Bringing the Lord of Life Home
The Rev. Delwyn Campbell’s love for Gary, Ind., brought him back home to serve as a national missionary to the city.
The Indiana air had a peculiar smell of cap-gun residue from the U.S. Steel plant down the road.
“It’s like the twilight zone,” said the Rev. Delwyn Campbell, new national missionary to his hometown of Gary, Ind., as he drove under the highway and saw the plant in front of him. On that April afternoon, the clouds over unseen Lake Michigan loomed darker than the Gary skyline behind.
Campbell sees opportunity where others perceive roadblocks. After arriving at the steel plant, he bypassed the roped line to greet employees. After exchanging pleasantries, he told them about his return to his childhood home of Gary as an ordained pastor and national missionary for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS).
Campbell is on a mission, and he’s God’s pick for Gary. He never passes up an opportunity to witness — even at a steel plant. His call is to the flailing city of 77,000 people, which is down hundreds of thousands of residents since its peak in 1960 as a flourishing commercial and industrial city.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 37 percent of Gary’s residents teeter on the brink of poverty. It’s hard to miss the dilapidated buildings and the lack of activity in the city. As Campbell drives down Broadway, the architecture and signage change noticeably, indicating the progression from boom to bust.
Yet, this city does not deserve its ghost town reputation.
A Long History
Campbell has a history with the city. His grandfather owned the largest trash company in the area, which was given to him by the previous owner when his grandfather found the owner’s wallet in the dump and returned it. His father lived in a nearby house — now abandoned by the current owner — and Campbell remembers making errand runs as a kid to the convenience store while men played checkers outside.
Like all missionaries, Campbell needs financial and prayer support. He can’t proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ without it. It’s hard for him to be a parish pastor for one church; a fill-in for another; a missionary to school families of an old Lutheran school under renovation; a husband to his wife, Lenita; and a father to their three children without the tangible means to carry out the ministry.
But it’s not just about Campbell in Gary. Other missionaries in the United States under the Synod’s Mission Field: USA initiative need support to proclaim the Gospel in their own part of the country. All around America, national missionaries are proclaiming the Gospel right in our own backyards.
St. John’s Lutheran Church, founded in 1870, protects the city from a foe they don’t even recognize. The grand steeple, built in 1922, towers over the surrounding buildings. The sanctuary is stunning — classic early 20th-century altar, gleaming gold cross in the center, soaring stained-glass windows and arched ceilings. It’s definitely Lutheran.
Campbell walks into the church office. He dances a finger across records of church history, landing on lists of baptisms handwritten in German. The phone rings and Campbell picks up. He’s both parish pastor and, occasionally, church administrative assistant.
Low-slung storefront buildings slink along the street. Step out of St. John’s doors, and Full Gospel Church of God, Inc. is straight ahead. Turn to the right, and you’ll see the sign of Spirit of God East Fellowship. Drive around a corner, and there’s St. John Universal Temple. Down that road is Universal Hagar’s Spiritual Church. There are a lot of churches in Gary.
Campbell said he once talked to a woman who thought there was a curse on the city. She reached this conclusion because even with churches on every corner, Gary is so poor. Campbell’s conclusion? The Lord’s sheep are being led astray by false hopes.
The decline “didn’t happen all at once,” he said. “It happened slowly and steadily, like the rain on some of the roofs out here, till we got to where we are now.” Jobs evaporated as retailers left town. “Life got sucked out of here,” he said.
A Shepherd for This City
Nestled into a residential neighborhood close to St. John’s is St. Philip Lutheran Church. If you’ve ever seen an A-frame house, then you’re familiar with this church’s architecture. It’s in a tantalizing location for ministry, and the single-digit congregation can’t afford the pulpit supply. When Campbell came back to town, he found a congregation “desperately trying to hold on.”
Anthony King lives right across the street from St. Philip. Occasionally, he mows the lawn at the church, but King mainly cares for his aging parents at the house. Campbell had struck up a conversation with King on a previous visit and learned that if only there was a ramp for his wheelchair-bound parents to ascend to St. Philip, they would attend services at the church. A new family would effectively double the church membership.
Campbell searches now for a way to have the ramp installed and hopes to encourage their fellow neighbors to come. Why drive 15 minutes away when the Lord’s gifts of Word and Sacrament are in your own backyard?
Earlier, Campbell stopped into Ascension Lutheran Christian School, where work is underway through an initiative of the LCMS Indiana District to open a new school in the old building. Church member Ron Webster wiped the sweat from his brow as he removed a stubborn locker door. Inside, he and Campbell found a dusty, circa 1974 Hong Kong Phooey lunchbox complete with Penrod Pooch leaping away in his Phooeymobile. If you forgot your lunchbox because your locker door wouldn’t open and attended the little school in Gary, you’re welcome to come and pick it up. They saved it for you.
The gunmetal gray sky matches the color of the city streets, and as the light fades in the evening so does the demarcation of ground and sky. At St. John’s, Campbell opens the church doors for a Wednesday Lenten service. The warmth of the lamps in the church narthex is like a toasty fireplace hearth.
During hymns, a member plays the piano, apologizing as she makes mistakes. But no one minds; they love their church. And it’s here in this warm sanctuary, on a frigid and icy night, that God brings His gifts to this little city and its devoted flock of Lutherans through an ever-smiling, soft-spoken pastor named Del Campbell.
From his childhood, Campbell still remembers Gary’s streets and that same cap-gun smell from the nearby steel plant. His love for this place and its people has brought him back home — and with him he’s brought the Lord of life to the place where he was raised.
Pray with Us
God, You promised to be with us in Your Word and Sacraments. Bless Pastor Campbell as he works to proclaim the truth of Your Word and to bring Your Holy Sacraments to the people of Gary, Ind. May Your Word be taught in our homes, and may we treasure the gathering together of Your Church to receive Your gifts. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
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