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Homewood visionary leads effort to rebuild

| Sunday, July 14, 2013, 9:03 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
The Rev. Eugene 'Freedom' Blackwell (center) talks with Tawan Wesley, 13, (left) and Tyreek Taylor, 14, (right) during a camp for children in Homewood. 'Freedom' and his wife, Dina 'Free' Blackwell, are leading an effort to revitalize Homewood.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Dina 'Free' Blackwell talks to students at a camp for children in Homewood on Wednesday, July 10, 2013. She and her husband, the Rev. Eugene 'Freedom' Blackwell, are leading an effort to revitalize Homewood.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
The Rev. Eugene 'Freedom' Blackwell (right) talks with Homewood resident Maryanne Spurling on Wednesday morning, July 10, 2013 along Frankstown Avenue in Homewood.

The Rev. Eugene Blackwell said he ignored God's calls to become a minister before he quit the University of Pittsburgh football team and eventually heeded him.

Nearly two decades later, Blackwell is pastor of House of Manna Faith Community in Homewood. He and wife Dina are leading an effort to renovate the neighborhood.

“One of the things we always see about urban communities was isolation from society, which creates a lack of resources,” said Blackwell, 39, of Homewood. “With a lack of resources comes a vicious cycle of poverty. We want the people of our region to provide resources to assist the residents of Homewood to be self-sustaining.”

Help is on the way. The Homewood Renaissance Association, of which he is CEO, in June showed off a $4.5 million development. It features the New Renaissance Center with a 300-seat community and worship space, retail shops, a business incubator, recording studio and other amenities.

Dollar Bank donated a $2 million building, originally intended to be a Family Dollar store, on Frankstown Avenue for the center. It could open in early 2014. The Heinz Endowments, the Richard King Mellon and Buhl foundations and private and corporate benefactors are pitching in.

The Blackwells' mission to revitalize Homewood may not seem far-fetched compared with their earlier trials.

Eugene Blackwell, known as “Freedom,” was born in Homewood but grew up on the mean streets of Chicago's South Side. As a child, he saw one man shot to death and watched a pimp pour drain cleaner down the throat of a prostitute. When she began gurgling and shaking, he and his friends ran away.

Dina Blackwell, 41, known as “Free,” grew up in Ingram. She was given to her maternal grandparents at 9 months of age. To this day, she calls them Mom and Dad.

“I think they always hoped that my birth mother would turn her life around,” she said.

Her birth mother died from a drug overdose in 2003. Her daughter found out six years later.

Eugene Blackwell, then about 9, was sitting in church when he said God first called him to be a minister.

“I said no, that's a boring life,” he recalled.

He preferred to play football. He was a free safety for coach Johnny Majors during his second stint at Pitt, and later for Walt Harris.

Then, he said, he was a young man when God told him at church that he was not doing what he wanted him to do. This time, Blackwell said, he listened. He walked off the field at football practice one day and quit the team.

“I felt like I was in a desert, like God had taken that desire out of my heart,” he said.

Pete Gonzales, then Pitt's quarterback, respects his teammate's decision to enter the ministry.

“We're kind of knuckleheads,” said Gonzales, 39, of Mars. “God calls us to do some things, and we tend to avoid him as long as possible. He finally heard it and decided to follow.”

Blackwell was sitting in Hillman Library one day when his future wife walked in with one of her friends.

“I turned to the left, and I saw Eugene staring at me,” Dina Blackwell said. “I walked past him, and I told my friend, ‘That's my husband. I'm going back in there.' ”

Dina Blackwell re-entered and tossed him a piece of paper with her phone number. They married six months later. The couple have three children, Canaan, 12; Elisha, 11; and Elizabeth, 9. Eugene Blackwell has two daughters, Alexis, 20, and Jessyca, 18.

He earned a master's degree in divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and worked at a couple of churches before starting the nontraditional House of Manna, a prospective church for the Pittsburgh Presbytery. House of Manna targets young people on the streets during the week, rather than people in their Sunday finery in the pews.

“Gene is more the visionary, and she's more the nuts-and-bolts practical person,” said the Rev. Sheldon Sorge, general minister to the presbytery.

Three years ago, Eugene Blackwell was preaching to about 10 men at the gazebo on Frankstown Avenue when one threatened to shoot him.

The man bumped him twice. The minister could feel the gun poking his waist. Two young ladies arrived, called out to his would-be assailant, and broke the tension.

“The only way that that community can be addressed effectively is by finding the right people who know that community, who can gain the trust of the community, and they're the right people,” Sorge said of the Blackwells.

Eugene Blackwell's mentor, Johnnie Monroe, is retired pastor of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church in the Hill District. He described Blackwell as “an angry young black man who is tired of seeing the black community go down, and he is convinced that if the community is going to turn around, it means the church and the foundations and others are going to do it.”

For now, the Homewood center is bare bones, with little glimmer of the Blackwells' vision.

But Dina Blackwell predicts its development will make Homewood the next place to visit in the city, rather than the first place to avoid.

“You're going to see life, color and the melody of laughter and happiness,” she said.

Bill Zlatos is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7828 or

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