If you were around in May and June of 2021 then you may have heard about our campaign to complete a lending library at SisTers PGH. Thanks to many generous supporters we actually surpassed our goal of $1,850 through GoFundMe, which is what we budgeted to furnish the library with cozy seating and shelves, as well as the entirety of the titles we had compiled. The campaign even caught the attention of GoFundMe.org itself, and was granted an additional $495 through their Pride Grant Program!
Amidst the whirlwind of the fundraising campaign and the library’s completion I realized that not everyone may know the entire backstory of how the idea of the library even came to life. I’d like to tell you that story and how it intersects with some of my other work as The Commonwealth's Pastoral Associate for Queer & Neighborhood Ministry.
Commonwealth’s relationship to SisTers PGH began back in early 2020 when our congregation discerned that SisTers should be a recipient of one of our congregation’s end of year tithing grants. Annually, our congregation holds its Mission Money Give-a-Way where it discerns what organizations in our city might benefit most from a portion of our congregation’s money, and after delivering that money we seek to find ways that our two entities might work together on projects of mutual interest. We don't want to be the people that just drop off a check and disappear. Commonwealth is distinctly interested in the entire life of a partner organization, if they’re interested in the same.
When the donation was completed we quickly arranged for a time when I could pop by SisTer’s new community center in Swissvale. I remember meeting Ciora for the first time on that visit; she showed myself and a student volunteer around, sharing with us how each room would play a part in a broader dream to provide resources for the TLGBQIA+ community. In Ciora’s mind, every place had a purpose often in service to wings of the SisTers organization that hadn’t come to fruition yet. At the end of our tour, we sat down in their new conference room to talk over local politics in the queer community and elaborate on Ciora’s vision for the future. She shared with us about a room directly behind us that had yet to be assigned, and that she had hoped that one day it could become a lending library for the community, that could feature trans authors, trans characters, and resources for trans folx. Well, when Spirit moves She really moves, and I took a chance. What if Commonwealth could find a way to make that vision happen now, rather than some day? Ciora is easy to imagine with; her connections are big but her ambition is way bigger, and it seemed effortless for her to reply “why not?”
Of course I knew that it was going to be a tall order for Commonwealth to fund a project like this all by itself. The room was completely unfurnished and to make a library that’s worthwhile the list of titles and authors needs to be hefty. Luckily, I was already working with a collective of other LGBTQIA+ affirming Presbyterian Churches who were looking for new ways to serve the queer community in Pittsburgh. How about that? What Commonwealth couldn’t do on its own we could accomplish together. This is a bit of church planting wisdom: when traditional churches and new churches work together in the same ministry ecosystem we can reach heights that would be impossible alone.
The germ of the library was widely and wildly accepted by what we have referred to as the Inclusive Presbyterian Churches of Pittsburgh. One church with many librarians compiled a massive list of titles. Another church suggested buying from The Tiny Bookstore, a Black-owned local business. Yet another church offered up ways to think about sharing the cost that was equitable rather than equal so that churches with more resources contributed more money. All of this the Inclusive Presbyterians have accomplished while also building themselves into an independent organization from the ground up. This was truly an honor for me to watch unfold.
However, this story contains the same chapter as many others in the past year and a half, and this is that the pandemic hit. Many projects - including this one - ground to a halt as many of us scrambled to care for ourselves, our families and our congregations. Almost every week, the library tugged at my heart until our lives reached something resembling an equilibrium, and we could get back to work on it.
In May of 2021, Spirit apparently woke up one morning and said “This is as much equilibrium as you're going to get!” because I got an email from SisTers asking if it would be possible for the library to be finished in the next three weeks. They wanted to include it on an upcoming tour of the facility to show donors the various ways the space was being utilized. So of course we hit the gas! Luckily we had already done so much prep work that we could actually put everything in motion relatively easily! After some volunteer trips to IKEA and Tiny Books and an afternoon building furniture, suddenly the space was alive. The library isn’t just usable, it’s comforting and intriguing. It’s a cozy, safe spot to go curl up in the words and stories of Black, Trans and queer authors.
At the time of this writing, we still have a few more books to purchase, but thanks to our generous donors we have a surplus available to not only finish the library but keep enhancing it. The Inclusive Presbyterians are actually now in another research phase to find Trans artists in the area from whom we could purchase pieces to decorate the space.
What I love about this project is that through it we can maintain a loving connection to SisTers and the communities they serve.
Pastoral Associate for Queer & Neighborhood Ministry