In the small town of Cumberland, right on the eastern edge of Marion County, sits a soft red brick church at the corner of Washington Street and German Church Road. That red brick building is the current spiritual center for the congregation of St. John United Church of Christ. It is also the center of a heated debate on the structure’s future.
There is an offer on the table for the purchase of the church property from Giant Eagle, a grocery store chain based out of Pittsburgh, PA. Giant Eagle has expressed interest in building a GetGo convenience store at the location. The zoning request indicates it may include a gas station. If approved, the Cumberland location would be Giant Eagle’s second venture in Indiana. The first venture, a Giant Eagle grocery and a GetGo convenience store, is planned to open in Carmel this fall.
The congregation at St. John is ready and willing to take the deal and build a new church building at Prospect Street and Carroll Road. However the Town of Cumberland and east-siders with a nostalgic tug for tradition don’t want the corner of Washington and German Church to change.
For the church’s pastor, Dr. Jimmy Watson, it comes down to the salvation of a congregation.
Watson has the title of senior pastor, but he says that is only interim. “I was brought in to lead this congregation through this transition,” says Watson.
It’s a transition that began 5 years ago, before Watson’s time, when St. John tried to sell the church building and re-locate. The buyer at that time was pharmacy chain CVS. The town of Cumberland said no and worked with the city of Indianapolis to save their historic moniker by having the property declared an historic landmark. The effort halted the deal with CVS, but the St. John congregation proclaimed it was in no position to maintain the property. According to Watson, the town pledged to find a suitable buyer that would maintain the historic structure and take it off the church’s plate. But no buyer was found and the historic designation fell through. Technically, the owners of an historic landmark have to support the designation and St. John UCC didn’t.
The church property then went back on the open market.
“The ‘For Sale’ sign has been out front ever since , so it’s not like it was a big secret we were trying to sell,” says Watson.
It just took 5 years to find another buyer interested in the property.
The town of Cumberland has again voiced its opposition to the sale and demolition of the church. A Facebook page called “Save German Church” went online shortly after officials learned of the new Giant Eagle deal and people have been voicing their opinions. And let’s face it: The history of the church is an integral part of the area itself.
The church, first known as Deutsche Evangelistic St. Johannes Kirche, was created in 1855 as a place of gathering and worship for German farmers who had settled in the area. The current structure was built in 1913 and dedicated in 1914. German Church Road was so named because of that red brick building of German heritage. It’s that history and heritage that has the town of Cumberland and supporters shouting “Save German Church!”
The church congregation is sympathetic to the cry. They know that church building and its history better than anyone.
“The building was built with a soft brick more than 100 years ago,” explains Watson. “Back then, Washington Street and German Church Road were foot paths and dirt roads for horse and buggy or wagons.” The church has stayed in the same spot throughout that time, even as the community grew up around it. “[Over the course of time] Washington Street was widened and now the church is very close to the road,” says Watson. “The vibrations from large trucks and heavy traffic are literally crumbling the building. You can go down in the basement on any day and see the debris.”
Watson says the crumbling brick doesn’t even account for the other updates the church building needs just to bring it up to code.
“The building has several floors,” says Watson. “The elevator is almost always broken. People are always getting stuck in it. It doesn’t meet the needs of an aging congregation.”
Watson describes the utility bills as astronomical thanks to old plumbing, old wiring, and old boilers for the HVAC system. The sum of the renovations desperately needed add up to $750,000.
“That [$750,000] would be on top the sale of the property at fair market value,” says Watson. “At some point you have to ask, even after the money is spent, is it still viable?”
The town of Cumberland wants to see the history and heritage of the church structure preserved, regardless of what the structure holds.
“That intersection is the gateway to Cumberland,” said Andrew Klinger, Cumberland town manager (on the “Save German Church” Facebook page). “We see greater potential uses that would create a sense of place and generate more tax revenue than another gas station. We are not opposed to Giant Eagle and would be pleased to have them build their facility on a more appropriate site, but this is the wrong location.”
Watson says while he understands the town’s desire to maintain the integrity of the intersection, there hasn’t been a lot of support from the town to find a buyer that would fit what the town is looking for. And he doesn’t think his congregation will last long enough for a “suitable” buyer to be found. Churches of varying denominations across the country have been losing parishioners and dying on the proverbial vine for several years. St. John United Church of Christ has suffered its losses like so many others. Watson says the denomination as a whole has been bleeding since 2005 when, at a national conference, the UCC became the first protestant denomination in America to affirm same sex marriage. As expected, some members left the church for other, less progressive denominations. But others stayed and St. John survived.
“I tell people that the bleeding is stopping and the tide is turning,” says Watson. “All because of the changing perspective of the [same sex marriage] issue culturally.”
The numbers of parishioners left at St. John UCC averages about 50 people on any given Sunday. It’s that group that Watson is trying to hold together.
The interim pastor had hoped the attention the pending sale of the church had gathered would encourage people to come out on a Sunday morning and support what they say they are trying to save.
“I’m so naïve,” says Watson. “I thought crowds would show from people who want to save the church. But that hasn’t happened. It makes me wonder, ‘what exactly are they trying to save?’ Because there’s just not enough money in the collection plate.”
One man did come to the church armed with a $100 check to “put his money where his mouth was.” He even explained his actions and challenged others on the “Save German Church” Facebook site to do the same. That hasn’t happened either.
Both Watson and the town of Cumberland are trying to save a church. But is a church a building or the people who worship inside? For Watson, it’s the latter. And he says the church leaders within the UCC conference are watching as well.
“I tell the congregation that this is an opportunity for St. John to have a new church start,” says Waston. “A lot of changes are coming. A new building won’t guarantee growth, but it will provide for a new church start.”
He adds that the funds obtained from the property sale will allow the church to build a new worship center and an all-purpose activity center without incurring any debt.
The zoning hearing held Feb. 12 went in favor of Giant Eagle’s proposal for the church property. The plan must still pass two more hurdles. The next is scheduled in front of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Development Commission March 4.