by Francine Dash

On July 19, in the basement of the River Life Church of God in Christ in Gary, Indiana, clergy from different congregations and denominations, races and sides of town came together to try to figure something out.

“Why haven’t we come together before; and how did we get here?” asked retired Lutheran pastor Rev. Charles Strietelmeijer, to the crowd at the recent Faith in Indiana Clergy Gathering.  As if trying to choose his words, he finally took a deep breath and stated his truth: “We simply didn’t come together, because of race; and now our community is suffering – we’re suffering – and I’m tired of it.”

At one time, the city of Gary was considered a model city to the world, to the point where it was studied by the former Soviet Union (now Russia) as a prototype for the re-design of their new industrial city of Magnitogorsk.

In the 1960s, when Gary saw some it its highest growth, a large number of its middle-class residents were African American. From 180,000 in population at its peak in 1960 (of which almost 40% were African-American), down to 80,000 today (85% African-American), one-third of the city’s population now lives in poverty. And, an estimated one-third of all homes are unoccupied or abandoned, due to what many believe to be white flight.

When Faith in Indiana became a statewide organization in November of 2017, we began to create forums where clergy from across the state could come together to discuss their unique issues, and how to organize their congregations to address them.

For Gary, racism has been the culprit called out in their community and the corrupt politics that racism has wrought, and now they are coming to terms with all the work that will go into changing their community from hopeless to hopeful. Their challenge is not learning how to rebuild what was in the past, but instead creating what should have been along.

“We can’t defeat what we don’t have the courage to call out. We have been trained to ignore our hurts, our disappointments and the fact that we are not really a community; but no longer. Today’s a new day,” said Reverend Juard Barnes, Deputy Executive Director of Faith in Indiana and lead organizer of Lake County. “What has been accomplished today is understanding that Black and White people have a common destiny that will only be realized if we – starting with the people in this room – work together. I’m ready to work for Gary; but more importantly I’m ready to win for Gary. Who’s with me?”

Francine Dash is the Communications Director for Faith In Action federation Faith In Indiana.

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