Rev. Scott Sloan greets church members before the start of services at the Embassies of Christ Church in Gary, IN., the city's largest place of worship. | John Smierciak/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 11, 2014 6:17AM
Scott Sloan felt he lost his faith.
Not in Jesus Christ, but in churches, which had collectively let him down through the years. Too many, he believed, were not doing God’s work but man’s work, flawed by agendas, prejudices and judgments.
“You know, churches that just say ‘God bless you’ and hope things get better in your life,” he told me.
A 1983 graduate of Wirt High School in Gary, Sloan earned an industrial engineering degree from Purdue University and climbed the proverbial ladder of corporate America. For years, he was a top recruiter for information technology positions, where he “interfaced with clients,” as his resume states.
For a brief time, he interfaced with students as a volunteer teacher at a church. But it didn’t fulfill his expectations, in either the business or spiritual world.
“I swore to myself that I would never work for another church again,” he recalled.
And then, in 1999, God stepped in.
A friend of Sloan’s was teaching karate classes to youth at the Embassies of Christ Kingdom Ministries Church in Gary. One day, Sloan visited his friend there and also met with the church’s pastor, Cedric Oliver.
The two men hit it off and Sloan made Oliver a promise: The next time Oliver’s church had an early morning Sunday service, Sloan would attend.
“As fate would have it, the following Sunday the church had its first 8 a.m. Sunday service,” Sloan said. “I attended that day and I haven’t looked back since. I realized that this was exactly the type of church I had been looking for.”
In 2003, Sloan started working for the church as its business manager and, these days, he also is the property manager for the strip mall property next to the church.
Founded in 1990, the church is located at 4227 Cleveland St., just off Ridge Road. It’s been there for the past seven years, moving from its original location about a mile away. The relocation raised the church’s profile, its stature and, more notably, its membership numbers.
Today it’s the largest church in Gary, shadowing other powerhouse churches in this region, such as the Family Christian Center in Munster and First Baptist Church of Hammond. Those churches boast considerably larger congregations than most any other places of worship in Northwest Indiana.
Before Embassies of Christ moved to its current site, the church’s overall membership hovered around 1,300 parishioners. Today it boasts 5,600 members overall, mostly from Gary, though some members make the weekly pilgrimage from outside the city, including from St. John, Lowell, LaPorte, Portage and even Tinley Park, Illinois.
Typical Sunday services attract roughly 1,600 members, with another 800 believers converging there for a Wednesday night service.
Compare those numbers with, say, Living Hope Church in Crown Point, which is considered a very large church in this region. It has 350 “card carrying” members, with roughly 650 people there on any given Sunday, I’m told by church officials.
More than double that amount shows up on any given Sunday at Embassies of Christ in Gary, in a city that doesn’t attract a lot of outside worshippers. One church member told me that too many outsiders judge the massive church on its geographical location, not its theological merits.
“It has a large congregation for a reason,” she told me.
One of those reasons is its popular “Food 4 U” program, started in 2011 through a partnership with Jelly’s Pancake House in Merrillville. The monthly program is a brainchild of the Rev. Oliver and Jelly’s owner, Steve Vlahos.
The ongoing event-turned-evangelism offers breakfast to guests, plus free food baskets and groceries. Church buses drop off hundreds of families from other areas of the city. Some families walk there from nearby neighborhoods.
In 2011, I quietly showed up to see firsthand how it worked. Though I searched for a “catch,” I came away very impressed. The only catch was my eternal salvation, the same catch I find at any church of any faith in any city.
“Our pastors are real and they’re transparent,” Sloan said. “People pick up on that.”
I heard from a few former church members that didn’t appreciate being asked so many questions by the church. Or that there is an ATM inside the church, which hints at suggestive donations, or tithing, during each service.
“A church is no place for an ATM,” hissed Clarence T. of Gary.
Sloan said, “We do all of this giving to the community strictly from the tithing from our church members. We just don’t stop giving. It never stops amazing me how this community has responded.”
Sloan, as well as the church’s senior pastors, Cedric and Joyce Oliver, do not live in Gary, but in Merrillville. “Just seven minutes away from the church,” Sloan said.
Embassies of Christ is expanding its reach, not in Northwest Indiana but in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
“That city has been very receptive to us,” Sloan noted.
In Gary, a city under siege by crime, poverty and reputation, what is the church doing to help resurrect it? Plenty, Sloan says.
“Now more than ever it is our role to help combat violence in this city,” he told me. “Our mission is to help get this city back on its feet. We’re up to the task.”
The church, which employs a staff of 50, offers numerous projects to do so, including its transitional housing program started in 2001. It provides free housing for families with all utilities paid for up to two years.
Also a new program is in the works training residents to find jobs — the biggest factor to the city’s salvation — as well as a resume writing seminar and home buying workshop.
“We want people to know that excellence still resides in Gary, and we’ve offered to partner with City Hall on several projects,” Sloan said.
City spokeswoman Chelsea Whittington says the church is a “great community partner,” donating its services and resources to many events.
Sloan calls it “nothing short of a miracle” that the church has blossomed into its current powerhouse status, despite the busloads of challenges dropped off at its doors each Sunday.
“Yes, times are hard,” Sloan said. “But God is still God.”