Tim Smith, Pastor and Founder of Center of Life
My mother’s name was Emma Liaura Muskelly and my father’s name was Virlie—Virlie Joseph Smith. Mom was from Pittsburgh, one of nine children, and worked in many of the schools that my siblings and I attended, tutoring, doing teacher’s-aide stuff, and lunchroom work. Dad was from Virginia, a little place about 45 minutes from Roanoke called Union Hall. He was the youngest of 22, so we have cousins galore.
Dad’s father was a sharecropper, and his kids worked hard on the farm until they got old enough to leave. Mom’s father was the first black man to have a home in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh. Somewhere along the line, the “i” at the end of Muskelli was changed to a “y” but, nonetheless, people thought my grandfather was Italian, so he slipped into Homewood because of his name, and got a house at a time when no other black people lived there.
To make my heritage even more confusing, mom’s mother’s maiden name was Klutz. She was part German with some Irish, English and Blackfoot Indian mixed in for good measure. Today, when I talk to kids, I’ll ask, “When you look at me, what do you see, other than a handsome black man? It took six types of people to make me: African, Native American, Italian, German, and some English and Irish, too.”
I have a brother three years my senior, a sister who’s eleven months older than me, and a younger sister, too, who is eight years under me, and all of us are doing well. We had great parents who helped us establish our identity and gave us all a smart work ethic. They never told us we were poor. When we were small, we lived in the Hill District in a two-bedroom Insulbrick house. It had a funky look to it and, in the back, it was held up by car jacks, so kids made fun of us. Sure, we knew we were poor, but we didn’t make a big thing of it. We just lived our lives. Mom and dad loved and supported us, and that was worth more than money.
My father had been pastor of the Keystone Church of God and Christ in the Hill District, in a storefront on Wylie Avenue. After that, he moved us from the Hill to a church building in Shadyside. It was the 1960s and, at the time, local residents weren’t ready to have a black church in the neighborhood. Consequently, we went through a lot as a family and a congregation. Church windows were smashed. Squatters broke in, lived in the building, ransacked the place, and even set fire to it, yet the police would never come. I remember how my dad struggled to get help from local politicians who, instead of helping, tried to take the church away from him. But my father was never going to let anyone drive him out. So, he started campus ministries at Pitt, Chatham, Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne and Robert Morris universities, and students from those schools began attending our services: white, black, Chinese, Japanese, Latino, African; you name it. We stayed in Shadyside until dad decided, in 1979, that it was time to move on.
My family moved to Hazelwood in 1980 when my father became pastor of the Keystone Church there. Decades before, worship space had been added to a house built by George T. Oliver, a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania (1909–17). Senator Oliver lobbied to keep the “h” at the end of “Pittsburgh,” and, over time, his Hazelwood property would become home to several church pastors and their families, including mine.
Hazelwood got its name from the hazelnut tree. There are still many such trees in what is now called Hazelwood Green, which lies at the bottom of the hill. The area was once home to a large Native American population. Later, Scottish people arrived and the place was called “Scotch Bottom.” Then came the Hungarian and Italian immigrants.
I had already graduated from Westinghouse High School when we moved to Hazelwood. I was 19, fresh out of Triangle Tech, where I studied structural architecture. Soon, I became a part-time student at the University of Pittsburgh, studying psychology and communications and minoring in music. I also worked in banking. But I was really just a young musician who played organ for my father’s church.
While at Pitt, my eclectic education expanded. After work hours at Mellon Bank, I attended the Leadership Training Institute to learn the Dale Carnegie method of achieving success, and the American Institute of Banking in-house classes at Mellon. I went to the Moody Bible Institute, which was operating out of the Morningside Church of God and Christ, and then on to the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Point Breeze. I was in the master’s of divinity program. To this day, I still have about 60 credits remaining to finish. I did, however, receive a diploma in theology but, alas, never became a “master of divinity.”
I got my minister’s license at age 22 and was ordained at 25, but was still working at the bank, trying to climb the ladder and make as much money as possible to get through Pitt. I was also trying to help my nephew who was struggling in school. About once a week, I would leave Mellon at lunchtime and go to check on my nephew. There, I met a woman named Miss Hatcher, who was distinguished by her long fingernails. She helped me to meet regularly with my nephew’s teachers and the school’s principal. From time to time, I would peek my head into the classroom where my nephew was, just to let him know that I was watching. Today, he is a systems programmer, lives in Seattle, is married and has a daughter. His success has made me very proud.
Once, when I was visiting my nephew’s school, I took some friends with me. We wore suits, walked the halls, and came upon a group of students who were getting ready to beat up another kid. When they saw us “suits” coming down the hall, they ran away. But the other kid ran toward us, and that spoke to me. Soon thereafter, Miss Hatcher pointed one of her long fingernails at me and said, “You need to get out of that bank and come here to help these kids.” I went back to work feeling a bit troubled. I sensed that God was calling me toward work in which I could be helpful to people in ways other than their money. I talked to my boss, and he said, “You know, Tim, you do seem like you have something else to offer, and you should answer that call.” So, in 1995, I finally left the bank, after 16 years.
Soon thereafter, I reached out to an organization called the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO) and began teaching college students how to do youth work with children in urban community churches. The CCO and the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation (PLF) shared me as an employee through a program called Cross-Trainers. I later started working for the PLF full time as the executive director of the Pittsburgh Youth Network (PYN). I was asked to take that position when the former executive director suddenly passed away.
But before long, I left the PYN and headed to England to help some churches and nonprofit organizations establish youth work programs in their communities. I actually wanted to move my wife, Donna, and our four children to the U.K. and continue working there. But in 1997, dad passed away (mom passed in 1999), and I found myself in an emotional tug of war. Part of me wanted to leave Hazelwood and part of me wanted to stay. I didn’t want to see the church fall apart and the building just given away. By 2000, I was named pastor at dad’s church, and that’s when the “Hazelwood thing” really hit me.
From the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, Hazelwood experienced a lot of shootings and a lot of crime. Our church was presiding over many funerals, and most of the people we were burying were African-American boys between the ages of 14 and 26. It was a wake-up call for us all.
When I set out to start Center of Life, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do. I often tell people that I attended the “University of Hazelwood” where the people are the professors. I learned from the members of this community what needed to be done. Outside “experts” have their formulas for how they’re going to fix this or fix that, but they don’t know what the “felt needs” of the community are. Once you understand this, you can then begin to address what has to happen. So, in 2001, I founded Center of Life, a community empowerment nonprofit with a broad range of services, including music, art, education, athletics, family strengthening and community partnerships. The community was clear regarding its felt needs, and I had to make sure that anything we did hit the mark.
The kids that I work with now in Hazelwood are different from the kids that I worked with at the beginning of the Center of Life. Back then, most were living at or below poverty level, but had very strong families. When the downsizing of the steel mill happened and people started losing their jobs, people stepped up and said, “We’ve got to make things better for our children.”
In those days, the YMCA was run by people from the community and stayed open until 11 at night, which wasn’t typical. And it wasn’t like we had a gym or a swimming pool. It was the old outreach model: one big room where you walked in and played Ping-Pong, pool, or foosball; and there were smaller rooms in the back for other activities. But the people who worked there really cared for and loved the kids. Later, over time, the “Y” stopped providing certain services. The open hours became fewer and, unsurprisingly, the local kids started getting into trouble because there was nowhere for them to spend their time.
These days in Hazelwood, there’s a lot for young people to do. A host of organizations are working with kids and families and are building facilities that are going to be resources for the community’s youth. At Center of Life, we sponsor field trips, musical and video productions and sports. We have 17 full-time staff people and about 30 part-timers. And our support comes through local and national foundations. We also receive support from local, state and federal grants. We sponsor jazz bands, hip-hop and dance groups, things like that, and bring in revenue from our performances. And we’ve won national and international acclaim for some of the music we’ve made.
In 2011, we took a group of young musicians from the community to Monterey, California, to take part in the “Next Generation Jazz Festival” competition, and placed second. In 2012, we went back and took first place. It was the first time a group from Pittsburgh had ever won that competition. We even have a few students who have won Grammy® awards. Today, we have students who live and work all over the world.
In the end, I believe that everything in life is about people, so we always put people first and programs second. Programs can be changed or adjusted. But it’s not easy for people to change their lives and situations on a dime. The people of Hazelwood are the main reason why Center of Life has been successful. And the staff that we have here is first-class. Their work ethic is amazing. They come in with an open heart to love people, to care, and to serve. They become students of the community, and the community teaches them.