Modeling the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild

Categories:Ideas
Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma

For the past six years, Rob and I have been attending the Jubilee Conference in Pittsburgh every February. Jubilee is a gathering of college students from throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada who have a hunger to learn about how faith thoroughly infuses all of life, from studies to vocation and everywhere in between.
There are always wonderful speakers, both on the main stage and in workshops. One in particular has stood out for us this year: Bill Strickland. Growing up in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, Strickland cultivated a sense of worth and creativity thanks to a teacher who let him throw as many pots as he wanted to on the pottery wheel in the art room. After high school, rather than using his perspective and skills to get out of Pittsburgh, he returned to invite other students to create pottery. The Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild was born as a humble house-based operation, but now dwells in a beautiful building in north Pittsburgh that includes a state-of-the-art music hall where jazz legends have recorded benefit albums for the organization. The Manchester Bidwell Corporation has also developed vocational training programs in pharmaceuticals, culinary arts and orchid cultivation.
Strickland tells his story in a book, Making the Impossible Possible, which we’ve recommended over and over again since Jubilee. But seeing him speak in person, I was struck by his humility and matter-of-factness. He’s simply done what needed to be done in order to achieve an extraordinary vision. He’s proud, but not vain and grateful, but not overly sentimental. He also has a goal to see models based on MCG emerge in 200 cities around the world. We’re really tempted to take him up on that challenge as we envision what’s possible in Three Rivers.
At the core of Strickland’s philosophy is that people who are financially, emotionally and spiritually poor don’t just need basic material things; for true internal and communal transformation, we all need beauty and affection. A serviceable building may protect the body from the weather, but a beautiful building will nourish the spirit. A boring-but-nutritious meal may give us the vitamins we need to survive, but a lovingly, skillfully prepared feast will give us the wonder we need to thrive.
As we think about how this building project might be a blessing to Three Rivers in whatever space it lands, I don’t doubt that Strickland’s ideas about serving deep needs with great beauty will be foundational, as well as his practical model of arts and vocational education.

Author:
Kirstin is a member of the *culture is not optional core community and is the Head Caretaker at GilChrist Retreat Center.