The following article chronicling God's work in the city of Indianapolis in recent decades is a guest post by Russ Pulliam. Russ is an associate editor at the Indianapolis Star, serves on the board of and contributes to WORLD magazine, and is an elder of the Second Reformed Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis.
Twenty years ago the inventor of compassionate conservatism put Indianapolis on the map, but not for basketball or the 500 Mile Race. Marvin Olasky identified the city as a model for church-state cooperation to help the poor in his book, Compassionate Conservatism.
Marvin’s earlier book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, had caught the attention of leading conservative political figures, especially Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Politically Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign benefited from this new theme, allowing the Republicans to challenge the traditional Democratic Party claim of a monopoly on compassion for the needy.
Olasky visited Indianapolis in 1999, and then Mayor Stephen Goldsmith was winding up a second term of bringing free market competition to city services. Goldsmith had businesses running city golf courses and collecting garbage, privatizing traditional city government services. His competitive emphasis attracted national attention, and other mayors borrowed from his playbook. Goldsmith’s efforts built on what was then a 25-year effort to move Indy from minor to major league status, by attracting sports organizations and events such as the NCAA and Pan Am Games.
With less national attention Goldsmith had asked Indy pastors and nonprofits to help with social problems of the homeless, broken families and drug addiction. As county prosecutor before he was mayor, Goldsmith had seen evangelical Christian ministries develop a track record with tough social problems that defied good government intentions. Rescue missions, for example, gave food and shelter to the homeless, as well as a spiritual route out of addiction. He didn’t offer government grants but pointed to the city’s dwindling property tax base. He could wax eloquent about how government had none of the spiritual resources that he had seen in the faith-based nonprofits.
What is intriguing is how these faith-based efforts have multiplied in Indianapolis long after Bush made compassionate conservatism a national issue.
Olasky’s first stop on his 1999 tour is still going strong – 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, putting a city cop and a trained social worker on his staff to patrol the center’s zip code more creatively than waiting for the emergency 911 calls. Shepherd, which also has a next-door Nazarene church, also now has a K-5 school offering a better student-teacher ratio than the public schools.
Another stop on Marvin’s tour was Christamore House, a community center on the west side, then run by Olgen Williams. 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 through nonprofits. Then an unknown Republican Greg Ballard upset an incumbent Democrat for mayor, Bart Peterson, in 2007. Williams became Ballard’s deputy mayor for those two terms. Williams toyed with running for mayor himself in 2015 but opted not to take the plunge but is still active in neighborhood service.
Several inner-city pastors are active in the crime-fighting Ten Point Coalition. The coalition encourages African-American pastors to walk the streets to combat crime and violence in the inner city. The group has become controversial for attracting support from Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence and then Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions. The pastors are almost all Democrats, and their critics object to them collaborating with Republicans. Other critics wonder about the alliance’s effectiveness, though some city officials think the group has helped slow down the crime rate in some areas. “We’re going to work with whoever’s in the seat, because for us it’s all about bringing down the homicides,” explains Rev. Charles Harrison of the Ten Point Coalition.
Olasky also featured Tim Streett in his book, describing how Streett had moved into the inner city as a missionary for a suburban church, launching an urban gymnastics ministry that later became part of Shepherd Community Center. Tim is now working on a doctorate on measuring the effectiveness of some of Shepherd’s ministries. He has identified ten assets, such as income, health and knowledge of the dominant culture. But he also has identified other assets such as relational capacity, a future orientation and faith, and he offers seminars on poverty for churches.
What’s startling in Indianapolis is the surprising number of new faith-based attempts to help people in need, sometimes from business leaders pursuing significance rather than success in the second half of their lives. They are looking at a bottom line that can’t be measured on a traditional balance sheet. Maybe it’s supply and demand – we have more crime, more drug abuse and broken families, so the supply of spiritual efforts has multiplied. Or it could be something more, the work of the Holy Spirit for a small revival and reformation.
JOBS FOR THE HOMELESS
Purposeful Design came from businessman David Palmer’s Bible studies with homeless men at Wheeler Mission. Often thwarted by criminal records or bad habits, the men kept asking Palmer to help them find jobs. So Palmer prayed about it and started a small business for custom furniture making. It keeps getting bigger – $1.4 million in sales in 2018, coming close to breaking even, with 15 employees, capturing a niche in a competitive market.
Purposeful Design also has launched a skills training program, offering Purdue University certification. The school offers potential new employees for the furniture work, as well as an expansion of job options for the needy in the larger Indy area in a time of low unemployment and employers scrambling for workers.
HEART HELP FOR WOMEN
Palmer’s wife Cindy has launched a discipleship initiative for women, who often have saved a baby from potential abortion through the Life Centers, a local network of crisis pregnancy centers. Cindy Palmer’s Heart Change Ministries includes personal discipleship and tutoring for the women to help them boost workplace skills. Some work in a small soap business, and others live in the ministry’s Covenant Community homes, to avoid moving from one place to another so often. Several middle class Christian families, including David and Cindy Palmer, have moved into the same neighborhood in an effort to build a supportive faith-based community across traditional racial and economic barriers.
LOVING HOMELESS TEENS
Eric Howard was helping homeless teens from the trunk of his car in the 1990s, but his Outreach Inc. ministry now works with several hundred, with a new drop-in center near downtown Indianapolis. “We’re trying to bring a point of stability to homeless kids,” he says. “Our kids come to us with big trauma, hurt, sometimes mental illness, sometimes addictions.” He’s had some help from business friends, especially a politically powerful Republican lawyer, Bob Grand, whom he met in a Bible study. Grand is a kingmaker and big fund-raiser in Indiana politics, but Howard didn’t find out about that until much later.
“Bob was just this guy from a Bible study,” Eric recalled of their early meetings, when he invited Grand to be on his board of directors. “I had no idea who he really was.” Grand is not shy or retiring when it comes to legal matters or politics, but he tends to be quiet about his Outreach service. “You have to do things in life whether you get credit or not,” he says. “It doesn’t matter whether you get credit or not.”
INDY’S AFRICAN-AMERICAN SPURGEON
If Indianapolis had a Charles Spurgeon award, the nomination could go to Eastern Star Church Pastor Jeffrey Johnson. He’s been preaching a gospel message for 30 years, seeing the Lord expanding what was the small Eastern Star church to about 15,000 members at three sites. Johnson preaches in all three places on Sundays and has assisted in planting several other churches.
The predominantly African-American church has intensified salt and light efforts in the low-income neighborhood around the original home church. Their Rock Initiative includes tutoring at the nearby public school as well as home ownership opportunities for low income families. Johnson doesn’t aspire to what was once called the social gospel. He just wants to preach salvation in Jesus Christ and the priority of discipleship. “I can only do one thing,” he says. “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 others around him in the church have gone on to apply their faith to good works.
FROM HOLLYWOOD REFORMATION TO NEIGHBORHOOD RENEWAL
Jeff Sparks ran a Christian children’s home for delinquent young people in the 1980s. Then he launched Heartland Film Festival, which brings Hollywood stars to Indianapolis to highlight common grace films, yet not necessarily with an obvious Christian message. Now Sparks is a neighborhood organizer, working in a low-income area decimated by a loss of traditional manufacturing jobs and urban blight. He’s assisted residents in banding together to attract the city’s new justice center, in hopes of bringing new job opportunities, along with recruiting new commercial and residential investment.
POVERTY AS DIVINE INTERVENTION
Slightly north of Sparks, in an even tougher neighborhood, Jim Strietelmeier leads the Neighborhood Fellowship. Planted originally by the suburban Zionsville Fellowship, the church is surrounded by vacant buildings and broken families. They have a medical clinic and work readiness options, but the Christian gospel is the priority. Strietelmeier grew up in the city’s major rescue mission, Wheeler Ministries. He is not so inclined to launch any war on poverty. “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.” One measurable benefit of the ministry: emergency room visits from that zip code have declined with the help of the medical clinic.
OUT OF PRISON, INTO CHURCH
To the north of the Neighborhood Fellowship is another church for the down and out. Brookside Community Church is a congregation that welcomes former prison inmates, as a bridge from prison back to the city. Originally a plant by the suburban Northview Church, Brookside now has some houses for former inmates, along with job placement and a food co-op. Volunteers from nearby and the suburbs play a key part. Pastor David Cedarquist has learned a key point about prevention of recividivism, or the cycle of coming out of prison and back to crime: If an ex-offender finds a friend at Brookside, chances are much better that he won’t go back to more crime. One example: Coi Taylor has not only walked away from any more drug charges but also is playing a key leadership role at Brookside, trying to set an example to other young men with an absent father.
SALVATION BEHIND BARS
William Bumphus has taken his own conversion to Christ behind bars, almost 40 years ago, and started sharing it with other prisoners behind bars in the Midwest. Along the way he saw how new believers, coming back to Indy after prison, needed a place to live. He launched the Jesus House in an old nursing home in a low-income are, with room for about 40 ex-inmates. Some of the men find jobs, and all of them must attend regular Bible studies at the house. His own background in poverty and crime gives Bumphus an edge in this ministry. He counsels the men confrontationally, trying to wean them away from any victim mentality.
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 and dreamed about substitute families for some of the young people who were bounced around the court system. Now that dream is coming true at the New Song Mission on 100 acres in a rural area south of Indianapolis. Schloss, his wife Lisa, a social worker, and small staff, have opened doors for several young girls offering homes that include house parents and a small school. The timing may be good, in a sad way, as the opioid abuser is hitting families across Indiana. “I knew of kids who had been in and out of juvenile centers, foster homes and shelters 15 and 16 times beginning at the ages of 8 and 9 until they are 17,” Schloss said. “When we see a child 11 years old with 3 prior placements in foster care, we need to look at a different option.”
RACIAL DIVERSITY IN CLASSICAL EDUCATION
The idea was a 50-50 black-white racial balance with a classical education model on a Christian foundation in one of the worst Indy neighborhoods. Now 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 a strong scholarship effort, along with a rigorous classical curriculum that includes Latin in third grade. Another feature is constant memorization of classical texts, including the Bible. The neighborhood around the the original school campus has grown with the Oaks, from a high crime place nicknamed “Dodge City" to less crime and housing and business renewal, along with a thriving Redeemer PCA church.
FIGHTING POVERTY WITH ENTREPRENEURISM
Indy civic leader Jay Hein is helping business entrepreneurs invest in a battle against poverty and make a small profit. Running the Sagamore Institute, Hein offers the Commonwealth Fund, giving investors a small 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 efforts to help the needy. They watch two bottom lines – the traditional financial one and the bottom line of human progress, which is harder to measure by numbers and formulas.
Jim and Nancy Cotterill, a husband-wife business/journalist team, have launched a nonprofit to offer support to inner-city churches, sometimes connecting them with suburban churches. They call it Unite Indy, an attempt at racial reconciliation and connection of urban and suburban churches. They were recently honored with a Martin Luther King Freedom Award from the Indiana Minority Business Magazine, for connecting pastors and other faith leaders with one another in a new way for the city.
OLD CHURCH, NEW VISION
Englewood Christian Church was one of the city’s older and historic churches, facing the question of whether to move to the suburbs like other churches. Englewood stayed, and Pastor Mike Bowling came from Pittsburgh around the time when the church was celebrating its 100th anniversary in 1995 and moved into the old neighborhood. The church he’s led might look like a social gospel ministry, with low-income housing, child care, a community development corporation and home ownership options. He and other Englewood leaders have avoided a 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 Bowling, who has several of his sons now living in the neighborhood and engaged with the church.
A NEW WAR ON POVERTY
Civic leader Mike Smith has had a ringside seat on Indy’s progress for more than 40 years, as a top executive for several big businesses. Seeing the city prosper at one level, he and his wife Sue have worried over the growing poverty. They launched a grant-making initiative, the Faith & Action Project, emphasizing practical results over good intentions. Officially retired, Smith still serves on so many corporate boards that he can confess to being “overboarded.” But that business mindset is good for his current passion, helping nonprofits look for measurable results. “If we can put a man on the moon, we can reduce the crippling influence poverty has in central Indiana,” he sums up.
OLDER BUT STAYING ON MISSION
Many of these initiatives are new, but the granddaddy of them all is Wheeler Mission, which just celebrated its 125th birthday last year. It’s been a rescue operation for homeless men but now also helps women and children. The shelter offers a bed and food for men off the streets. Those who commit to Christ can go to Camp Hunt in a rural location south of Indianapolis for discipleship training, as well as sheltered work, making pallets.
PRAYING FOR POLITICIANS
Politically Indiana has changed from purple to red and blue. Indianapolis has a strong Democratic majority, along with several other cities. The state is firmly conservative, and conservative Republicans hold virtually all the statewide offices. Conservative Democrats used to be competitive for legislative seats in the southern part of the state, making statewide races winnable for either party.
Transcending the red-blue divide in state government is the Public Servants Prayer ministry. As an informal chaplain in state government, Matt Barnes launched his initiative 15 years ago, becoming almost a pastor to many members of the General Assembly. He earns praise from members of both parties for staying away from the political issues and ministering in prayer and pastoral care to the 150-member General Assembly and state government employees.
State Rep. Randy Frye likes to introduce Barnes as the most powerful man in the General Assembly. Frye is not talking about political influence. He means that Barnes has personal access to the governor, the House speaker and the other top state officials in government, because he is a pastor with no political agenda.
Barnes talks about how he loves politicians as he urges churches to pray for government officials. “God loves people,” he has explained to skeptical audiences. “Politicians are people. God loves politicians. So I do too.”
Matt’s ministry is built on an informal network of believers in the state, led in the 1980s and 1990s by former Secretary of State Ed Simcox. Simcox led a Bible study for General Assembly members in the 1980s, when some of us also would pray together in his office to make the city and state as well known for the Lord as it is for auto racing. We had learned from the Pittsburgh example that a city might not get saved the way some of us had come to salvation at church at or a Billy Graham Crusade. But a city could benefit from spiritual salt and light with the application of God’s Word to all areas of life. We collaborated informally on issues like prison reform, pro-life initiatives and inner city ministries. What held us together were these informal times of prayer and friendships that grew across political or social divisions.
Matt’s pastoral leadership has been one of the answers to those 1980s prayer meetings, and he is more organized and visible than many of us were, as we stayed behind the scenes, working at our jobs, serving in the General Assembly or, in my situation, reporting and writing for the local newspaper.
Behind most of these initiatives is at least one or several churches in Indianapolis. Some come with direct church sponsorship, such as those growing out of the Englewood Christian Church near downtown. Others are supported by several churches, which sometimes include the ministries in a missions budget. Yet hardly any are under the direct supervision of a church board of elders. These organizations tend to be para-churches, in the best sense of the word, coming alongside the churches and offering the city all kinds of ways to serve in initiatives that could be too large for any one church to sponsor.
What’s interesting is how Indiana lands on two maps. One is a kind of spiritual map, with the growing number of kingdom initiatives in response to poverty and other social issues.
The other map is based on civic and business matters, as Indianapolis has become known as a friendly place for tech companies, as well as a destination for amateur sports, including the NCAA and a spot for big sports events such as the NBA all-star game in 2021.
In their book, The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write on the theme, “How cities can thrive in an age of populism.” The hint seems to be, if you don’t love Donald Trump, there is still hope for America at other levels of government.
Indianapolis is a case study in their book, for rethinking governance. They explain how city officials and civic leaders pursued first the idea of attracting sports to the city in the 1980s, then tech initiatives after 2000. They note the importance of cooperation between government and the private sector, as well as the impact of large local foundations. They use the word “networking” to identify the importance of personal relationships of trust. They add the importance of the city’s string of strong mayors since Richard Lugar was first elected in 1967. Behind the book is an unspoken theme of Jer. 29:7, to seek the welfare of the city in which you live, which was God’s command to Israel in the exile in Babylon.
As a news analyst I had not realized the quality of our mayors until I was set straight by urban expert Fred Siegel, a New York City resident and author of a Rudy Giuliani biography. In interviews Siegel would tell me how great our mayors were – Richard Lugar, Bill Hudnut, Steve Goldsmith, Bart Peterson. When Peterson was upset by an unknown Republican Greg Ballard in 2007, Siegel said it was another sign of urban vitality. In most big cities, he explained, an incumbent could not be challenged and beaten, unless the person had been indicted of a crime. Civic and voter engagement was running deep in Indianapolis.
So sometimes it takes a New Yorker to help us count our blessings out here in Midwestern flyover country.
What’s instructive about most of these initiatives is that they did not originate with the government, and most of them do not rely on government grants. Yet they are tackling tough social issues, such as the homeless and poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, inmates coming back from prison. With many heartaches along the way, these ministries are making incremental steps of progress to lift people out of homelessness or alcohol abuse, and some of their children are getting better opportunities at education than their parents had. It could be called a war or poverty, or it just could be Christians attempting to apply the many commands of Scripture about the poor and needy.