By ROGER G. SMITH
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Sister Annette Amendolia didn't exactly set out to clean up the lower end of Wilson Avenue.
It just happens to be working out that way.
What started as a bid to assure the future of St. Stephen of Hungary Church has germinated into a multidenominational effort that is perking up some East Side churches and the surrounding neighborhood.
"The more pride you share, the more pride you take in your street," said Sister Annette. "The more we come together on issues, the more we can make a difference."
When she arrived at St. Stephen three years ago from East Cleveland as the pastoral associate, Sister Annette found the church's future in peril.
The small congregation was dwindling. The neighborhood's deterioration was fueling the church's slow demise.
Sister Annette considers churches to be fundamental parts of city neighborhoods. Houses of worship bring life and activity to residential areas, she said, pointing to the blow that a neighborhood takes when a church or religious school closes.
"We need to be here, right in the city," she said. "You take the churches out of this neighbor-hood ... "
Sister Annette looked up and down the road. There was Mount Zion Baptist Church, just up the street. A little farther up was Everlife Worship Center. Just off Wilson Avenue the other way, on South Forest Avenue, was Mount Sinai Baptist Church.
Connecting all the disparate faiths would be the neighborhood's future, she decided.
How it started: The nun talked St. Stephen members into linking with their religious neighbors, first in prayer, during 1999.
Prayer was a focus everybody could agree on. The effort stayed away from doctrine, which almost assuredly would have fractured relations, she said.
Every other week the churches prayed together, swapping choirs and guest speakers. Prayer let everyone get to know each other, the mark of a neighborhood. One measure of success was a summer Bible week earlier this month. The event drew two dozen adults and up to 90 kids a day from among the churches.
Taking action: The personal connections have turned into action.
Two dilapidated homes across from St. Stephen were demolished. Members of all the nearby churches had called the city.
In 2000 the city paved two stretches of Wilson Avenue, but not the section where three of the churches sat. It made no sense to Sister Annette.
"That's where all the people go," she said.
What followed was repeated calls to the city from church members, and this year a fresh layer of blacktop covers the street.
Meanwhile, St. Stephen members were taking care of their own space. They cut back trees and bushes, cleaned up a religious monument and perked up the flower garden in front.
"It makes a statement," Sister Annette said. "How you are on the outside says a lot about you on the inside."
Streetwide cleanup: Then in June, members of the Wilson Avenue churches young and old, black and white, Catholic and Baptist got together. They cleaned up Wilson from Prospect to Forest avenues.
Today, a handmade sign across from St. Stephen is tacked to a utility pole. It says "Keep Wilson Ave. Clean" in big letters. "Making a difference together!" in smaller letters.
But the sign's colors say it even better.
The red, white and green stripes of Hungary decorate one side of the sign. Blue, green, red and gold stripes to symbolize blacks are on the other. Two small U.S. flags stick out the bottom.
The cooperation shown is surprising given the barriers, but is a joy to witness, said Rev. Melvin Rusnak, St. Stephen's pastor. The effort crosses ethnic, racial, generational, denominational and neighborhood lines, he said.
It's good to see lay people and the young taking leadership, too, he said.
"All of these things make it very unique and rich," Father Rusnak said.
Pulling together: The meshing of church members has demonstrated itself in the neighborhood in other ways, said Rev. George Wilkins, pastor at Mount Sinai.
One of his members was the victim of a house fire. Mount Sinai is a small church and could only do a little on its own. The other area churches, however, chipped in to provide for the family.
"That was one of the biggest blessings," he said. "That's just a small example."
Other examples include the neighborhood churches pooling what they have for food donations and at Christmas time.
With more cleanups, the effort will keep extending itself into the neighborhoods, the Rev. Mr. Wilkins said.
"It should be like this anyhow," he said. "Family helps family, in any situation."
City involvement: Such an atmosphere makes it easier to help a neighborhood, said Councilman Rufus Hudson, D-2nd.
The city's role is to supplement and support grassroots efforts, he said. When Hudson sees residents taking action, their priorities move up his list.
For example, Wilson Avenue will get some new sidewalks this fall. If the churches didn't band together and improve the area, that probably wouldn't have happened, he said.
"I think it's a great concept. I think it's a great thing," Hudson said. "That's something we can all take pride in."
What's next: There is plenty more to be done, said Sister Annette.
The $5,000 grant that has supported the effort needed to be renewed. More regular neighborhood cleanups are needed. The area underneath the bridge where the Himrod Expressway crosses Wilson Avenue needs a good cleaning.
Empty lots need some flowers and landscaping once new sidewalks are installed. The empty St. Stephen School needs a tenant. A community-oriented center would be nice.
"We are thinking in terms of what can be," said Sister Annette.