Meet Your Neighbor: Dr. Asa Lee, President of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

By Diane Averill

The first thing you notice as you enter the office of the Reverend Dr. Asa J. Lee—who prefers to be called, simply, Asa—is the sizable calabash that sits on the floor in front of his desk. Burnt orange in color, it is ornamented by the image of the mythical Sankofa bird, picked out in tiny beads of pink, white and dark blue. The bird’s feet face forward, while its head is turned to look backwards.

“It symbolizes using the past as a guide for planning the future,” Asa explains.

The Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, at S. Highland Avenue and St. Marie Street, chose Asa to guide the institution into the future as its seventh president. Inaugurated in the Fall of 2021, he represents a considerable step forward from the past in that he is an ordained Baptist minister heading up a seminary affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA, and he is the first African American to do so.

Asa Lee

In their march forward, both Asa and the seminary sustain long traditions, such as the learning of Greek and Hebrew, which Asa demonstrates when he pulls a Greek New Testament from the bookcase. Flipping through the pages covered in the Greek alphabet, he reads aloud, in Greek, a portion of the Lord’s Prayer.

While ecumenism abounds at PTS, where the student body represents a number of different faiths, it thrives as well at the Lee family home on Jackson Street, where Asa’s wife, Chenda, is an ordained clergy member of the United Methodist Church and works as director of clergy and congregational development for the UMC’s western Pennsylvania conference. The Lees’ four daughters, ranging in age from six to 13, attend Catholic school.

A Maryland native, Asa obtained his bachelor’s degree in music education from Hampton University with a major in trumpet and a piano/organ minor. Growing up, he had played organ in church and after four years teaching in private and public schools, he decided to heed the call to the ministry that he had felt as a teen. It was at Wesley Theological Seminary that he met Chenda.

Music remains an integral part of Asa’s life, much in the form of his children, who play flute, guitar and piano. Three of them play ukulele, and one is the family vocalist. Chenda, he says, would not call herself musical but she has a beautiful singing voice.

Back in June of 2021, after first arriving in Pittsburgh, Asa spent a lot of time getting out to meet “anyone and everyone,” he says, to get a feel for who were his neighbors and where connections could be made.

“Neighbor is a spiritual concept,” he says, and one that is fraught with contradiction. As neighbors looking out for each other, it’s easy, he explains, to send a check to a favorite charity or an international appeal for help, “…but what about the homeless guy that you just passed on the street? It’s hard to help who’s right in front of you.” He observes a caution in Pittsburgh’s emphasis on named and defined neighborhoods, in that it can create boundaries that keep people apart.

Transcending boundaries and building relationships for the good of the city are the foundational goals of the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation, an interfaith organization for which Asa sits on the board of directors. The foundation’s Amen to Action project, now in its fifth year, will package one million meals in November, to be distributed by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Ten sites in the metro area will each produce 100,000 meals, paid for by donations and packaged by volunteers. On November 12, Asa and PTS will host one such event, staffed from churches of all faiths in the surrounding East End. (To make a donation, go to

While there are still more neighbors to meet and things to learn about the city he now calls home, Asa Lee has made up his mind quite firmly about one of Pittsburgh’s signature culinary concepts: On sandwiches and salads, he says, with his signature ready smile, “Please, I’ll take my fries on the side!”

Highland Park Family Shares Glimpse into Ukrainians’ Daily Struggle

By Diane Averill

There is a quiet confidence about HP resident Daria Loshak as she calmly recounts the displacement and the injuries; the days and nights sheltering in a root cellar; the constant struggle for existence that her family members back home in Ukraine have experienced during the past five months of Russian military aggression.  

She last saw her family when she visited in January.  

“We did not believe it would happen,” Daria said of the invasion that came with the dawn of Feb. 24, 2022.  

At the time, Daria’s father, Yuriy Loshak, a general in the Ukrainian navy, was stationed in Crimea, where the family had lived for 20 years.  While he evacuated aboard a ship going north to Mariupol across the Sea of Asov, Daria’s mother made her escape westward over land, having had just four hours to assemble the few belongings that she would take with her. As Yuriy’s ship neared port, it hit a mine; his resulting injuries required 19 surgeries, after which he went right back into uniform.  

Daria, Anton and their daughter Varvara in Pittsburgh on Ukraine Independence Day.

Together with Daria’s brother, a commercial seaman sidelined by the war, her parents relocated to Kyiv. There, her mother does administrative work while her brother does aid work for a volunteer organization called SUVIATO, filling the constant and too-often sudden need of medical equipment, food and supplies for defense forces and volunteer medical personnel who have no time to wait for the bureaucratic processing of large, international aid funds.  

Last March, Yuriy, dressed in civilian clothes, drove to a Kyiv suburb to retrieve a friend and his three children from an area of heavy attack. On the road, a Russian tank fired on the car. As the five occupants exited the burning vehicle, a Russian sniper opened up on them, wounding two of the children and killing their father. Once again, Daria’s father underwent surgery, this time to remove shrapnel from his eyes. After two weeks, with his vision restored but metal shards still lodged in his ears, he refused further treatment and went back to work.  

Daria’s phone is filled with photographs of devastation, including the rubble that was her alma mater, the National University in Kharkiv; but there are also plenty of smiling faces, both civilian and military, gathered around an ambulance or a site of aid being distributed. In her grandparents’ town to the northwest of Kyiv, during a period of heavy shelling, neighbors did their grocery-shopping for them for the two months that they dared not venture past their own front yard.  

“This situation shows how united people can be,” said Daria.  Daria herself shows it, too.  

Two years ago, she and her husband, Anton Ulianenkov, brought their then-four-year-old daughter, Varvara, to live in Highland Park on the second floor of a house on N. Euclid Avenue. Daria soon realized that the first floor apartment was occupied by an elderly man with no family and no visitors. She began knocking on his door with offerings of food. He was grumpy, she said, but she didn’t let it bother her. One day, he didn’t answer the door. Unable to shake the feeling that something was wrong, she called the police. The neighbor was found in critical condition, rushed to the hospital and stabilized. Not strong enough to return home on his own, he now lives in a nursing home, where Daria visits him regularly, still bringing food.  

Their green cards are good until 2027, so Daria, a pre-school teacher, and Anton, an IT program developer, have time to decide whether they will stay in the US or return to Ukraine. Whether or not they will remain in the neighborhood, as they hope to do, is a more immediate question; the house where they live will be sold and they must relocate in October. By the time she learns of an apartment for rent in Highland Park, Daria said, it’s always already taken.  

In the meantime, and as long as necessary, Daria will continue her efforts to help her countrymen by spreading awareness of SUVIATO and encouraging others to write letters of support to Ukrainian military personnel.  

Once quick to tears and worry, Daria has embraced the same determined optimism that her family has shown her, and that the Ukrainian people have shown to the world. 

“They always say, ‘Don’t worry, we’re fine,’” Daria said. They phone her every day to reassure her.  

“I have them trained,” she added with a smile.  

Daria Loshak welcomes letters to Ukrainian soldiers via her own email address, Contributions to SUVIATO can be made through PayPal to The organization has a presence on Facebook.  

In anticipation of the arrival of Ukrainian refugees in Pittsburgh, local nonprofit Hello Neighbor will host a virtual community update on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 12:00-12:30 p.m. To register, visit

Meet your neighbor: Imad Brookins brings artisan wares from around the world to Penn Ave.

One January morning in Cairo, Highland Parker Imad Brookins woke up to find the Internet and phone had been cut. He didn’t know it yet but it was early days of the pro-democracy protests rolling across Northern Africa and the Middle East that later would become known as the Arab Spring. Imad had moved to Cairo eight months earlier to study Arabic.

With only government propaganda on TV and no way to communicate with friends or family, Imad set out from his apartment to buy water and phone cards, even though he wasn’t sure he’d be able to find a working phone. He and a group of others converged at a friend’s house; one of them had a satellite phone that he shared despite the steep expense so that his friends could call relatives abroad.

Imad Brookins, behind the counter at Jamil’s

Imad’s Cairo experience was the start of eleven years away from Highland Park, where he grew up with seven siblings and his parents, the founders of Penn Ave. institution Jamil’s. His mother Rashida recently returned to Highland Park after a few years on the North Shore and Imad and some of his siblings help run the store.

After the Egyptian government first cut the phone and Internet, Imad spent about another month in Cairo trying to get out. Once, he managed to make it to the airport and found U.S. Marines and embassy representatives in the midst of the chaos offering to put U.S. citizens on planes – but they couldn’t say exactly to where. Imad held out. Ultimately a friend from Puerto Rico who was living in Indonesia was able remotely to buy him a same day ticket to Jakarta. After a scramble to pack what he could – Imad traded his TV and other belongings to friends for their suitcases so he could pack up his books – he made it out. He ended up having to leave behind products that he was selling in the local market as well as some unique tools used to make beads.

Fabrics in the shop

Just like in Cairo, in Indonesia Imad sourced goods to be sold in Jamil’s and also sourced and sold silver jewelry and batiks. Imad moved back to Pittsburgh in the early days of the pandemic. While picking up and starting over, first in Cairo and then in Indonesia, sounds impossible for many people, Imad’s childhood and parents perhaps made the thought of packing up for a faraway land within the realm of possible.

Imad’s late father, for whom the Penn Ave. shop is named, started out in construction but got into vending, initially at flea markets and other national events. He then joined other vendors lining Penn Ave., selling goods outside year around. One day a store front became available and Jamil and Rashida decided to risk it. “I remember my folks taking the table and running across Penn Ave. and put it in there, where it stayed for a while,” Imad said. That was 1994.

Jamil and Rashida traveled extensively. “Most of their travel was by invitation,” Imad said. “People saying, ‘I want you to meet my family in Morocco or Namibia or London.’” Once there, they would spend time in the marketplaces, haggling for the non-tourist price for goods that they could sell from the shop.

Today, Jamil’s website describes the store as “a community and marketplace that offers artisan wares, and books that celebrate black culture and history.” In addition to books, incense and jewelry, Jamil’s sells body care products including Jamil’s-branded shea butter and black seed oil that Imad makes in Rashida’s kitchen. Jamil’s also sells goods made by Imad’s sister Baiyinah who is a seamstress with an online store called The Woven Kente.

Imad, with some of the products available at Jamil’s, including Jamil’s branded shea butter

Visitors to Jamil’s receive a warm welcome and fascinating insight into the origins and history of some products. The shop counter is a jumble of squeeze bottles containing various scents, a combination of which may be similar to those used by Cleopatra, who is said to have used perfumes to attract men, Imad said. According to the label, Jamil’s African Black Body Soap Body Wash is a type of soap that has been used for centuries in west Africa and is made via an elaborate process that starts with drying plantain peels, coco pods, palm tree leaves and camwood bark and then roasting them. The remaining ash is mixed with shea butter and other oils and then cooked for up to 24 hours.

Entrepreneurship clearly is strong in Imad’s family. In Jakarta, Imad started a youth development program with his wife and business partner Widia Ratnasari. He’s currently at work on a couple of projects, including one that would offer live virtual shopping in marketplaces around the world and another that would set up a space for Pittsburgh artists to create and gain skills for marketing their art. You can find Imad working on Fridays and Saturday in Jamil’s.

Chairs fit for a king and queen at Jamil’s (all photos by James Rooney)