Stay or go? Religion and city growth in Indianapolis since World War II

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  • 1. Stay or Go? Religion and City Growth in Indianapolis Since World War II Prologue Occasional Paper Series vol. 1, no. 1
  • 2. Religion and City Growth Since World War II In February 1945, as World War II was entering its final months and as the reality of peacetime grew closer, the Indianapolis Times reported a citywide church expansion project that would surpass “anything the city has ever seen.” Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish groups collectively planned to build or renovate more than 50 congregational buildings, seven educational buildings, and more than 20 parsonages—almost $3 million worth of construction projects—across the metropolitan region. From the largest mainline Protestant denominations to the smallest Jewish congregation, everyone hoped the comprehensive building program would “convey a definite message to the returning service man. . . [both as] an expression of gratitude to him for his sacrifices to preserve the religious freedom as well as the desire to help him readjust to civilian life with the aid of adequate ‘church homes.’” [1] This comprehensive reconstruction of Indianapolis’s religious landscape was a scene recreated in metropolitan regions across the United States in the last half of the 20th century. Religious congregations confronted with suburbanization, the transformation of the rural periphery, and urban decline and renewal reacted in various ways. Reactions to these changes varied among individuals, congregations, and denominations. Some chose to cast their lot with the newly emerging suburban landscape; others sought to remain rooted to the urban center. Some embraced changes in the metropolis, while others tried to hold on to the past. For some congregations, the decision to confront the changing metropolis was intentional, while for others changes occurred imperceptibly. And in many cases, those congregations that were shaped by metropolitan changes shaped the city in turn. MOVING TO THE SUBURBS Between 1940 and 1960, Marion County gained almost 240,000 people, 60 percent of whom moved to the suburban periphery. [2] In the 1950s, almost 60 percent of the county’s area new housing stock was constructed in the suburban areas outside the existing city boundaries. (The city and county did not consolidate governments or share the same boundary until 1970.) Neighborhoods of the inner city lost population; Center Township’s proportion of the overall county population fell from almost 70 percent to less than 50 percent from 1950 to 1960. Residential movement to suburbia presented a particular dilemma for Indianapolis’s urban congregations. How should the congregation as a group of mobile individual members deal with the church as a physically rooted structure? The answer for many was to replant the building closer to the membership. Other congregations responded by rooting themselves even more deeply in the urban landscape. The suburban relocation of congregations cut across the religious spectrum. Indianapolis’ Jewish population, originally concentrated on the city’s near south side, migrated northward after World War II. By the late 1960s, the city’s five synagogues were all located north of 54th Street; no Jewish congregation was left on the south side. Many of the city’s largest and most prominent Protestant churches also left downtown for newly developing areas. Since the 1920s, both First Baptist Church and Second Presbyterian Church had known they would have to move out of downtown because of the War Memorial that the city had erected between them. By the 1950s, when the city wanted to expand the memorial, much of the membership of both churches had The Polis Center at IUPUI 1
  • 3. Religion and City Growth Since World War II already moved northward out of Indianapolis’s corporate boundary toward the rapidly developing area along 86th Street. By the end of the decade, both congregations had built imposing edifices on or near 86th Street. Congregational leaders rightly foresaw that downtown would become less central to people’s daily paths. Suburbanites would be less likely to travel downtown for church on Sunday if they did not travel downtown to shop or to work during the week. As First Baptist’s pastor bluntly argued, “Downtown churches have been in trouble ever since memberships began to move to suburbia; attendance and endowments fell and people began to have less time for church and more time for entertainment.” The response was to move to where the members were, and to build a church that provided both “entertainment” and “added to the religious atmosphere of the congregation and neighborhood.” The new First Baptist building, set in the “fast-growing suburban section close to the new North Central High School,” contained numerous facilities to minister to “the privileged children in the area”: a full-size basketball court in fellowship hall, a fully equipped stage including makeup rooms, baseball diamonds, and tennis courts. The church intended to become “a fifth quarter after the football and basketball games for the boys and girls of North Central and Broad Ripple and other schools.” [3] Although most congregations that moved out of the inner city were largely white, African- American churches also followed their members to the suburbs. Second Christian Church moved twice in the postwar period: from 9th Street to 29th Street in 1948; then to East 38th Street in 1982. The latter move was accompanied by a change in name to Light of the World Christian Church. In the late 1960s, Witherspoon Presbyterian Church relocated to an integrated middle-class area along north Michigan Street in Washington Township. The movement continued into the 1990s. One of Indianapolis’s largest African-American congregations, Eastern Star Baptist Church, with origins in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood, moved in 1994 to a new location on 30th Street on the far east side, an area where many middle-class blacks had settled. Some urban congregations, instead of relocating, helped their suburbanizing membership form new churches in their new neighborhoods. Congregational sponsorship benefited both old and new churches. For older churches, sponsoring a new congregation helped to fulfill a sense of church mission and maintain some relationship with worshippers who had moved away. For members of the new church, having an established congregation act as a sponsor provided a source of financial backing and organizational expertise. Sponsorship of missions was most evident among conservative evangelical Protestant congregations. First Southern Baptist Church of Indianapolis, founded in 1953 under the sponsorship of the First Southern Baptist Church of Connersville, Indiana, organized six new mission churches within a decade in all parts of Marion County, including Speedway Baptist Church on the west side and Eastern Heights Baptist Church on the northeast side. After East 49th Street Christian Church moved to East 91st Street, the newly relocated congregation began a project to sponsor 20 new congregations in 20 years, several of which were located in the newly developing subdivisions of Marion County and beyond. Sometimes, several congregations joined to sponsor a single church. In the 1950s, the newly formed Covenant Baptist Church, on Indianapolis’s west side, received supplies and money from The Polis Center at IUPUI 2
  • 4. Religion and City Growth Since World War II First Baptist Church, Lynhurst Baptist Church, and Tabernacle Baptist Church. Later in the decade, the west side’s new Chapel Hill Methodist Church received church furnishings from a number of other area Methodist congregations, including an altar donated by Speedway Methodist, a cross from North Methodist, 50 hymnals from Bethel Methodist, and offering plates from First Methodist of Carmel. Once founded, new congregations took control of their own situations. After Northwood Christian Church helped organized Crestview Christian Church in the early 1960s, Crestview’s members quickly developed their own community-building programs. Because the church was populated almost entirely by people new to the area, the congregation embarked on a “Hi, Neighbor” program. Each week, the church bulletin featured two families, with photographs, telephone numbers, addresses, and biographical information such as occupation and hobbies. Each family’s page was printed on a three-hole-punched paper to be inserted in a binder that members could buy from the church for one dollar. [4] Such a program reflected the conscious effort to create community among families whose sense of place and belonging had been disrupted by their relocation to suburbia. In addition to being sponsored by individual congregations, denominations sometimes formed new suburban churches. Often, denominational officers asked new congregations to follow strict guidelines that ensured the stability and health of a new church. The Disciples of Christ insisted that new congregations first form a New Church Study Committee to conduct a community survey of church needs, to develop human and financial leadership skills, and to work with existing Disciples congregations and denominational officials. In the South Indiana Conference of the Evangelical United Brethren Church (EUB), both the Urban Church Committee and the Town and Country Church Committee worked with new congregations in suburbanizing areas, organizing neighborhood surveys, and assisting in land purchases. Among religious groups in Indianapolis, the Catholics and the Methodists were the most active in forming new churches under denominational auspices. Between 1940 and 1965, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis established 18 new parishes around the periphery of the county. Often, the impetus for a new Catholic parish came from the central office, with input from lay Catholic families who wanted a more convenient church. In the case of the east side’s Holy Spirit Catholic Church, however, the push for a new church came not from the diocese but from a priest. In the early 1940s, the Reverend Francis Early suggested to Archbishop Joseph Ritter that the diocese open a parish on land owned by Early on Indianapolis’s far east side. Ritter seemed interested but wanted to wait until after the war before proceeding. In 1946, Early sold the land to the diocese on the condition that he be named pastor of the new parish and that he remain there as long as he lived. [5] Local Methodist denominational officials exerted considerable oversight in new church extension. In 1958, Methodist church consultant Murray Leiffer published a specially commissioned analysis of Indianapolis Methodists. Through his description of changes in the secular landscape and in individual churches, Leiffer hoped his report would “prove of much help in evolving a significant and comprehensive program for Methodism in metropolitan Indianapolis.” [6] Having this systematic research available and a denominational bureaucracy to assist them offered a welcome advantage for new suburban Methodist churches. The Polis Center at IUPUI 3
  • 5. Religion and City Growth Since World War II Denominational help made the initial months easier for new suburban congregations and sent a message that new churches were welcomed into the denominational community. Rural congregations also felt the tug of the city. Marion County had dozens of rural congregations in communities that, through the middle of the 20th century, had survived just beyond the metropolitan influence of Indianapolis. As the city spread its physical and cultural borders into the countryside, however, places such as Wanamaker in the southeast corner of the county, Castleton in the northeast, and New Augusta in the northwest were forced to adjust to the realities of suburbanization and metropolitanization. Often the central institutions in these reluctant suburbs, Marion County’s small-town churches felt the brunt of community transformation. Some rural congregations turned inward and sought to keep out newcomers, while others saw suburbanization as opportunities for growth and expansion. When suburban development and an interstate highway forced Castleton Methodist Church to sell its century-old property in 1968, the congregation decided to build a larger, more modern facility a couple of miles away. With the move, the congregation grew from a small country church into one of the largest Methodist congregations in the Indianapolis area. The desire to embrace suburban change sometimes outstripped the reality. Since its founding in 1837, Crooked Creek Baptist Church had served a quiet rural community in northwest Marion County along Michigan Road. In February 1945, however, the church announced plans to build a “city-type” church that would “bear no likeness to the usual stark country church whose only equipment is a pulpit and benches which feature little more than preaching and Sunday school lesson.” The changes were necessary because the many “Indianapolis folk who have moved from the city to its suburban neighborhood” were accustomed to larger, more formal sanctuaries. If it did not update its church style, Crooked Creek Baptist Church risked losing these potential worshippers. By ministering to its existing rural membership and attracting new members, the church hoped to become “the center of the community from which the whole patterns of its life, social and cultural as well as religious, will radiate.” Although suburbanization of the surrounding neighborhoods benefited the church by bringing in new members, the church never became the community center it had envisioned. New development brought other congregations to the area and, in time, Crooked Creek Baptist Church became just one of many houses of worship competing in the religious landscape. Sometimes, the rural-to-suburban transformation involved a conscious decision to become a “metropolitan-wide” church. In the southwest corner of the county, for example, demographic changes drained much of the local membership of Valley Mills Friends Church. The church in turn began to attract Quaker worshippers from across the city. By the 1980s, although the church was still geographically rooted in the community of Valley Mills, it had extended its reach to the whole metropolitan area. STAYING BEHIND IN THE INNER CITY The new development on the suburban periphery left its imprint on the inner city as well. The evacuation of suburbanizing congregations opened opportunities for the reuse of the church and synagogue buildings remaining behind. Congregations that moved sometimes sold their building The Polis Center at IUPUI 4
  • 6. Religion and City Growth Since World War II to a new church, often from an entirely different denomination or even faith. Thus, mainline Protestant and Jewish synagogues were replaced by black Baptist, Pentecostal, or other independent churches. When the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation moved from 10th and Delaware in 1958, the synagogue sold its building to Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, an interracial Pentecostal congregation. In other cases, the relocating congregation chose not to sell its building but instead adapted it to new uses. More recently, the shrinking congregation of Central Avenue United Methodist Church decided to adapt their structure by creating the Old Centrum as a local neighborhood center with mostly secular uses. At the same time that prominent churches such as First Baptist and Second Presbyterian followed their membership northward, other congregations chose to remain downtown. In January 1955, the pastor of Christ Church Cathedral, the Episcopal presence on Monument Circle, declared that downtown churches are necessary to “preserve the social influence of a community.” [7] His statement echoed others’ comments describing Broadway Methodist’s relocation out of downtown as a “tragedy” that “contributed to the moral, spiritual, and even economic decay” of downtown. [8] At the time, such voices were a minority amid the din of so many churches and synagogues relocating to the suburbs. But Christ Church’s pastor was not alone. A handful of other mainline Protestant congregations, such as Roberts Park United Methodist and First Lutheran Church, recognized a responsibility to their immediate environment. Over the next several years, these congregations worked informally to strengthen the downtown neighborhoods, a relationship made formal in 1963 with the creation of the Riley-Lockerbie Ministerial Association. The eight congregations involved—Christ Church Cathedral, Roberts Park Methodist Church, First Lutheran Church, St. John Catholic Church, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Central Christian Church, New York Street United Methodist Church, and Zion United Church of Christ—all had been downtown for at least 90 years, and some dated as congregations to the 1830s. Over the next two decades, these churches provided an institutional anchor for the downtown area, serving an often-transitional population. Further north, in the Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhood, another group of large, mainline Protestant congregations anchored a changing neighborhood. In 1961, Broadway Methodist Church, which had previously relocated from downtown, decided to stay in the neighborhood rather than to follow its membership further north. The church expanded its Neighborhood Ministries program, providing youth activities, a food pantry, and a health clinic for nearby residents. Five years later, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church also decided to stay and built a new educational wing. By 1970, Our Redeemer joined with two other large white churches, Tabernacle Presbyterian and North United Methodist, to form the Tri-Church Council (later known as the Mid-North Church Council) to provide area residents with programs and social services. Later, Broadway Methodist, Third Christian Church, and Trinity Episcopal Church also joined the council. [9] In both Riley-Lockerbie and Mapleton-Fall Creek, congregations consciously chose to adapt to changing surroundings. Members of these churches had moved away from the immediate neighborhood for outer suburbs. Once middle-class and mostly white areas were transformed within a few years to mostly lower-class and black neighborhoods. Rather than move the church to where the members were, the members continued to come back downtown for Sunday The Polis Center at IUPUI 5
  • 7. Religion and City Growth Since World War II services. They chose to maintain their congregations in the inner city and to reorient the church’s ministry to the realities of a changing neighborhood. Programs such as health clinics, food pantries, and job training were meant to link the churches with their neighbors. Although in some cases these programs did not result in stronger links between local residents and the congregation, they provided institutional anchors around which other groups such as community development organizations could grow. On the Southside, for example, community organizations of the 1960s were founded by the coalitions of religious organizations, and community centers in other neighborhoods had religious roots. Thus, even as churches were shaped by changing secular conditions, their responses left behind a lasting imprint on the urban environment. CONCLUSION Metropolitan Indianapolis continues to expand and now encompasses nine counties. As new development occurs on the suburban periphery, the cycle of abandonment and relocation recurs. Changes in the secular environment continue to challenge congregations. Should they place their hope in a new location on the metropolitan fringe? Should they stay put? Should they reclaim the inner city as their own? Whatever choice they make, congregations are not making these decisions in isolation but continue to be shaped by the broader metropolitan context. QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION 1. How has your neighborhood changed over the past half century? How have these changes affected you personally? How have they affected your congregation? 2. How have decisions made by your congregation shaped the neighborhood around you? How have they shaped the city as a whole? 3. How do actions in other parts of the metropolis affect your congregation? What seems to matter more—internal congregational decisions or external forces (political or economic)? The Polis Center at IUPUI 6
  • 8. Religion and City Growth Since World War II Endnotes [1] . Indianapolis Times, 19 February 1945. [2] . David J. Bodenhamer and Robert G. Barrows, The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 1506. [3] . Indianapolis News, 28 March 1960. [4] . Indianapolis Star Magazine, 30 December 1962. [5] . Holy Spirit Catholic Church, Holy Spirit Church, 1947-97(Indianapolis: 1997). [6] . Murray H. Leiffer, Church Planning for Methodism: Indianapolis and Vicinity (Evanston, Ill.: Bureau of Social and Religious Research, 1958), ii. [7] . Indianapolis Times, 24 January 1955. [8] . Indianapolis News, 18 January 1955. [9] . The Polis Center, “Mapleton-Fall Creek, Indianapolis, Indiana, A Timeline of Faith and Community, 1820-1996,” The Polis Center research files. Author: Etan Diamond The Polis Center at IUPUI 7