Four faith centers in Munster total 25,000 souls. These faith communities are strong and active, in Munster, surrounding communities, and beyond. And other churches are also active in the town.
At least three factors help sustain this level of engagement, according to their clergy.
Engaging for God
At Temple Beth-El, Rabbi Leonard Zukrow tends a flock of 300, including about 40 children in religious school.
“My favorite aspect (of being a rabbi) is the notion of being a connector, one who draws people into connection with their Judaism and living a Jewish life,” Zukrow said. “It defines the work I do because my task every day is, how do I get people engaged in the beauty of Judaism and Jewish life? I work at it diligently, with anyone, to say how my traditions inform what I do and why.”
The Rev. Peter Speckhard, senior pastor for two years at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church/School, said his favorite part of ministry is “the joy of being a pastor, from teaching Bible study to visiting shut-ins to being there for people’s most important days — weddings, funerals, the whole spectrum of life — that I am there for them.”
With Associate Pastor Donald Stock, he ministers to the 1,700 members and its pre-kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school with about 165 students.
Senior Pastor the Rev. Mike Yadron at St. Thomas More Catholic Church/School, said, “As a priest my most important thing is to bring the sacraments to people, whether it’s a wedding, baptism — all are near and dear to my heart.”
The parish, opened in 1946, numbers about 8,000, one of the largest parishes in the Diocese of Gary, with an associate pastor, the Rev. Ted Mauch, and four deacons who perform all priestly duties except the central Mass with communion.
At Family Christian Center, “Seeing the lost saved and come into the family of Christ is the most cherished part of my work,” said Senior Pastor the Rev. Stephen Munsey.
Pam Ross, director of leadership development and community relations, adds, “We hope we are helping people to improve their connection with Jesus Christ, loving God and people, flooding the world with better people with the Judeo-Christian values our country was founded on.”
The congregation of 15,000, with five associate pastors, is the largest in Indiana, said Ross. Munsey said using performing arts to reach a sight and sound generation is important, with a mix of traditional and contemporary music “helping people recognize there’s more than just you in the building, more interested in seeing people come to Christ,” Ross added.
St. Paul’s, which supports missionaries, began its own yearly mission trips to remote rural areas in Alaska after church members who went there saw the need. The church also supports two shelters in Gary: Lydia House for women, and Bakery House for men. There’s a year-round food drive for a Munster pantry plus food baskets, and a ministry is forming for men to help with quick, special projects for needy families and on the St. Paul's campus.
“We’ve begun going to every single door in the neighborhood, inviting people to church. Lots of people have a church, which is fine, but many don’t, and have the need for one,” said Speckhard. “It’s also one way to keep connected with members.”
St. Thomas More engages in more than 50 ministries, including visiting the sick and shut-ins. A committee cares for the bereaved, and volunteers work in two local soup kitchens. A knitting group makes lambs for people in care facilities, praying for them as they knit. There’s care for “the gamut of young and old, ill and healthy.”
At Beth-El Temple, Zukrow is on the board of the Northwest Indiana Food Bank and Hospice of the Calumet Area. Volunteers help at schools and with organizations including Hospice Artisans, hospitals and animal shelters, and belong to many civic organizations.
“It all emerges from the Jewish teaching that we are obligated to be inclusive and engaged in our communities to support and help,” said Zukrow, also praising his staff and lay leaders.
At Family Christian Center, 700-plus elders keep in touch with congregants, including via technology. In Griffith, free food, clothing, and counseling are offered, and outreach includes Northwest Indiana and nearby Illinois areas.
Vision for the future
Yadron said with commitments to the church and Catholic education, “we intend to be here for a good long time.” A very visible, 25-year presence continues: the annual St. Thomas More Parish Festival. The festival, held this year on June 22-26, offers rides, food vendors, a beer garden and a dance tent, and is “very much a community event.”
“We also look for evangelizing outreaches for our inactive people — reaching out to those who have fallen away from the fold — and our pastoral council prays for vision looking ahead.”
Ross said the mega-church began small, 50-plus years ago at a VFW hall. Now feeling connected to others in a large church can be challenging, so expansion is planned for the café area, a space to spend time together. A growing online community live-streams worship services all over the world.
At St. Paul’s, a continued connection with all members is vital, “because church doesn’t occupy the same place in people’s lives that it did,” Speckhard said. “Even members might come less frequently than weekly.” He adds, “St. Paul’s does well in seeking to reach beyond any kind of ethnic identity.”
Zukrow notes the faith community faces new challenges; the fastest-growing religious category is people with no affiliation with a faith community.
“It is sad; positive engagement with a congregation that is growing outwardly and inwardly helps craft an understanding of the world from the perspective of history and theology,” he said. “I hope this for the entire range of churches in the Munster area,” especially among millennials, about 20 years old. “We as a community need to attempt to meet the needs they have, and to demonstrate an American value for a faith community in their lives.
“I believe we can arrive at a place where engagement is possible for everybody … to enrich their lives using our traditions to inform a meaningful life, being present for each other in the community in times of joy and in times of sorrow, a community that allows its members to be the best they can be.”