Shepherd's Heart Fellowship and Veteran's Home is unique among congregations in the diocese. Near the Pittsburgh city center in the Uptown neighborhood, it is chiefly a congregation "to the homeless, for the homeless," as described by its Rector, The Rev. Mike Wurschmidt. Many in the diocese know Shepherd's Heart for its daily Drop-In Center, where Morning Prayer is held; its Sunday Worship Service followed by a hot meal; and its transitional housing facility for homeless veterans.
Our Director of Communications, Kristen Parise interviewed Rev. Mike to hear the Shepherd's Heart origin story and how it's managed through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kristen Parise: Fr. Mike, please give us an overview of Shepherd’s Heart’s mission and how it got started.
The Rev. Mike Wurschmidt: In mid-June of 1993, my family moved to Pittsburgh so that I could finish my Master of Divinity at Trinity School for Ministry (TSM).
At that time, I was a national consultant to World Vision, one of the largest Christian relief and development organizations. I had helped develop a World Vision program called Project Home Again. The program trains churches all over the United States to adopt homeless families with children under age 16.
Within a couple of weeks of our arrival, I was walking the streets, looking for families with kids that would meet the Project Home Again criteria. I also discovered a huge number of homeless Vietnam-era veterans. I'm an Air Force veteran, my father was a three-war combat pilot, and my wife is from a military family.
I was stunned to find these homeless veterans in various camps throughout the city. These guys were still struggling from their time in-country, many during the Vietnam war. They were struggling with drug and alcohol abuse to numb the pain, various traumas, post-traumatic stress disorder – a lot of brokenness. It made me think of what my first squad commander in the Air Force taught us: you never leave a service member behind.
So I began looking at ways that my family and I could begin helping these homeless veterans. At the same time, we took teams from TSM to these people on Friday nights, taking burritos, coffee, and hot chocolate. We became very popular with those we served! Then, we began worshiping on the streets on Friday nights in front of the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) Law School, that summer of ‘93. My wife, Tina, led worship.
Thus began this ministry of street outreach – not just to the veterans that were homeless, but to the larger homeless population. We’re connecting with more and more people – seminarians and other community members.
One of those community members then is now an assistant priest on my team, Father Jim Chester. At the time, Jim was a Pitt police officer. He worked those Friday nights and he loved it! He'd been praying eight years for a Christian ministry to come minister to all the homeless in the Oakland area. He loved what we were doing and gave us special permission to worship and do ministry right there on the corner at the Pitt law school.
In March of 1995, we rented a little storefront. We had helped plant several Vineyard churches in Colorado, which gave us church planting experience. On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th, 1995, we had our first official church service. We still had quite a few people going out in the streets every Friday night, and we began morning prayer five mornings a week. We had our first Sunday service in late August of 1995, and then word began to spread around the county and others began to join us. Our mission statement is to take the love of Jesus Christ our Shepherd on to the streets of Pittsburgh and to the ends of the earth.
Long story short, we outgrew the storefront and moved to a few other buildings before we acquired our current building in the Uptown neighborhood of Pittsburgh in November, 2005. And in between I was ordained a priest in December, 1998. I also became a federal chaplain with the VA. My area of specialty is homelessness among veterans and serving to lessen the causes of homelessness. God continues to use Shepherd's Heart.
The Rev. Mike Wurschmidt, Abp. Bob Duncan and The Rev. Jim Morehead, Associate Rector celebrating communion at Shepherd's Heart in 2006.
KP: Granted, you're a little biased, but what makes Shepherd's Heart special in this diocese and in the greater City of Pittsburgh?
MW: In Pittsburgh, there are a lot of great para-church organizations like Light of Life and East End Cooperative Ministry – they're all shelters. But Shepherd's Heart is an Anglican congregation. We started as a congregation, and I've made it very clear that the members of Shepherd's Heart are those who live on the streets. We started as a church to the homeless, for the homeless, and we've continued that way.
It's a real gift that God has allowed Tina and me to start Shepherd's Heart because of our work with homeless veterans. That also makes us unique among the churches. In May of 2006, I wrote a grant for the VA to help renovate the second floor of our building for a residential program for homeless veterans. We were accepted as a homeless provider Grant and Per Diem Program by the VA. This program funds community agencies providing services to homeless veterans. There are now four Grant and Per Diem programs in the Pittsburgh area, and we were one of the first.
Also, what makes us different is that our congregation members are the poor, the homeless, our homeless veterans. Leaders are people who come through the streets, come to faith in Jesus Christ, have been in and out of rehab programs, and now are walking in holiness, righteousness, and freedom from those broken places.
Our leadership team is made up of 60% African American minorities, 58% of our staff are veterans, and 74% of the leadership team have experienced homelessness, including Tina and myself.
KP: I’m glad you mentioned that, because I know that’s a part of your story. Would you please share that and how it motivated you to start Shepherd’s Heart? And how it still propels the vision and purpose of the congregation going forward?
MW: In June of 1987, 34 years ago, we had a computer business in three states and ended up losing it. I was very naïve. I didn't get things in writing, and we had the business stolen from us. In ten months’ time, we became homeless on April 22nd, 1988. Our oldest daughter Christen was a year old, and Tina was pregnant with our son, Joel.
We were totally dependent upon the kindness of others. A family took us in, and I had a job interview with an attorney in downtown Denver. I borrowed our friend's bathroom to shower, clean up, and put a suit on. After the interview, the attorney wanted to take me out to lunch. So, we're walking to lunch and there's this homeless man in a trash can, digging out food and cigarette butts. As we're walking by, this attorney began to verbally curse this homeless man – just ripped him up, inside and out. It was very, very wrong. And my heart broke for that beautiful man. Throughout that lunch, I didn't tell that lawyer what Tina and I were going through, but I didn’t take his job. We were homeless for only two months, but enough to shake the very foundation.
Tina and I have always had a great love for the poor, having grown up in the military. Tina spent much of high school in South Korea, her father being in the Army. I spent some of my high school in the Philippines, since my dad was in the Air Force.
Loving the poor and those who are suffering, those who are disenfranchised, those who have no homes and those who have food scarcity issues was something that God used to shape our hearts. And we began loving these precious ones with the love of Jesus Christ.
What we do at Shepherd's Heart is build the horizontal piece of the cross, which is the relationship with the people – giving them food, housing, whatever. So, when we meet at the middle point where the vertical is from Earth to Heaven, we have gained enough trust that we can tell them about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Everything we do to feed, house, clothe, offer showers – everything is to build that trust. And that's what we do.
KP: Other churches and organizations are involved with Shepherd’s Heart and have been for a long time. Would you sum up how churches, particularly in our diocese, are involved or could become involved in the future?
MW: I'm going to share as if it's pre-pandemic as things are beginning to move back to the way it was. A lot of our Anglican brothers and sisters do dinner on Sunday nights for us. We have a relatively new commercial kitchen. Some Anglican churches that don't have kitchens will come in at 2:30 or 3:00 p.m., use our kitchen to create the meal, and then come upstairs and serve. Our main service is at 5:15 p.m. on Sunday. Dinner is usually around 6:30 – 6:45 p.m.
Volunteers serving dinner after the Sunday Service at Shepherd's Heart in 2017.
Some of our larger Anglican churches like St. Stephen’s and Church of the Ascension have been supporting us essentially since 1995. It is beautiful to get families from our congregations with little ones or teenagers. Seeing what the church is doing together can have a powerful effect on a young person. And it’s wonderful to watch this heart transition happen in my Anglican brothers and sisters. They often come so excited about helping the homeless, you know, and yet God uses the homeless to help change their own hearts.
I say to those who come, “Don't just stop at Shepherd's Heart. Don't just do this. Those in your neighborhood, those who are living around your church – the single moms, the elderly – there are so many in your neighborhoods who are waiting, just waiting for someone, for a church group, to be able to offer the love of Jesus Christ in a very simple, practical way.” So, God uses Shepherd's Heart to train up the body of Christ in how to give away their best, how to serve people in their neighborhoods.
And I tell people they can have a clothing or coat drive. It’s phenomenal how many in-kind donations we receive every day. Every time groups come in to do a dinner, they always bring packages of water, clothing donations, extra food and desserts, and winter gear when it's winter.
There are so many possible ideas for what they can do. I work with many of the para-church organizations around Southwestern Pennsylvania, not just Pittsburgh. For those who want to serve closer to their neighborhoods, I can help connect local Anglicans with a ministry that's closer to them.
If a group wants to get involved, all they have to do is call the church office at (412) 281-1305 and talk to Patrick, who runs the office for me. We have a whole list of openings for Sunday nights. We send information on how to put the meal together and details.
If a small group wants to put a meal together on a Sunday night and can’t afford it, Shepherd's Heart will pay for the meal. We'll have everything ready. And they bring their team of 10 to 15 folks to cook the meal and then serve it. Or they could do a simple winter clothing drive, something like that.
KP: Thank you. Let's talk about these pandemic times. What did you guys do to adjust the pandemic conditions?
MW: Being an official federal Grant Per Diem program, over the years we've had to draw up disaster plans. Hurricane, floods, fire – all sorts of plans we've had to prepare for in case such a disaster would occur. So in early March of 2020, we knew we needed to begin putting together a pandemic disaster plan.
We began putting things in place because that's what we've done over the years since we've had this Grant Per Diem program. By March 20th, the local VA hospitals began to shut down. Most of my veterans who would go to outpatient drug and alcohol treatment programs daily couldn't go to those drug and alcohol support groups. We decided early on that we were not going to shut down. I couldn't, because where would the street people go? You know, they have no home.
Fear would not make our decisions. God has healed me from fear brought on from trauma, including childhood PTSD and military trauma. I have an amazing team of veterans and those who have overcome addictions. But we let the Holy Spirit guide and direct us, as long as we were seeking wise counsel and implementing the safety protocols.
And so we just began thinking of cleanliness, health. We implemented the one-door entry policy, temperature checks, masks, gloves, hand sanitizing. The other veterans began a thorough cleaning of our building. The chairs in our sanctuary needed to be separated by about six feet. We needed to not have as many people on a Sunday for worship. Visiting churches were restricted to just dropping off the food. Then we began serving the food in individual containers.
We began implementing everything with the understanding that we must protect each other – our team, our families, and those we serve. We brought in outside cleaning organizations that would do major cleanings with certain kinds of sprays, mists and things.
We own a building on the South Side [neighborhood of Pittsburgh], and the VA required us to have a safe place if any of our veterans became sick with COVID-19. In the first week of January of 2021, two of my veterans came down with the virus and with all our protocols in place and our plan in place, we moved the veterans to separate parts of that building. We had prepared everything and put them in quarantine for two weeks. We were in touch with them every day.
We knew we had to, had to stay open. We continued our Sunday worship. I just found out at the Provincial Council that only five Anglican churches in the whole province stayed open during the pandemic, and Shepherd's Heart was one of them. I'm honored and blessed. The two veterans who got sick came back, no problem. We've not had anybody else come down with the virus. Most of all of the leadership team have been vaccinated. The VA requires all veterans who come into the Grant Per Diem program to be vaccinated at least with one shot.
It was also amazing how the resources came in during the pandemic – financial and gift-in-kind. For example, St. Stephen’s Senior Associate Rector, Bill Henry, a friend from seminary, called me up one day and said, “Hey Mike, what can St. Stephen's do?” He said, “I have a crazy idea. What if people from St. Stephens go online to Costco, Amazon, or Walmart and just have stuff shipped to you guys? That way they don't have to bring it down.” I said, “That's a wonderful idea!” And I said, “we can also use gift cards to Giant Eagle and Target, especially.” We began getting massive shipments of brand-new items: clothes, t-shirts, towels, socks, and gift cards.
Some of our major donors have also been a great blessing to Shepherd’s Heart. This includes philanthropic organizations and individual donors. We would just get checks out of nowhere with notes saying, “We know you guys need this.”
One of the more difficult things that happened a couple of months into the pandemic was with the FEMA housing programs for the homeless, which provided money to counties to house individuals and families in hotels. Many members of our congregation who went into the hotels disappeared. And because of confidentiality issues, we've not been able to find out where they are.
We've lost quite a few members of Shepherd's Heart that have died of overdoses. You may think a street person will do great in a hotel with food provided for them and unemployment checks. But when you pull an addict out of their support system, such as Shepherd’s Heart, the accountability is not in place. They're going to turn to their addiction of choice.
KP: This has been an intense time for so many of us. What was the emotional feel of Shepherd’s Heart and how did you all work through that? And what are you learning?
MW: I think for everybody, there was so much that was not known about COVID-19, so there was a lot of misunderstanding, fear, and anxiety, even with my team. And that multiplied tenfold with the street homeless. In our weekly staff meetings, we would ask the Holy Spirit just to bring us peace. The work schedule was 24-7, and we all got burned out at some point. I would encourage my leadership team to take time off so that they could be with family.
I had a veteran who died early in the pandemic. He was getting ready to graduate from our program. Had been had been in recovery from alcohol addiction for two years. There is a great esprit de corps, support of veterans living in accountability. He became overwhelmed with the fear and anxiety of the pandemic, of leaving our program, and he went out and bought some street drugs and overdosed. That obviously was devastating for everybody, especially his family. No one could have seen this coming. I reached out to Dr. Jim Neff, Executive Director of the Lazarus Center, a wonderful ministry of healing and counseling. We had been talking for about a year about his coming in and doing one-on-ones with my veterans, with their PTSD. So, I contracted out with Dr. Jeff to come in once or twice a week to meet with my veterans and some of our graduates.
Because of the financial resources given to us, we could afford him part-time, 20 hours per week. We just wrote a grant that we expect to get, to be able to have him continue reaching out to the veterans we serve and to some members of our team and our families.
We’ve realized one of the great gifts of the pandemic, if there is such a thing, is the larger community. Not only the body of Christ, but the larger veteran community and the philanthropic community came together and just blessed us beyond measure.
We're seeing more and more of the street homeless return for morning prayer and Sunday worship. More of the churches are willing to not only just drop off meals, but also come up and worship with us again, which is so wonderful. We're seeing just more and more faithfulness return, hope return. If there’s anything those we serve have seen, they’ve seen the faithfulness of God in their lives.
KP: Thank you so much, Mike. It was a real honor and privilege to hear your story.