Auditorium. Abandoned City Methodist Church. Gary, Indiana

Abandoned City Methodist Church. Gary, Indiana

People chuckle now and again when they ask me where I’m from. I was born in a place that some have described as the Pompeii of the Midwest. I think of it as an American Nazareth and am reminded of Nathanael’s question concerning the village in which Jesus grew up, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Because of the toxic waste in parts of the city, some just assume that the American government considers it to be one big Superfund site. Interestingly, a number of famous people came from there. Just to name a few: Astronaut Frank Borman, Nobel Prize winner Paul A. Samuelson, actor Karl Malden, football coach Hank Stram, football players Alex Karras, and Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon. The place of my birth was Gary, Indiana, and it is obvious to all that it has seen better days. As happens so often with folks when I tell them, perhaps the refrain from the song “Gary Indiana” wafted through your mind as you read the words.

While I was at the Phoenix Airport a few years back, a woman from Chicago gave me a hard time about where I was born. During our conversation she indicated that she didn’t think of Chicago as being located anywhere near Gary. You have to remember that I moved from Indiana when I was a very small boy and my memory may be faulty about something so long ago, but we lived outside the city in the outlying area. I thought Gary was somewhere near Chicago…but apparently not. She got on her plane and went back to Chicago. I got on my plane and got to fly back to my home in the Pacific Northwest.

I’ve learned something that is pretty basic: you can’t choose where you are born but you do choose where to live. While I was born in Indiana, I have lived almost 90% of my life in the American West: the San Francisco area, Denver, Colorado, Seattle, Washington, Portland, and Salem, Oregon. I haven’t been back to Gary for over 45 years. I have lived most of my life in Oregon and the majority of that time in a county that in pioneer days was known as “The Garden of Eden at the end of the Oregon trail.” 


They say that as a boy my grandfather was a shepherd in Romania, but at the age of 15 he left the place of his birth. He walked approximately 340 kilometers from his village near Brasov, Romania to the ancient Romanian seaport of Constanta (211 miles). There he boarded a ship and immigrated to the United States. My grandmother was also from the Transylvanian mountains in Romania, a place called Agnita. No doubt it was the hope of work that brought them to Gary, Indiana. Grandpa eventually found work at US Steel in one of the most dangerous jobs in the mill, working at the open hearth. It is ironic that his supervisors never knew my grandfather’s last name and always misspelled his name the entire time he worked at the mill.

My grandparents arrived in Gary when it was a boom town back when it was still called “magic City,” “the city of the century,” and an “industrial utopia.” How did Gary go from being a city with such hope and promise? Since much of it was built on an old sand dune, Gary was literally built on the sand. Spiritually it was built on an weak foundation since it was created for the purpose of making money for US Steel.** No doubt there are several factors that contribute to Gary’s struggles, but let me advance a theory: Racism. To some I am stating the obvious, but it is important to point out that racism and racial tensions made it a place where it is difficult to attract new industries. It was the inability of various ethnic groups to live together with mutual trust and respect that inflicted mortal wounds upon the community. It was easier to leave town than it was to fix things. I believe that Christians and churches must shoulder a great deal of responsibility for what happened. Churches failed to adapt their ministries to include outsiders from different ethnic groups. Recognize that in the early part of the 20th century Indiana was a hot bed for the Ku Klux Klan. Many white Christians simultaneously embraced their faith and racism together, and they resisted outsiders. Ironically, Christians will send missionaries to Africa, Mexico, South America, etc but have difficulty integrating people from these regions into their ministries here. [**The city was founded in 1906 by the United States Steel Corporation as the home for its new plant. The city was named after the lawyer and founding chairman of U.S. Steel, Elbert H. Gary. (Source: Wikipedia.)]

My dad used to tell a story about how back in the 30’s his mother and father took a Sunday drive out to Hobart, Indiana. Two Klansmen on horseback stopped them on the outskirts of town and told them to go back and said, “We don’t want your kind here!” It is ironic that over the decades that followed, Hobart incorporated the rural area my family lived in. Had we remained in Indiana, we’d be living in Hobart—in spite of the men on horseback. (Note: I am not trying to impugn a whole community for the actions of a couple of men riding on horseback while wearing bed sheets.)

Klan marching in Hobart, Indiana, in the early 1920s

Klan march in Hobart, Indiana, in the early 1920s

I never understood why my father couldn’t handle working at US Steel after World War II. It sounded like he had a good job to me. Before being drafted into the army at the age of 24, he was an overhead crane operator at US Steel. Then he served in the South Pacific and no doubt suffered from what we now know to be delayed stress syndrome. As a veteran, he went back to his old job. Now I understand that with his delayed stress and personal issues returning to the mill after the war would have been difficult for him. Since he was involved in defense work, I’ve always questioned how someone like my dad, married with one child, could have been drafted in the first place. Over the years I’ve met many men my dad’s age from Seattle and Portland that were never subject to the draft because of being involved in some kind of “defense work.” Gary, Indiana, had a major part in what was called the “Arsenal of Democracy,” but dad’s boss simply told him, “I went in World War I and you’re going now.”

Sometime ago I came across a presentation by a graduate student from the University of San Francisco, Megan Nordin. It has helped me understand the dynamics that race played in the steel mill. She posed this question about where people worked at the US Steel plant in Gary: “So… who works where?” She then gave this response: “Well… it’s complicated. Originally, Eastern European immigrants manned the eastern end of the plant, where most hazardous processes occurred. American born whites manned the cleaner western portion of the facilities and held management positions.” Now I understood something about grandpa and dad. Grandpa worked at the open hearth and dad ran a crane that traversed constantly over toxic materials. Why? They were Eastern Europeans.

Of course, during World War II the racial composition of Gary and the steel mill changed even more. Blacks came from all over the country to work in defense work and the complexion of the mill was changed in the eastern end of the plant. The community changed ethnically, many couldn’t handle the change and these tensions spilled over into the community.


Since my brother remembers the story it must have taken place in the fifties. One day a black woman showed up in a Sunday service in our all white Baptist church. She became too boisterous for the pastor. She kept praising God at his preaching and kept saying “Amen!” The minister considered her exhortations to be an interruption and couldn’t contain himself any longer and in the middle of his sermon called her down. He admonished her to hold her tongue for the rest of the service and suggested that in the future she attend a church with her people. Now I’ve been a pastor for many years, and I don’t care what color the person is, if they’re saying “amen,” it tends to get me a little more fired up. Instead of considering her an intruder, the pastor should have considered her the first fruit of a broader ministry in the community. The pastor cursed that church that Sunday and added to the curse on the city.

In the decades that followed the crime rate in Gary rose, and that Baptist church covered its windows with chain link. Symbolically, the church shut the community out even more. Church members were robbed in the parking lot, and I remember hearing a report that a girl was raped in the church basement. What I am suggesting is that had that church considered the woman an opportunity instead of a threat, its members could have been a part of reaching the black community for Christ.

My point is even broader than this. In the New Testament, the ideal church wasn’t the church in Jerusalem—a church made up of only one ethnic group. The model church was the church at Antioch—a multiracial church. Listen to the Bible’s witness: “Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.” (Acts 13:1.) This church had Jews, gentiles and black people—people from all over the Mediterranean area. Earlier in the book of Acts, this church was described as a thriving church: “And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.” (Acts 11:21.)

I believe that Gary became a dangerous place because the churches and Christians there failed to seek to help its newest citizens and they created a barrier. They failed to take steps in order to build bridges and that barrier led to more and more hostility and danger. They sowed to the wind and reaped the whirlwind. I’ve been told that this church sold its property to another group and moved to Hobart. Why in the world would you send missionaries to reach blacks in Africa but not seek to reach and train blacks in your own community?

There is another famous person from the Gary area the musician Michael Jackson. His lyrics from his song “Black or White” are: “Where Your Blood/Comes From/Is Where Your Space Is/ I’ve Seen The Bright/Get Duller/I’m Not Going To Spend/ My Life Being A Color. In a gentle way Jackson was declaring that he wasn’t going to allow someone else to define who he was by his color. Perhaps Jackson saying that his own perspective on the people’s color may have dulled (changed)—”I’ve seen the bright get duller.”


There is a church just south of Seattle and its leadership created a similar dilemma for its congregation. The church board didn’t know what to do when a black family attended so they decided to encourage the family to attend elsewhere. The Seattle area is even more diverse than Gary, and has had strong Black, Spanish speaking, and Asian communities for decades. The all white congregation dwindled down to nothing and the church was turned over to a young Korean pastor. The reports are that the church is growing and even ministers to whites. A major key to its current success is it seeks to do things to help people in the community.

Several years ago I ministered in a church in South Seattle, and I wish I had the same understanding of ministry then that I do now. When I was there I worked in a bedroom community that was created for the area war industry and was already in a state of decline. Ultimately I moved on to another church in Oregon. After several years had passed we returned to discover how things had gone from bad to worse. Now you need to be careful as you move around in that section of town because of the gang activity. We also discovered that the grocery stores that we used to shop in have been converted into sleazy looking casinos. (Do you remember in the movie Back to the Future II! The main character Marty McFly returns to his home town. When he returns he finds it filled with all kinds of unsavory characters and that the city is dominated by a large casino. Now you’ve got the picture.) Was there an alternate future that might have been? Technically we will never know. After I moved from Seattle, the church I pastored dwindled in numbers. When I was in Seattle, much of what I did was limited to ministering to the people that walked through the door and working in denominational activities. We did nothing to bring relief to the neighborhood and community. Much of the community ranged from lower income to poor (poor according to American standards).

Let me suggest a different approach to ministry that builds bridges, helps those who have lost their way, and can be invaluable in bringing a community back to life. If you are preoccupied with the concept of targeting (focusing on reaching people who are young urban professionals who already have their lives pretty much together) you may have difficulty relating to what will follow.

Silver Falls, Marion County, Oregon

Silver Creek, Oregon: "South Falls Fog." Marion County "the Garden at the End of the Oregon Trail"

I now work in what some consider a rough neighborhood in my hometown but because of my roots it is hard for me to think of it as being that tough. Regardless, some call it “felony flats,”and its much like the neighborhoods in almost every American city that has had a history of drug activity. I am certain that God brought us here to minister and help people no matter their ethnic background. We aspire to fulfill the principle that the Apostle Paul stated in Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

You might ask what does this all have to do with the purpose of this web site which seeks to help people that are struggling with addictions? My purpose has been to point out that we need to teach people to ignore issues like where you are from—or your ethnicity. We need to get people to focus on where they’re going—focusing on their heavenly future. They need to be trained to live in light of their future—not their past. I also wanted to raise the issue that when the Church focuses on the wrong things, it diminishes its credibility and effectiveness. A sick church will have a hard time helping sick people. When a church focuses on denominational activities and chooses to feature activities designed to only perpetuate the organization, it has difficulty relating to people struggling with addictions.

Unwittingly, many American churches seek to entertain their congregants with sports competition, the handbell choir, the musical extravaganza, drama, the coffee bar, and preaching that coddles the status quo. “Kingdom ministries” or “helping ministries” are designed to help the outsider, the poor, the infirmed, the elderly, and those in prison. Churches that help people through helping ministries break down barriers and transform and revitalize. Churches that just entertain people waste precious time especially in a community that is falling apart. They distract the people of God and keep them from conducting meaningful ministry.

Our church has no building—on Sundays we meet in a school gym. In spite of lacking what most church people believe to be absolutely essential—a church facility with all of the trimmings-over the last four years our little church has helped 3,600 families through its mobile food bank (14,000 people). We have provided thousands of sets of school supplies and winter coats for free. We work hard to make certain that the people that really need the help get the help (this is extremely important). Some may think that this strategy is simplistic but remember what Proverbs 14:34 states, “Righteousness exalts a nation.” In other words, “Doing the righteous deeds to help others lifts up a nation…a city…a neighborhood…a life.” There is a renaissance in our neighborhood. Families are moving in and homes and homeowners are replacing rentals with landlords, but its not about real estate—its about lives.


I believe that it is essential to involve individuals that struggle with addictions in helping others in order to bring the addict to a place of spiritual health. We help the addict find his or her way back to health by giving the opportunity to help others. It’s hard to get excited about perpetuating church as a religious institution, but the normal Christian becomes excited when they help the helpless. When a drug user is craving his next fix it’s called “Jonesing.” They wait for their drug dealer to show up with their drugs and they’ll be Jonesing—looking out the window. There is a couple in my current church that received Christ a little over two months ago. Three years ago they were arrested for their amphetamine use, but they are developing a new craving. I first met them about the time of our Fall School Supply Fair, when they started attending church we got them involved in helping with our food bank. The Lord has brought healing and strength into their lives, and they are already participating in prayer meetings and Bible studies. They told us at our prayer meeting the other night they’re “Jonesing” for God. They wait eagerly for our people to return to the neighborhood. When a time scheduled for an activity approaches, they stand at the window of their home and watch. They said they now wait for our truck or for people to show up for the meetings we hold in the neighborhood.

We don’t choose where we’re born but we choose where we live. I didn’t choose to be born in a certain location—no one does. I wonder if I had I grown up in the area could I have made a difference or would my thoughts and beliefs been poisoned by my toxic surroundings? I really didn’t choose to move away-it just happened. I don’t remember the bad things, I was too young and we moved before things got out of hand. It’s not about where you’re from. It’s not about you’re color. It’s about making a difference for Christ. That’s what really matters—making your life count for something of eternal significance.

The idea of choosing where we live can be a metaphor about whether we live in the shadow of the past or in the light of the future. The idea of choosing where you live can also represent choosing “how” you live. Where you started isn’t as important as how well you finish. It’s really about eternity. Where you were from won’t amount to a hill of beans in eternity. The choices you made will make all of the difference.

Make certain that you have made the most important decision of your life. Make certain that you have been born again. Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3.) You start on a sin cursed planet but you must make a choice about how it is to end. You may have lived in New York, London, Paris, Moscow, Tokyo, Beijing, Calcutta, or even Gary, Indiana. But where will you spend eternity? A couple a verses later Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5.) Heaven is the place to be but will you be there?

(Copyright, Keith Churilla, 2011.)

Character Development Resource

Also by this author: The Armor of Light Bible Study & Planner

Also by this author: The Armor of Light Bible Study & Planner

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