ecorative and culinary arts are the basis for a strong connection between St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon and the Turkish Cultural Center in Green Tree. Members of the two organizations have gotten to know each other through shared meals and handicrafts.
It all began when resettlement agency Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) of Pittsburgh asked St. Paul’s for space where a group of refugee women from Turkey could work on embroidery and other crafts. The church said yes, and the group of 10 to 12 women began to meet every Wednesday, with guidance from the Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh.
“It’s been a longtime goal of the parish to foster both ecumenical and interfaith connections,” said the Rev. Noah Evans of Woodhaven Drive, rector of St. Paul’s. “This congregation is very much interested in connecting with other faith communities.”
Sharing meals and stories
The handicrafts group was an outgrowth of a support group led by Serap Uzunoglu of Scott Township. An ESL teacher in Turkey, Uzunoglu, her husband and two daughters were stranded in New York on a summer trip in 2016 when a coup attempt occurred back home. Unable to return for fear of arrest, they made their way to Pittsburgh, where she had friends who offered restaurant jobs.
In 2018, Uzunoglu heard of a support group sponsored by JFCS at a church in Crafton Heights. Because she spoke English and had dealt with some of the issues that newer members were struggling with, she became the leader of the group. “I knew about the culture and I had been helping my Turkish friends who had arrived here like me,” she said. “It’s hard for them to navigate insurance stuff, school stuff, so I was already helping them.”
The group began crafting items to sell to raise funds. When the church began a construction project and they had to move, St. Paul’s opened its doors.
The women came on Wednesday mornings with their young children, plus food to feed them. “Meals are important in Turkish culture, especially breakfast,” said Uzunoglu. “We would bring food and have a meal together. We started inviting the people at the church to join us.”
“They always had really delicious things I couldn’t say no to,” said Assistant Rector the Rev. Erin Morey, Briarwood Avenue. “They were just so generous and welcoming. We’d sit down together and I’d get to hear a little bit about their experiences, the lives they left behind and how challenging it was to adjust to this new place.”
Church member Jan Littrell of Dormont donated a sewing machine to the group. “I’m there on Wednesdays anyway, so I see them pretty much every week and they tell me what they’re doing. They do beautiful work,” she said.
Littrell appreciated the chance to get to know the Turkish women better. “Hands down, the best thing about meeting the women from the crafts group was finding that we are the same. Any differences we have are just so trivial. A lot of us are mothers, a lot of us have jobs, we juggle childcare, we like to make things by hand—all of those are things we have in common.”
St. Paul’s gave the group opportunities to sell their handicrafts, which included embroidered jewelry, slippers, and clothing, at church events. The group also sells their work on Etsy.
Experience in multicultural connections
Uzunoglu introduced Evans to Benjamin Aysan, community outreach coordinator of the Turkish Cultural Center, which serves 15 to 20 local families. Aysan, Tampa Avenue, had come to the U.S. with his family in 2010. Both he and his wife, Michelle, are former science teachers, and he had worked in Turkish service organizations in Portland, Oregon, Salt Lake City and Erie, before moving to Pittsburgh in 2020. He’s also a professional calligraphy artist.
They chose to settle in Mt. Lebanon mostly for the schools for their two children, Ahmed and Ninet, now in seventh and 10th grades, respectively. “We liked the neighborhoods, the schools, the way you can reach everywhere by car in a short time,” Aysan related. He and Evans have children of the same age in the same schools.
“I met Benjamin, because he was wondering if we could cooperate with the Turkish Cultural Center in an outreach project in 2020,” Evans said. “So that began a relationship that has continued.”
Aysan is uniquely suited to facilitate these connections after extensive experience in multicultural outreach in his previous positions. “At the Turkish Cultural Center in Erie, I managed interfaith dialogue activities with our friends from diverse and different religious backgrounds,” he said. “We had an interfaith group called One Table, where 150 people from different backgrounds would come together.”
A thank-you to the church
In 2022 the women in the crafts group came up with the idea of sharing an Iftar dinner with the church as a thank-you for their support and the use of their space. Iftar is the evening meal when Muslims end their daily fast during Ramadan.
“We just threw it out to the parish, to whoever was interested in coming,” said Evans. “We thought it would be a 30-person event, and it turned into a 100-person event! Serap had to turn to the Turkish Cultural Center, where she is on the board, for help because it was getting so large. And Benjamin was really an important part of this enormous event.”
The menu featured soup, a number of appetizers, including stuffed grape leaves, a main dish with meat, and baklava and other Turkish desserts. The women showed up at St. Paul’s at 11 in the morning to begin prepping, even though they are forbidden to eat until sunset. They repeated the dinner in April this year.
“Muslim friends of mine joke that during Ramadan, they actually gain weight from these huge meals,” Evans said. “Sharing the Iftar dinner with our congregation was a way for the Turkish community to share their cultural heritage and practices with us. And also for us to learn about their faith practices. It was a beautiful moment of interfaith connection.”
Getting to know you
As a result of the first dinner, Aysan suggested a series of regular interfaith dinners, alternating between St. Paul’s and the Turkish Cultural Center. The host organization provides the meal and the presentation. Upwards of 60 people participate.
“It’s a six-month multicultural program, called Knowing Each Other. And we select topics, common topics because we live in the same neighborhoods,” he said. “When everyone knows each other, they can understand each other better than before.”
Aysan feels these connections are especially important in our technology era and after the isolation of the pandemic. “There’s a whole world of information and knowledge online, but personal experience is really different. When our presentations are finished, people can ask questions and learn in real life. We saw that everyone loves that so much.”
The dinners have led people in both groups to a greater understanding of each other as individuals and deeper relationships. Members wear name tags and sit at round tables. Discussions have included the basic tenets of Christianity and Islam.
Rev. Evans reported, “It’s fun to see people developing really authentic connections and relationships with each other—sitting together and sharing pictures of children and pets on their phones!”
Aysan has demonstrated his calligraphy skills for both groups, including on the name tags. He sells his work on Instagram, and at craft fairs and arts festivals around the area.
Tasting delicious homemade Turkish food also led to a request from some women at St. Paul’s for a cooking class. Uzunoglu was happy to oblige. She and her fellow TCC members demonstrated how to make a Turkish pizza for about 20 members of St. Paul’s.
Morey remembers the wonderful aromas. “They had everything prepped. They brought cutting boards and individual stations for everyone to work at. It started with a special bread, topped with seasoned beef, vegetables, and cheese. Serap knows I’m vegetarian, so they made me a special vegetarian one! Then we had delicious desserts.”
The women of St. Paul’s reciprocated this past March with a cooking session on how to make pie—specifically, apple and pumpkin, including the crusts.
Littrell sums up the growing connections between her church and the Turkish Cultural Center. “When we do the dinners, even when we talk about religion, the differences are slight. It’s really amazing. Anybody who actually spends time with somebody who’s in a cultural group that might seem very different, I’m sure would have the same reaction: there’s not a lot of difference there.”
The punch needle embroidery project was completed in partnership with the Rivers of Steel Heritage Area. Funding was provided in part by a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Recreation and Conservation, Heritage Area Program Fund, Environmental Stewardship Fund, administered by the Rivers of Steel Heritage Corporation.
The terrible earthquakes in Turkey and Syria in February have directly affected people at the Turkish Cultural Center. St. Paul’s co-sponsored a prayer vigil in February at Christ Methodist Church in Bethel Park, and funds donated were sent for relief aid.
“Some of our community, they have lost family members or their people have been injured,” reported Aysan. “People lost their houses and are living in tents. This money we’re collecting is not just for Turkey but Syria too.”
After discovering how expensive it was to ship relief supplies, Aysan recommends that funds be sent to Embrace Relief, a humanitarian aid foundation.