In a time of church closings, Pittsburgh pastor hopes to open one
The Rev. Mike Gestrich said he had a “God’s moment” in the first week of July 1982.
He and his wife, Carol, left Virginia with two young children in tow and got lost searching for a place to start a church in Pittsburgh. They wound up at a dead end on top of a wooded hill in Banksville.
“Wow, there’s something about this place,” Gestrich told his wife as he exited a U-Haul truck. “I really believed that God wanted me to start a Bible-based church in Pittsburgh.”
Ten years later, he took his nondenominational ministry back to the spot and built The Log Church. Gestrich plans to expand with a new $10 million building overlooking Banksville Road.
With churches closing across the region, Gestrich is bucking odds. He’s used to it.
Pittsburgh officials believe it would mark the first church constructed in the city since 2006 when the Hill District’s Ebenezer Baptist reopened following a 2004 fire that killed two firefighters.
“When I first came out here and told people what I wanted to do, they laughed at me,” Gestrich said. “I was just fresh out of college, a young guy, married and I just turned 23. We had two little kids. We started on this journey and nobody believed we could do it.”
The Pittsburgh Planning Commission this week approved plans for the new building on Chappel Avenue in Banksville.
Lori Marabello, president of the Banksville Civic Association and a staffer for Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, D-Westwood, said residents have complained for years about a blind spot while pulling from Chappel onto busy Banksville Road. “This will absolutely improve the visibility for getting onto Banksville Road,” Marabello said. “We do approve and support this construction.”
Gestrich, who started his ministry in the small Banksville Baptist Church with about 20 members, has about 1,200 in The Log Church congregation. The current church holds about 175, forcing him and assistant pastor Sam Linton to hold three services on Sunday and one on Saturday. The services are simulcast at the same time as the services to members at a cafe on the church grounds.
The new sanctuary will seat around 550 people.
Plans call for the new church to mirror the old one with log siding and paneling inside. Gestrich said the building would include an outdoor fireplace and a waterfall fronting Banksville Road. He intends to plant hundreds of pine trees on the grounds.
Kevin Acklin, Mayor Bill Peduto’s chief of staff, said the Mayor’s Office typically deals with church closures.
“It is a welcome opportunity to see a congregation building a new house of worship in our city and evidence of growth in the local faith community,” he said.
Gestrich chose the wooden log decor because it evokes the history of churches in America, he said.
“I always tell people the church has to get back to basics,” he said. “In America, the first churches were log churches.”
The church has raised about half the money it needs for the new building through donations, Gestrich said. Students from the Pittsburgh Job Corps Center are doing the excavations for free.
“We plan to open in two years,” Gestrich said. “We still have millions to raise, but we’re going to jump off the cliff and start. God can stop us if he wants.”
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312, [email protected] or @bobbauder.