University of Pittsburgh

Labor of Love

Written by Ervin Dyer

Wallace in the Homewood neighborhood

Wallace in the Homewood neighborhood

“Welcome to H-wood,” says sociologist John Wallace as he greets visitors at a trio of dilapidated homes in a cold, narrow alley of Homewood, a struggling urban neighborhood in Pittsburgh. The dusty homes, all buff brick, are boarded up. “Don’t let the outside fool you,” says Wallace, pushing open the door to one of the dwellings. Inside, it is warmer. Seven teenage boys are sawing, nailing, and measuring. There is new paint on the walls and shiny blue tile on the floors. The young men are renovating vacant homes as part of a summer church project created by Wallace, whose research, in part, examines the influence of religion on adolescent behavior. Mentorship is desperately needed nationwide.

In Pittsburgh and across the nation, many young Black males are in trouble. National studies suggest that as many as two million are crushed by disproportionate rates of unemployment, incarceration, and deaths by homicide. Their frayed social webs don’t help. In some communities, such as Homewood, as many as 70 percent of young Black males age 20 and younger live in homes without a father. Many of those homes are choked by generational poverty. The National Urban League has called it a crisis.

Wallace is probably more familiar with these challenges than most. As a social work professor at Pitt, he has been involved in the University’s groundbreaking diversity and economic disparity studies, which reveal bleak futures for young Black men who are disconnected from spiritual mentors and positive male figures. He also studies the impact of inner-city crime and drug-related violence on youth, as well as the role of faith-based groups in the renewal of urban communities. Significantly, too, he grew up in the heart of Homewood. Today, for many, this stretch of community is a wasteland, wounded by violence and broken dreams. But for John Wallace Jr., it is sacred ground.

In the late 1920s, on the brink of the Great Depression, a teenager left Talladega, Ala., during a sweltering summer to find his own Promised Land. He crossed the Mason-Dixon line and made his way toward Pittsburgh. He had little money and only an eighth-grade education. That didn’t stop him. After all, he was the son of a man who had been born a slave but who, by using his muscle and fortitude, had left this earth owning a few red acres of Alabama. That same determination surged through the teen, too, and he believed he could do anything.

He settled in Clairton, Pa., a coal-mining town that rubbed sooty shoulders with the steel city of Pittsburgh. At 15, the young man, Ralph Groce, got a job working the coke ovens at U.S. Steel. He shoveled, lifted, and tugged the coal that made the ovens hot enough to melt iron and create steel. He sweated rivers.

In time, he married a local girl named Bernice, and they had three sons and a daughter. Eventually, the couple bought a home, and Groce worked to build it up. He fixed the upstairs. He added a front porch. He updated the plumbing. Out back, in an era when most chicken coops were cobbled together from scrap wood, he built a chicken house that shimmered of new brick. He could do anything with his hands.

For 43 years, the sturdy-as-oak laborer tended his house and worked in the steel mills. Then, one day, he was asked to do something more. On that day, according to Groce, the Lord told him to build a church. So he did.

In 1956, he planted his sanctuary—the Bible Center Church of God in Christ—in Homewood, an urban area a few miles east of the University of Pittsburgh that was then a solid neighborhood of churches and families. The Bible Center became known for its enthusiastic worship services, and the new minister commuted almost daily between the church and Clairton until he moved his family to Homewood.

Groce knew the struggle of former slaves. His generation had lived through the beating and murder of 14-year-old Emmitt Till, a tragedy that stoked the civil rights movement in 1955. To rise above it all, he preached a gospel of hard work and education. “When you finish with a book,” he told his children and grandchildren, “nobody should be able to use it.You should read so hard, you read all the words off the pages.”

Whether he learned it from culture or spirit, or a little of each, Pastor Groce believed a man had to give back. For the younger men in the church, those who hungered for direction and mentorship, the pastor didn’t just preach, he wrapped himself around them like family, and he taught them how to build. A man had to work, he believed.

He had to build lives.

In 1965, Groce welcomed the birth of his sixth grandson. A few days after the baby’s arrival, the pastor went into the quiet of the church’s sanctuary and held the child in his large hands. He never wanted to let go.

That child was John M. Wallace Jr. Today, in addition to being a Pitt faculty member, he is the pastor of Bible Center Church, the same Pentecostal church his grandfather started. Through the years, Wallace has seen the consequences of neighborhood neglect up close. He has preached funerals of young men gunned down in the streets, counseled grieving families, and shared with other clergy the wariness that comes when daily life is so frequently buffeted by death.

Researcher. Professor. Preacher. Wallace—who is affiliated with Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems—finds he must use all sides of himself to help the young men of his community. The solutions he’s seeking put him at the heart of an emerging trend: community-based participatory research. It’s a fancy term that means people and communities aren’t just study objects. When possible, they are equal partners, sharing respect, resources, and results.

Using the many lessons his grandfather shared with him, Wallace concentrates his research, teaching, and service in Homewood. Through his efforts there, he and the men of his church teach boys—and girls, too—the same skills and values his grandfather gave to him in a weeded lot during his youth.

Thirty summers ago, 12-year-old Wallace came to these street corners with his Grandfather Groce to demolish dilapidated homes surrounding the church. His grandfather paid him $20 a day to gut the houses. He tore down walls, cut copper plumbing, gathered lumber, and cleaned thousands of mortar-laden bricks. At the Bible Center Church, Wallace dug with his own hands the outdoor baptismal pool, which he later stepped in to be washed clean in spirit.

For the young Wallace, working under the fire of the summer sun, the raggedy lots seemed to stretch for 40 acres. He thought himself the mule. He sweated rivers.

The hard work paid off. Spending all day in the company of his grandfather, his father, and other positive African American men, Wallace soaked up character. He learned that if he didn’t want to use his back, he’d better prepare to use his mind. So, in his late teens, this great-grandson of an Alabama slave left Homewood and began his own journey of learning. He went off to attend the University of Chicago and eventually earned a PhD in sociology from the University of Michigan. Since then, his research results have appeared in books and many professional journals, and he is a lead investigator on several significant studies involving youth and community renewal.

He returned home to Pittsburgh and Homewood in 2004. It’s all so familiar here, says Wallace, speaking of his fondness for his congregation and the community while standing in the sanctuary of Bible Center Church on a floor that he built. “I’m back here investing my time, money, and intellect because someone invested in me. We’re going to raise other folks’ kids. We’re going to build character. Welcome to the village.”

Several months ago, on a summer day in Homewood, Adam Leeper, in dirty jeans and work boots, finds himself with a plastic trash bag over his shoulder. The old folks would say it’s a day hot like Alabama. He walks the perimeter of the church grounds, picking up broken glass, old paper, and crumbled brick. He’s sweating rivers.

Adam is 14. He’s one of the boys who comes three days a week to this small alley in Homewood. Most of the young men—ages 9 to 18—belong to the church or have family who do. They work with church members Romie Yates and John Scarbrough, who are energetic elders now and were once young men who learned the basics of construction skills and self-pride from Pastor Groce.

In the basement of the Bible Center Church, they lead the young men in prayer and Bible study. A man has to have a moral code. They do sit-ups and push-ups. A man has to be strong. They teach them to change a tire, to tie a tie, to cook, and to learn the know-hows of hygiene and sexual responsibility. A man has to take care of himself. Then, like little lambs, the young boys follow the two men across the field into the crumbling homes.

By the time the neighborhood rehab is complete, it is expected to cost more than $75,000, with all of the funding raised by the church. When the summer is over, the young men will get a stipend of $500. Out of all the hammering, nailing, and sawdust will rise a teen center with a technology lab, a recording studio, a weight room, a café, and class space for Bible study.

The young men are rising, too. Adam, the wiry teen and middle child of a blended family, dreams of being a lawyer. As his muscles bulk up, so does his confidence.

He not only takes pride in the wall he helped to construct, but he also understands that the wall is connected to the building project, the project is connected to the church, the church is connected to the neighborhood. When you build one, you build the other.

This is my vision, says Wallace, pointing to the young men as they pack up their tools and prepare to leave for the day. He’s watching them nail the boards shut on a home that looks forlorn on the outside. But, on the inside, everything is being made new.