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.
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 amentoaction.org.)
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!”