Reimagining American Community

River of Life Church, Gary IN

This morning I drove over to River of Life Church in Gary IN, where a group called Faith In Indiana was holding a clergy summit to talk about immigration, criminal justice reform, and economic justice. The group’s goal is to establish a chapter in Northwest Indiana, an area of the state where new suburbs and old steel towns cohabit uneasily.

Several area pastors spoke, all African-Americans, along with Juard Barnes, the sponsoring group’s community organizer. The audience was a mix of black and white, all of us with a quiet, shared sense of emergency.

I parked in front of the church, a small building surrounded mostly by empty lots, a typical corner of this smaller Detroit, a city once so powerful and renowned for making steel that in the 1930s the U.S.S.R. studied its design and layout (along with that of Pittsburgh) as a prototype for the new industrial city of Magnitogorsk. From 180,000 at its peak in 1960 (of which almost 40% were African-American) down to 80,000 today (85% African-American), fully one-third of the city’s population now lives in poverty and an estimated one-third of all homes are unoccupied or abandoned.

The host pastor welcomed us and then offered a somber theological reflection on our corner of the world. He spoke of God as the creator of all things, the entire world all around us. And yet, when we look at some of our abandoned cities and neighborhoods, we are tempted to think, “He must not live here.”

“I wear a T-shirt under this shirt,” offered another pastor. “It reads, ‘I’m in a War’. We’re up against principalities,” he added with a biblical flourish.

Everyone in the room was very aware of our region’s troubled history, first of white resentment at the arrival of African-Americans, starting with the Great Migration during the Depression and then the resulting and understandable black resentment at white abandonment. One older white gentleman described our two controlling (and mutually damaging) narratives as “They came and we lost everything” versus “They left and we lost everything.” Several people gasped and nodded in agreement at this.

And yet: I’ve never seen such solidarity across our fractured region, even here in a state now ranking #48 in U.S. News and World Report’s quality of life study (“high pollution risk, toxic pollution rates, a lack of social support and low voter participation”). Less than 10% of the citizens of Gary voted in the last state elections, even as Republicans in our State Assembly now hold a super-majority.

The pastors were eloquent, inspired in their comments. I’ve no doubt they’ll combine forces to create a new chapter in the region.

“We have to run our enemy out of business,” argued Juard Barnes, speaking of the upcoming elections. “We have to link arms and walk together.” I think it’s coming.



About the Author
A native Texan, Elias spent several good years studying classics and medieval Italian at UC Berkeley before wasting several more years in financial journalism around Chicago. He has written for Strong Towns, the American Scholar, the New Urbs blog, and the Gary Catholic Worker and is the co-author of a textbook on character education. He briefly published something called The Armchair Historian. None of his three teenage daughters display an interest in the Greek and Latin classics thus far. He and his family reside in leafy Valparaiso IN.