The city of Gary, Indiana, epitomizes the problems of the rust belt.
In 1960, it was a bustling city powered by steel mills and a hard-working population of more than 178,000. Since that time, mills have closed and others have drastically reduced their workforces, leaving Gary a city of boarded-up windows with a worried population of about 80,000.
Some believe there is no hope for Gary and its residents. In fact, when The Fuller Center for Housing announced the signing of a new covenant partner there, one Facebook commenter wrote: “What Gary needs is a bomb dropped on it.”
“Of course, I don’t share that opinion,” said the Rev. Chet Johnson, pastor of New Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church and leader of The Fuller Center’s newest U.S. covenant partner. “Gary can’t be helped by people who don’t want to help. Just as Paul had hope for Corinth, when you establish the right foundation and right principles, something good can come out of any situation that man deems as something that can’t be achieved.
“Gary is a vital area for Northwest Indiana,” he added. “People who understand a community’s possibility and potential would recognize that Gary is definitely one of those areas. There are a lot of people who have investments in Gary. They may not necessarily make themselves known as an investor because they know the stereotype that might be there. But they recognize the value there, and they’re willing to invest.”
“Gary is a city that has suffered tremendously from economic dislocation over the past 20 or 25 years,” said Fuller Center for Housing President David Snell, who was in Gary one week ago to meet with Johnson, along with city and state leaders. “It’s a city in economic distress. But it’s a place with people in it who want to make their lives better and want to make Gary a better place to live. So it’s a natural place for The Fuller Center to try to bring a ray of sunshine into a bleak area.”
What Snell saw during this and another visit to Gary was a city with plenty of need but also a core group of people determined to help their neighbors.
“Like any city, there are folks there who are full of optimism and look to the future, expecting it to be brighter,” Snell said. “Pastor Chet Johnson has taken the leadership, and he’s a dynamo who gets things done. Like a lot of folks who get things done, he’s in high demand, so we’re grateful to have him be able to give some of his time to The Fuller Center. Others have come forward and said they want to be a part of it — leaders in the community and the mayor’s office is very much behind it, as is the governor’s office. The governor of Indiana would like to see some improvements in Gary, as well. We’ve got all the right people coming together to make something happen.”
Johnson worked 20 years as an engineer for General Electric in the area of power generation, but a higher power led him to leave that six-figure salary behind for the pulpit. He appreciates that The Fuller Center is unwavering in its Christian principles.
“What I like about it is that you won’t compromise your Christian faith for the purposes of receiving funds from the king,” he said. “That’s the part that really grabbed me. If the king wants to give it, that’s fine, but not under the condition of me having to compromise the faith that I’m building this thing on.”
The Fuller Center for Housing of Gary had its first board meeting on Monday and is all but official. Johnson said the momentum has a lot to do with the interest shown by Fuller Center representatives and state officials.
“It’s good to see when people outside the community are willing to come in and invest their time and their effort into making something better for the people that are there,” he said. “And it’s getting them away from the attitude of being dependent on what other folks give them without also having the variable in the equation of ‘What folks give me gives me an opportunity to give to somebody else.’ And that’s what Fuller Center for Housing does. It’s not your handout type of service, but a help-you-up type of service.”
There already is a major 10-house build in Gary tentatively scheduled for August 24-29 of next year. By wrapping up on August 29, the build would end on the birthday of one of Gary’s most famous sons — the late Michael Jackson.