Trump policy.

She disputed that. She said the agency and many government workers are trying to do their best for the children in the face of “this administration’s unbelievable, immoral actions.”

She added: “We believe it’s better that a child to be in a loving environment instead of in a tent at the border or in a cage.”

Sister Janice Vanderneck, executive director of Casa San Jose, spoke of her Beechview-based agency’s work with Hispanic immigrants in the Pittsburgh area, many of them fleeing violence and poverty.

Some criticize the agency’s work, saying it should be helping American-born needy first. Her reply: “My goodness, there is more than enough love to go around when we all tap into our love.”

An earlier version of this story gave the wrong first name for Sister Vanderneck.

Peter Smith: or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.