Rev. Leah Peksenak pastors two churches that are very different from one another. The city of Hobart has historically been a very white town. Not surprisingly, Hobart First UMC is a predominantly white church with no shortage of racial prejudice in its history. The organist at Hobart First UMC, who doubled as a school teacher, recalled that black children didn’t attend the Hobart Community school system until the 1980s.
On the other side of this coin, Marquette Park UMC (in Gary, IN), is, as Pastor Leah called it, a “unicorn church,” which boasts a fairly even split between black and white attendees. Because these two churches share a pastor, they’ve been given opportunities to grow together. These two churches have shown great willingness to work together and get to know each other. Throughout the year, they share services, Bible studies, and various fellowship events.
“What makes cross racial appointments work is not thinking you know how to do everything. It’s important in every congregation—but especially appointments like these—to listen and find out ways that the church wants to participate,” said Pastor Leah.
The relationship between these diverse churches has dispelled some misconceptions about the Gary area. Instead of being racially divided, these two churches have made space for conversations about race. “I’ve been impressed with the members at Marquette Park; they’ve been willing to pay the emotional tax, to be honest, to be willing to educate. It wasn’t anybody’s grand design to put me in these two particular churches, but there have been blessings,” said Pastor Leah.
Not too long ago, Marquette Park was seeking a new staff parish chair person, and an older white gentlemen volunteered to take the position. At the time, most of the leadership was white. “I can be flippant and sarcastic. I probably said something like ‘we don’t need another older white guy right now,’” said Pastor Leah. “The man was deeply offended.”
After church that day, a black woman in the meeting laid out her viewpoint: certain types of people have been in positions of power for a long time, while others have been left out. She pointed out the unbalanced power dynamics and the importance of having other (non-white) perspectives represented in the room where decisions are being made. Pastor Leah was pleased that the woman was willing to teach that room something new.
In the wake of George Floyd’s very publicized death in 2020, much of the country’s attention turned towards issues of race, riots, and injustice. These two churches came together to read How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and had book discussions. Intergenerational conversations began to happen: what causes riots? What should a protest look like? And most importantly, what should the response of God’s people be when injustice occurs?
This work, however, did not stop with book or church discussions. Marquette Park has become more and more committed to social justice work. They’ve been involved in the efforts in the city of Gary to implement and secure funding for a Mental Mobile Health Response Unit. PastorLeah noted, “Church members have been holding and speaking at town hall meetings, city council meetings, rallies, and even before the Governor at the State House to push for government funding of the Mobile Mental Health Units both in Gary and across the state.” Now that funding has been secured, the church will shift to spreading awareness throughout the community that these units are available and explain how to utilize them.
The Mental Mobile Health Response Unit can be dispatched from 9-1-1 when it’s clear that what’s happening is a mental health issue. A team of trained mental health crisis responders arrive, assess the situation, and provide aid on-site. “The hope is that people can stay in their homes and out of institutions. But in more extreme cases where that’s not a possibility, they will provide transportation to a local mental healthcare facility for further intervention,” Pastor Leah added. This was modeled after a pilot version that was previously implemented in South Bend.
As Marquette Park UMC and Hobart UMC continue to learn from one another and seek social justice, Pastor Leah hopes that other churches can learn from her congregants. “Any pastor of any church could be doing the same sorts of things and could diversify. There’s not a secret ingredient; you just do it,” Pastor Leah explained.
To learn more about INUMC’s efforts to fight and condemn racism, click here.