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Christian Ministries Vital To Indianapolis Resurgence

Russ Pulliam

Editor’s Note: Every Tuesday, MinistryWatch features a ministry doing restorative work. We feature these “shining light” ministries because we want to remind ourselves and our readers that not all the news about Christian ministries is bad news. In fact, the vast majority of Christian ministries are quietly, faithfully doing the work of the Kingdom of God, which is to love God and to love our neighbors.

The stories we have posted here often highlight lives and families transformed, but occasionally we encounter stories of whole communities, even whole cities, being transformed. Today’s installment is one such story. It’s a story of how Christian ministries have been integral to the resurgence of a major American city, Indianapolis, written by a man who has had a front row seat, Russ Pulliam, a columnist for the Indianapolis Star.

 

Indianapolis had a funny nickname in the 1950s and early 1960s — “naptown.” Or “India-no-place.”

Not much happened there. Several thousand race car fans came for the Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend. High school basketball also was a big deal in the city and state. The movie Hoosiers was based on a real story.

In the late 1960s a young mayor, Richard Lugar, got the state legislature to annex all of Marion County into the city. The metro area population was smaller than older big league cities such as Pittsburgh, Detroit, St. Louis and Cleveland. Indy mayors and civic leaders hungered for big league status, in sports and business. The Pacers of the old American Basketball Association became part of the NBA. The NFL Colts moved from Baltimore to Indy. Business and political leaders built a downtown park on White River, along with new sports stadiums to attract big events. The city became a hub of amateur sports and then some tech companies.

A parallel spiritual growth has flown under the national news media radar. In the 1990s Mayor Stephen Goldsmith was putting the city on the national map by bringing free market competition to city services. Goldsmith had businesses running city golf courses and collecting garbage, and his initiatives attracted attention in the Wall Street Journal and other national media outlets.

More quietly Goldsmith started asking Indy pastors, churches and faith-based nonprofits to tackle social problems of the homeless, broken families and drug addiction. A prosecutor before he was mayor, Goldsmith had seen how Christian ministries took on tough problems that defied good government intentions. The mayor saw rescue missions bringing new life for the homeless. He could wax eloquent about how government had none of the spiritual resources that he had seen in nonprofits.

He also started promoting neighborhood leaders who often brought a spiritual emphasis to their community service. One was Olgen Williams, who was running a community center on the city’s west side. Williams came to salvation in Christ out of a background of Vietnam War military service and drug abuse. Goldsmith informally tapped him as a resource in looking for ways to fight poverty and improve neighborhoods through nonprofits. Years later an unknown Republican Greg Ballard upset an incumbent Democrat for mayor, Bart Peterson, and Williams became his deputy mayor.

Even apart from city government a surprising number of believers in the city have launched ministries to help hurting people, building an informal infrastructure of Jeremiah 29:7 initiatives to tackle homelessness; alcohol and drug abuse; crime; offenders returning from prison; racial reconciliation; health care for the poor; family rebuilding.

REDEEMED FURNITURE

Purposeful Design came from businessman David Palmer’s Bible studies with homeless men at Wheeler Mission for the homeless. Thwarted by criminal records or bad habits, the men kept asking Palmer to help them find jobs. Giving up his own successful business career, Palmer started a small business for custom furniture making six years ago, and it keeps getting bigger. (MinistryWatch profiled this ministry recently. You can read that article here.)

HEART HELP FOR WOMEN

David Palmer’s wife Cindy launched a discipleship initiative for women, to follow up on her earlier crisis pregnancy center work. Heart Change includes tutoring to boost workplace skills as well as discipleship or spiritual transformation. Some of the women work in a small soap business. Others live in the ministry’s Covenant Community homes, to give their children a more stable lifestyle.

A DIFFERENT WAR ON POVERTY

Shepherd Community Center, under the leadership of Jay Height. Height, is always looking for ways to battle poverty with the Bible on the city’s east side. One example: a city cop and a trained social worker on staff to patrol the center’s zip code more creatively than waiting for 911 calls.

UNITE INDY

Jim and Nancy Cotterill, a husband-wife business/journalist team, have launched a nonprofit to support inner-city churches, sometimes connecting them with suburban churches. They were recently honored with a Martin Luther King Freedom Award from the Indiana Minority Business Magazine.

RACIAL DIVERSITY AND CLASSICAL EDUCATION

The idea was a 50-50 black-white racial balance, classical education and a Christian foundation in one of the worst Indy neighborhoods. Now, after 20 years, Oaks Academy is thriving with more than 700 students on three campuses in inner city neighborhoods. The K-8 schools still

feature racial and economic balance, with constant memorization of classical texts, including the Bible. The neighborhood around the original school campus has been transformed from high crime to thriving renewal. The other two schools are located in neighborhoods with urban challenges of poverty and broken families are are seeing some renewal, in parts thanks to the schools taking over older unused public school buildings.

OLD CHURCH, NEW VISION

Englewood Christian Church might look like a social gospel ministry, with low-income housing, child care, a community development corporation and home ownership options. Pastor Mike Bowling and other Englewood leaders have avoided the false dilemma between feeding the hungry and preaching the gospel. “We think systemic poverty can only be broken by God’s wisdom incarnate in the church,” says Pastor Bowling.

AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN SPURGEON

Eastern Star Pastor Jeffrey Johnson has been preaching the gospel message for 30 years, expanding the small Eastern Star church to about 15,000 members at three sites around the city. Johnson preaches to mostly African-American audiences on Sundays. In the low-income neighborhood around the original home church, members tutor at the nearby public school and offer home ownership opportunities for low income families, as well as business innovations. “God called me to preach the gospel, winning souls to the kingdom and making disciples. We call it advancing God’s kingdom.” But he is thankful for how many members are applying their faith to good works around the church.

THE GOSPEL AND POVERTY

In a very rough neighborhood, Jim Strietelmeier leads the Neighborhood Fellowship. They have a medical clinic and work readiness options, but the gospel is the priority. “We look at financial poverty as an enhancement to the preaching of the gospel rather than a problem that should take center stage,” says Strietelmeier. “After God has been made central, the secondary needs of life are met by God Himself.”

FINDING A FRIEND AT CHURCH

The nearby Brookside Community Church welcomes former prison inmates back to the city. Originally a plant by a suburban church, Brookside now has houses for former inmates, along with job placement and a food co-op. Pastor David Cedarquist has learned a key point about the cycle of coming out of prison and back to crime: Conversion to Christ is a very good foundation. Yet if an ex-offender also finds a friend at Brookside, chances are much better that he won’t go back to more crime.

THE GOSPEL BEHIND BARS

William Bumphus took his own conversion to Christ behind bars, almost 40 years ago, and started preaching. Coming to back to Indy after prison, he discovered new believers needed a

place to live. Others who had heard the gospel preached by Bumphus in prison needed a place to grow in Christ and stay away from the influences that took them to prison in the first place. Bumphus launched the Jesus House in an old nursing home in Indianapolis, with room for about 40 ex-inmates. Some of the men find jobs, and all of them attend regular Bible studies at the house.

DOCTORS AGAINST HOMELESSNESS

Dr. Jim Trippi, a heart surgeon, launched Gennesaret Free Clinic in the 1990s to provide health care for the homeless, calling on fellow doctors and nurses to provide this care at several sites around the city. He named the ministry after the healing ministry of Christ.

TIMELY BATTLE FOR NEGLECTED YOUNG PEOPLE

Bob Schloss used to send delinquent kids to time behind bars in the juvenile justice system.

He was a deputy prosecutor in northern Indiana. He dreamed about substitute families for the young people in the court system. Now that dream is coming true at the New Song Mission on 100 acres in a rural Brown County about an hour’s drive south of Indianapolis. Schloss and his small staff have opened their doors for several young girls.

LOVING HOMELESS TEENS

Eric Howard was helping homeless teens from the trunk of his car in the 1990s. Now the Outreach ministry he founded is helping several hundred teens, with a new drop-in center near downtown Indianapolis. He’s had help from business friends, especially a powerful Republican lawyer, Bob Grand, whom he met in a Bible study. Grand is a kingmaker in Indiana politics, but Howard originally thought he was just some guy in a Bible study.

PUTTING MONEY BEHIND HIS MOUTH

Civic leader Mike Smith has had a ringside seat on the city’s progress for more than 40 years as a top business executive. Seeing the city prosper at one level, he and his wife Sue launched a grant-making initiative, the Faith & Action Project. They emphasize practical results over good intentions in fighting poverty. Smith’s business mindset is good for his current passion, as he challenges nonprofits to look for measurable results.

FIGHTING POVERTY WITH BUSINESS

Indy civic leader Jay Hein is helping business entrepreneurs invest in a battle against poverty. Running the Indy-based Sagamore Institute, Hein offers the Commonwealth Fund, giving investors a low return for home-building for low-income families or businesses that employ the homeless. The fund is not a charity, but investors bringing marketplace discipline, with smaller returns, to a practical war on poverty. The fund is growing slowly in part because it is hard for those with wealth to find the middle ground between business and making a profit, and ministry and looking for spiritually transformed lives.

A COURT FOR VETERANS

Some initiatives have been part of government. Criminal Court Judge David Certo runs his weekly Indianapolis Veterans Court more like a rescue mission than a traditional court. He asks offenders how they are doing and whether they are staying free of drug abuse. He is motivated by his own Christian faith, as well as a small government conservative political perspective.

He thinks it is too expensive for the taxpayer to finance offenders revolving through the criminal justice system, going in and out of jail, going back to the same habits and lifestyle that gets them in trouble the first time. He’s interested in obeying the 1851 state constitution requirement that the criminal justice system provide reformation of offenders rather than vindictive justice.

JESUS REDISCOVERED

Some of these initiatives are pretty new, but Wheeler Mission celebrated its 125th birthday in 2018. It’s been a rescue operation for the homeless. Men who commit to Christ can go to Camp Hunt near Bloomington for discipleship, as well as sheltered work making pallets. Some of the men later wind up working at Purposeful Design.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Many of the people behind these initiatives are connected as friends. They meet together to pray for one another, or to pray for the city. Some of the ministries receive support from Lilly Endowment or one of the city’s other foundations. Most run on small budgets. Yet no one person or group has oversight over the proliferation of these ministries.

These ministries flourish, in part, because of volunteers who do the tutoring, or feed the hungry or fix up homes. Few of them get any government funding, and some receive foundation grants. But most of the financial support comes from individual and family donations.

Indianapolis turns 200 next year. All these ministries have been timely responses to homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse and broken families. Prayer has been a factor in their growth. Some of us have prayed for the city to be as well known for the Lord as it is for auto racing and basketball. Yet no one person, or committee of influential citizens, could have engineered all these relationships and connections to wake up a “naptown” over the past 50 years. Ultimately a sovereign God is the answer why a city has been blessed with these initiatives.

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Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of the WORLD News Group board of directors.

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