By Pete Bridge
Point Park News Service
Anthony Ortisi had never been to Pittsburgh when he was asked to be the worship pastor of the Element Church in Millvale last year even if it took him awhile to get here.
The 29-year-old could not sell his Detroit house, so the job was filled by the time he was ready to move here.
But Ortisi was so intent on starting a ministry in the river town he came anyway, becoming the youth pastor at the makeshift church at Mr. Smalls Funhouse in what was once a church.
Eight months later, church members and Millvale Borough officials are already applauding the musician and youth minister for making a difference in the community by reaching out to as many of the youth in the area as possible.
“My goal is to have every Millvale kid at least know we’re here,” Ortisi said in his office at the Element Church’s office building at 205 North in Millvale.
Ortisi was born in Detroit where he grew up in a family that did not attend church. As a teenager, Ortisi began playing instruments and gained interest in worship, but never took a single lesson in his life.
“When I was 13, I went out to the pawn shop and bought a guitar that didn’t work,” Ortisi said.
Ortisi taught himself how to play the guitar and moved on to other instruments to start his music career.
The eventual youth pastor began his faith with his brother while they were young.
“When I lived in Michigan, there was a bus that would come around and me and my brother would take it to church once in a while,” Ortisi said.
Ortisi attended Macomb Community College in Michigan where he majored in business and started dating the woman who would become his wife, Jennifer. The two got married in 2006 and now have three-year-old Shawn and one-year-old Jonah.
Ortisi said his career in ministry was a process that started a relationship he built with Rich Jones, the lead pastor at the Element Church. Ortisi and Jones met in Detroit at Lakeside Assembly of God Church where Ortisi used his skills at the guitar, bass and drums to lead the praise songs at the beginning of the services. Ortisi said he wanted to follow Jones as he moved on to other churches.
“One day we were cleaning up and putting drums away, and he said, ‘When you plant your church, I’ll be your worship pastor’. And I had no plans on planting a church, it wasn’t on my radar,” Jones said.
Jones eventually accepted the call to start the church in Millvale while Ortisi was attending Berean Bible College. Jones soon offered Ortisi a gig as the worship pastor. The Ortisis faced adversity when they planned on moving to Pittsburgh.
“Detroit was really bad, the economy took a big hit. The house values just plummeted. We tried to sell our house, and we waited and waited and it still never sold,” Ortisi said.
It took three years to sell their house, which finally allowed them to make the move to Western Pennsylvania after Ortisi graduated from the seminary. The family found a home in nearby Sharpsburg and Ortisi started a job as a salesman at Goodyear Auto Service in Cranberry.
As he accepted the position of youth pastor, Ortisi began the Element youth program, which holds events for teenagers in Millvale to teach them about Christianity. The group officially started last summer with a meeting of the youth in the Element Church’s 205 North building in Millvale. The group not only has church services with bible studies, but has staged a bonfire and hayride farm in the North Hills, and a cookout game night in August.
Jake Welsby, 19, is a member of the youth group and leads events on behalf of the youth. Welsby volunteers at events to help Ortisi better the lives of the youth. Welsby’s role in the group is to act as a leader for the youth to make the other teenagers feel comfortable. He often makes announcements and orchestrates games.
“Hopefully we’ll plant seeds in their lives and impact their lives,” Welsby said.
Welsby also plays guitar in the worship band alongside Ortisi and enjoys his energy towards the youth and music.
“He is like a kid. It’s not weird or awkward for the kids at all because he can strike up a conversation with them without any problem,” Welsby said.
Welsby said that the younger kids in the youth program do not see him as a pastor and the newer members do not realize Ortisi is the pastor because of his fun personality. Ortisi once made an acoustic worship session into a rock session when he made the members stand up instead of sitting down to get the audience more excited.
“He definitely does things differently. He’s not so serious, which is good. The kids know he brings the environment that this is a safe and fun place,” Welsby said.
Ortisi said that one of the reasons he felt as though he needed to come to Pittsburgh was the church’s unique identity. The Element Church meets on Sunday mornings at Mr. Smalls, a local concert venue. The building has a back bar area that the church transforms into a coffee bar. According to the church’s website, theelementchurch.com, they strive to be a church that “will never be boring,” and “sees everyone as important & valued.”
The Element Church is open to accepting all people, no matter what their background is. The church on a Sunday morning is not formal, with many of the members dressed in Steelers jerseys during football season. The pastoral staff accepts all people from troubled backgrounds to come to their church.
Eddie Figas is the Community and Economic Development Director for the Borough of Millvale. Figas said he has already seen the impact the Element Church has had on the community as they work with the borough and Millvale Borough Development Corporation.
“We are very proud to have the Element Church in Millvale and thankful for their help and enthusiasm to make Millvale a better place to live,” Figas said.
Kori Yusko is the administrative assistant at the church and works directly with Ortisi in the worship band on a weekly basis. Yusko said that he has built relationships with certain families to help them as much as possible.
“He’s connected really well with one family. He goes out of his way to make sure they can make it to events, they have rides, that they’ve eaten dinner and if they haven’t, he makes sure that they do,” Yusko said.
Part of his efforts to help the community is to give the youth activities to do instead of getting into trouble. Ortisi planned events that are simple minded but get kids out of their houses such as game nights.
“I really want to give them something to do. There’s really not a lot of stuff for them to do here,” Ortisi said. “The park that we have here is literally a cement slab.”
Part of this enthusiasm is an effort to reach out to the rest of the community to let them know that the Element Church meets at Mr. Smalls on Sunday mornings. The pastoral staff has walked through the borough with fliers and prayed for the people they met on the site. Ortisi has had an enthusiastic approach to nearly everything he has been a part of so far.
“I remember having 45 minute long conversations with him about the lighting so it will look perfect and it will be the right environment for people to feel comfortable,” Yusko said.
Both Figas and Ortisi share the value of taking care of the youth in the area and providing them with safe, entertaining options outside of school.
“With an ever-changing communication landscape it is important we know how to effectively reach and engage youth,” Figas added.
Members of the youth program would not stray away from calling Ortisi a big kid, personality-wise and physically.
The pastor who is about 5 foot 8 inches can be found running around Mr. Smalls on a Sunday morning with a beanie on his head, much like indie musicians and teenagers do. Ortisi certainly fits the image of a musician that would play at Mr. Smalls as he plays with emotion. He puts energy in the praise songs as if he is playing an AC/DC song, but he looks much more like a Jason Mraz figure. Singing songs by Hillsong United with a raspy, indie voice, Ortisi brings a rock feel to church worship as he moves around stage with his head rocking and his feet stomping. Ortisi typically plays acoustic or electric guitar in the upbeat worship songs.
The Ortisi family is now adjusting to life in Pittsburgh after their time in Detroit. Ortisi said the hardest part about adjusting is being without their family.
“It’s very upsetting to have people that you love in your life not be as close to you anymore because of what something God has called you to do,” Ortisi said.
His goal for his future is to end up with the Element Church in a full-time paid position. He currently is on staff as a non-paid pastor but he and Jones both share the goal and hope that Ortisi will be able to get paid in the future.
“My hope is that this grows into something that is sustainable,” Ortisi said. “It’s hard when we’re a church that accepts the random Christians that don’t have a church background, it comes with having no money and it comes with not enough to go around.”