Thursday, October 11, 2007

What Used to Be - Lessons Learned

Edited Saturday Morning: In my original post on Thursday, I may have failed to answer the question of what happened to the church building. After the congregation left in 1975, the building, as empty buildings often do, fell victim to vandalism. Additionally, there was a fire in 1997. However, the biggest loss was undoubtedly the loss of the congregation in 1975 and the loss of the ministries offered to the community.


The church in this week's Wordless Wednesday post is the former City Methodist Church located in downtown Gary, Indiana. Construction of the church once known as First Methodist began in 1925. The sanctuary seated 950 worshippers, and during the mid-1950's the congregation totaled nearly 3,000 members. The church in earlier times was a pinnacle of success and provided a variety of services for the community. The education wing included a theater, which featured a number of presentations for the church members and the citizens of Gary. Additionally at one time, the education wing, Seaman Hall, housed classes for the northwest Indiana University extension.

As sometimes happens with thriving churches in urban areas, City Methodist Church and the city of Gary fell victim to the fear that sometimes accompanies a racially changing community. In the 1960's and early 1970's, the city of Gary experienced the phenomenon of "white flight." Meaning that middle class white people moved away from the increasingly racial-minority inner-city neighborhoods to nearby suburbs. As the City Methodist members moved, they found new church homes in the suburbs. Thus, the once glorious church with Indiana's largest Methodist congregation closed its doors in 1975 due to declining membership.

This last Sunday, October 7, the Calumet District of North Indiana United Methodist Church held a service of repentenance, reconcilation, and appreciation in the street in front of the decaying ruins of the once majestic church. Attendees at the service received a piece of sackcloth at the beginning of the event to acknowledge the apathy and racism that lead to the demise of the grand church congregation. The bishop of the Indiana Methodists reminded the crowd of the lessons learned from the decline of this once dynamic congregation. Participants traded the sackcloth, which represented mourning and repentance, for a packet of seeds, which could represent seeds of hope.

In her comment for the Wordless Wednesday post , Gawilli has asked my thoughts on this matter. As on on variety of topics, I have a multitude of thoughts and feelings. I am sad that the church that welcomed black worshippers at a time when African Americans were refused entrance to white churches eventually had to close its doors partially due to racism. I am not sure that racism is the only culprit for the downfall of this once mighty church. However, as realtors of the 1960's spread the fear of declining property values, racism and the white flight from Gary were undoubtedly a factors that lead to the doors of City Methodist closing. I am concerned that the church that both Gawilli and I attend may suffer a similar fate of closing our doors due to economic decline within our community. If there are lessons to be learned as our bishop suggests, hopefully, we will know how to implement these lessons and how and where to plant these seeds of hope.

9 comments:

Margaret said...

How sad and frustrating to see such a beautiful church in ruins. The reasons are thought-provoking as well. I had always thought that people wanted more property, so that's why people moved into the suburbs. The tide has now switched and it's trendy to live in big cities.

TheBirdman33 said...

That's too bad that that happened and that something similar could still happen 30 years later.

Jen said...

I admit to not being a particularly religious person (I've spent way too much time analyzing relgion to adhere to any dogma), but it makes me sad and angry when any community begins to break apart that way. The decline of that church really is a metaphor for the community. How very sad. How even more sad that it continues to happen.

Pamela said...

not having lived in a large metro area, we can't blame our loss on that.

There is much much more involved in the decline of a church. much much more......

gawilli said...

Online I found a directory for City Church from 1967. There were many pictures of the elders and congregation in various facets of their church life and community outreach. The only faces that were not white were a group of children receiving inoculations, the two custodians, and the housekeeper. It was just eight years later that City Church closed its doors. Probably not much changed over those years. In the end I guess you could say that racism, and segregation, played a part its demise. When the white congregation moved South, only the cold hard stone was left.

It is worth noting that there were at one time as many as eight black Methodist congregations in Gary, as well as Presbyterian, Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist, Congregationalist, and variations on all of the above for the city's many ethnicities. Aside from segregation, I believe people have a desire to worship in a style and form that they are accustomed to and comfortable with.

It was a beautiful building. But as we have said often enough, its not the building that is important - it is what goes on inside and outside in the community. That is why we have a chance to survive.

captain corky said...

I agree, It's so sad that we still have to deal with these issues today in 2007.

LizB said...

For me, it's not just churches but I find it depressing to see formerly glorious architecture in ruins. Vandalism of abandoned buildings is definitely a problem here in Atlanta, but like this church, the sadder problem is why the abandonement in the first place.

Robin, thanks for visiting my blog. I've been having a lot of Murphy's Law moments lately, so I hope things turn around soon.

Nessa said...

It's a shame that such a magnificent building has been allowed to decay.

corbyjames said...

It used to be that the poor, the sick, the unloved would enter such a building knowing that the people who built it at least wanted to carve out a space of sanctuary in the midst of worldly activity and noise. It didn’t exclude; it invited and it welcomed. Rest here. Listen to God. Have some bread. We will be here tomorrow, and the next day, and the next...

But we have eradicated the common touch of the cathedral. We have bought the lie of the bottom line. I pray we will enjoy a new day when beauty is once again a vehicle for truth.

If continual isolation, selfishness, and gluttony are the motivations for keeping a space -- then, of course, the building is not only unimportant, it detracts from our essential humanity. But if a building helps to gather, offer refuge, and unite the otherwise ungathered and generation with generation, then it is a not only a blessing but essential to our sense of community.

City Methodist is a reflection of a tragedy on so many levels.

What can you do?