NEW CASTLE —
Had he followed the path of some others in his family, things might have turned out differently.
One of his relatives earned a place on America’s Most Wanted List for murder. Others had drug problems.
“That kind of thing can repeat unless a person chooses to go a different direction,” he said. “That wasn’t what I wanted.”
But Damian acknowledges he didn’t do it by himself. “You have to be blessed with good people in your life,” he said.
“And every step of my journey, from a kid through teen years and into adulthood, I was blessed with good mentors.
Mrs. Collingwood, a teacher at Croton Elementary, was one of those. “She made an impression about getting a good education and making something out of my life.”
Damian became more serious about his studies and eventually began tutoring other students.
“She was key in helping me set a trajectory.”
Growing up in New Castle was another blessing, according to Damian. “It’s the most competitive place in the world,” he said.
As a young teen, Damian became a follower of Jesus Christ.
A neighbor, Dr. Jim Snow, used to drive neighborhood children to vacation Bible School and Sunday School at Croton United Methodist.
Damian began reading Scripture in seventh grade and was particularly affected by a verse that proclaimed the followers of Jesus “would have springs of living water flowing in and through them.”
He joined the youth group at Wesleyan Church on Pulaski Road, although he admitted at first it was just to play basketball there.
“But Rob Wothridge and Rev. Tim Figgs took me under their wings,” said Damian, who became a youth group leader there. By age 15, was teaching and preaching at church.
He desired to be a pastor and after high school attended Indiana Wesleyan College in Marion, Ind. He moved to Wisconsin and helped start a church — the first of many he would plant.
He met Anne in 1997 at a church camp in Wyoming, recruiting for a Christian School. He was so smitten by her that he convinced a pastor friend to create a position for her. They eventually married and he brought her to western Pennsylvania.
“Ministry was the right idea for me, but not as a traditional pastor,” Damian said.
He decided to launch an inner-city church in Pittsburgh. In 2006, the Steel City Church opened at a location that previously served as a nightclub.
“We put up posters throughout the Strip District and more than 200 people came to the first service,” he said. “Drug dealers, drug users, prostitutes and impoverished people came looking for God.”
Damian linked with Ilkin following a sports team chapel service he conducted. They soon shared ideas, and Ilkin embraced Damian’s vision.
“We created an experience on the road for Steeler fans, who are already there (in road locations prior to Steeler games) waiting for the team because they live in those markets,” Damian said.
“Fans can show up the team hotel, meet players and have a meal. Then Tunch talks about his Steeler experience and what it means to be a Pittsburgh Steeler. We used that revenue to keep the inner city church going.
“Steeler fans just want to hear about the journey, and we let the players like Antwaan Randel-El and Randy Clark tell the story.”
As for Damian’s journey, it’s been quite a ride, and it’s still going.