GARY, Ind. - Gary city officials joined United Methodists from across the state on Sunday, Oct. 7, to announce that the city will turn the Old City Church site into a ruin park with garden.
The former First United Methodist Church of Gary abandoned the building in 1975. The remains of that once-proud building have stood for more than 30 years as a silent and unsightly testimony to the results of racism, urban decay and the blight caused by fear and abandonment.
According to Christopher Meyers, director of planning for the City of Gary, everything north of the sanctuary and bell tower will be demolished to provide for residential parking space and a small park leading into a garden which will be planted inside the walls of sanctuary structure. The bell tower also will be repaired to remain with the national's first ruin park of its kind.
According to Meyers, demolition of the church was scheduled to happen this construction season but was held up by financial difficulties caused by the property tax crisis. He hopes the demolition will proceed later this fall or sometime next spring.
Meyers said the church was built in 1925 by the architectural firm of Lowe and Bollenbacher of Chicago and cost $650,000. This is the same firm that designed Memorial Union at Indiana University in Bloomington.
Preceding the announcement, the Rev. Michelle Cobb, superintendent of the Calumet District, led an hour-long service of "Repentance, Reconciliation and Appreciation" at the corner of Washington and Sixth Street, site of the former First UMC known as City Methodist Church and one of the largest Protestant churches in Middle America with more than 2,800 members during the mid-1950s. It was closed in 1975 with 200 members.
"What we are trying to do is publicly acknowledge the reason why the church closed in 1975 was principally racism, fear, apathy and lack of vision. We are coming back to repent for that sin before God and also through this service to recognize that we are reconciling a relationship with the city of Gary," said Cobb.
Former members, pastors, district and community leaders plus other participants shared their hope for the future of Gary and United Methodist ministries in particular.
During the service, Bishop Mike Coyner spoke about the future and planting seeds of hope using mustard sees as an example of hope.
He said, "We are here not to blame, but to repent. We are here to learn from our mistakes. We are here to lament and shed some more tears."
Seeds of hope
Coyner further told the 150 participants who came, "This structure reminds us of our greatest failure but it could motivate us to our greatest success. We can be these seeds of hope."
Participants confessed United Methodists allowed racism and fear to destroy a congregation. Organizers gave participants a swatch of burlap to remind them of repentance, which they exchanged during the service for a package of flower seeds to plant and grow in order to bring back and plant in the ruin garden next year.
The idea for the service began with the Rev. David Schrader, previous Calumet District Superintendent now senior pastor of Grace UMC in South Bend. Cobb continued those plans.
The Rev. Floyd Blake, retired and a former pastor of City Church from 1972 to 1973 was on hand for the service and told Together that during his tenure he observed a major shift in the neighborhood population and a congregation that went from 990 members to 200 members in a year. He said it took $38,000 a year just to keep the doors open, and a congregation that small could not keep the doors open, so they closed. He was appointed to the church to revitalize it during a period that observed more than a 10 percent shift in its population, but he arrived too late to make a difference.