Pittsburgh churches

A New Church Grows in Troubled Towns

It’s Sunday morning at Rust City Church and Pastor Sam Yacoub is on stage talking about his mom’s pension problems.

“She retired from Delphi, with the promise of a pension and she retired thinking, ‘I’m going to spend time with my grandbabies and enjoy it,’” says Yacoub, dressed in a black baseball cap, denim jacket and black t-shirt with several visible holes. The Goodwill getup contrasts with the sleek setup of the auditorium: Stage lights shine down on Yacoub. The rock band that just roused the crowd for 30 minutes has been reduced to the murmur of one keyboard player. An audio-video team monitors everything from a tech booth on the other end of the room. The crowd is on their feet.

“So she’s expecting that first paycheck to come in afterwards,” he continues, “and it doesn’t come in.” His mother calls a staffer who says her paperwork is still being processed. She panics.

This crowd, meeting at a renovated space at the end of a shopping mall in Niles, Ohio, has heard this kind of story before. Delphi, an auto parts manufacturer, admitted to accounting irregularities and filed for bankruptcy in 2005. Ex-employees in the Rust Belt have struggled to retrieve their pensions.

Yacoub told her to put all of her “energy and trust in Jesus” and “last week, God came through because she got a phone call from her old employer and they said, ‘Listen, we have got everything done. Not only are we going to start paying you your pension, we are going to pay you back…”

The rest of the sentence is drowned out by an eruption of cheers from a flock wearing t-shirts and jeans and some in flip-flops or Harley Davidson headbands.

This is one of several times money troubles come up in an hour-long service. Later, founding pastor Doug Garasic’s sermon returns to the theme of faith in the face of poverty. “The biggest journey I ever faced was trusting God in my money because I grew up poor,” says Garasic, a 35-year-old, red-bearded ginger in circular glasses, always dressed as if he took the best from a Kohl’s clearance rack. “I grew up with this hoarder’s mentality that it’s all about me and entertaining me and taking care of me. I’ve got to take care of myself and God spoke to me and said, ‘You are not your provider! I am!’”

Someone has been providing well for the nondenominational church Garasic founded with his wife Stephanie in 2011. In eight years, Rust City has expanded from a weekly service of a dozen friends in a vacant office space to a network of three church campuses, plus a youth group at Youngstown State University. It has a staff of 20, plus 469 church members committed to volunteering and more than 5,400 followers on its Facebook page. According to a self-published financial report, it took in $844,634 in donations last year.

As it expanded, Rust City Church has eaten up whatever space becomes available in the economically decayed Mahoning Valley. Two campuses are at shopping malls—institutions whose declines make them symbolic crypts for the middle class. There is a main church at the Eastwood Mall in Niles (behind a shuttered Sears) and a satellite church at the Shenango Valley Mall in Hermitage, Pa. The Rust City outpost in Warren, Ohio, is at the one-time site of a bar the town shut down because of violence and drug activity.

But the unglamorous locales don’t equate to a hard-scrabble operation. Rust City Church is sleek, with a high-energy audio/visual presentation, lobbies that look like photos in an Ikea catalogue, and continually updated social media accounts. Its logo—the lines of an R cutting a C in two—is well-placed throughout the Niles campus, even printed on the paper coffee cup sleeves from the lobby café.

For his successful church planting in an area where few new enterprises grow, Doug Garasic has been invited to preach all over the country. He’s written a book, “Notorious: The Gospel Jesus Intended.” He doesn’t want to become a celebrity pastor. “I don’t preach every weekend at the church,” he said, “and it’s to help you not feel like, ‘I have to hear from Doug; Doug is the guru of my life.’”

But he is the leader of a well-populated church. A 2015 Duke University study found that the median number of congregates at a church service in the United States on a Sunday was 75. Doug Garasic estimates 1,200 people attend one of the four Rust City locations each Sunday. The staff and the crowd is mostly under age 40 and coming from the least religious generation in American history.

As young people are leaving church and people period are leaving the rural patches of Ohio and Pennsylvania, Rust City’s rapid expansion is an anomalous example of a church that is defying trends. According to a Pew Research Center study, about 35 percent of American millennials are “nones,” identifying with no religion. Once they reach adulthood, about a quarter of people younger than 35 attend services at least once a week, compared to 38 percent of their baby boomer parents and 51 percent of their “greatest generation” grandparents. This has led to a graying of American churches, with some congregations in small, depopulated towns shuttering or merging as parishioners die out and younger people don’t replace them in the pews. Last year, the Archdiocese of Pittsburgh announced a consolidation of 188 parishes into 57, stating these reasons.

Doug and Stephanie have built Rust City by speaking a message tailor-made for their hard-up congregants and inviting them to come as they are. “This is a church of kids and ghetto people,” Doug said with satisfaction. He delights in seeing people in pajamas and yoga pants.

Rust City leaders mention personal finance so often because it’s on the minds of congregants, he said. “My goal is to preach where you’re at. I don’t think you’re a great preacher… if you’re just preaching about things that are interesting and you are not helping people with their needs.”

He and Stephanie have grown a massively successful church operation despite—or perhaps because of—his disdain for “religion.”

* * *

On stage, Doug Garasic is volcanic, building up from scripture to a real-world application and dropping jokes and pop culture references on the way.

“Check this out!” he yells as he recites Bronze Age trash talk between David and Goliath in the Book of Samuel. “‘I will kill you and cut off your head!’ This about to get UFC Bible right now!”

The lesson, says Doug, is that David trusted in God against a seemingly unsurmountable challenge. Think of Goliath as a metaphor. “You might say, ‘But Doug, you don’t understand, my marriage is broken!’ Oh, it sounds like there’s a giant throwing insults at your marriage!” he yells. “You put God first, you watch victory come out on the other side of this! ‘But Doug you don’t understand, this situation in my life is so much bigger! I don’t know what I’m going to do about my employment! I don’t know what I’m going to do about my finances!’ Oh, when it is revolved around you I don’t know what you’re gonna do! But when my finances are revolved around God, he is the miracle-maker!”

The crowd woos and hollers.

On the walls of Doug Garasic’s office in the Niles campus are snowboards, a rack holding a modest record collection and family photos; he and Stephanie have two young sons. Here, the Garasics reflect on leaner times and the philosophy of their church. Both of them grew up in the Mahoning Valley and were directionless in different ways.

Stephanie, also 35, and sporting an eyebrow ring and a wave of hair brushed to one side, says she “wasn’t planning on being in ministry. I didn’t have a plan for my life. I was like, ‘Well, I should go to college.’” She attended Grove City College and earned a bachelor’s in communications, “because I should complete something.” The degree has served her well: She learned brand awareness and the role of music and theatrics in live shows, skills she applies to Rust City. Stephanie’s title in the church is creative director, and if Doug is the church’s face, she is its brains.

Doug was born to a 16-year-old mother and never knew his father. His family went to a Catholic church on Easter and Christmas Eve. As a teenager, he was fired from a McDonalds for holding an-all night keg party the day he was given the key. He dropped out of high school, worked in a steel mill and developed a “small pill addiction.” “It definitely helps me relate to people,” he said, adding, “If God can have a purpose for me, he can have a purpose for anyone.”

At age 18, he said he felt God giving him direction and began attending church regularly. He studied at the Youngstown Masters Commission, a non-accredited school for aspiring clergy, but he left after a year due an incident in which he wrestled a classmate in an act of “horseplay.” “It was blown out of proportion, but I was the elder classmate, so it was put on me.”

His first church job was at a Pentecostal center outside Youngstown, which hired him as a janitor. He also volunteered as youth minister at Pleasant Valley Church in Niles, which led to a paying job there and also to Stephanie; she was a volunteer who rose up to become a paid youth pastor. In their early 20s, they took jobs as youth ministers in Columbus, but say they felt a “call” back to the Mahoning Valley, where, after decades of decline, the per capita income sits at $18,547.

“When you grow up here, you know there’s a depression,” added Stephanie. “There’s a cloud that hangs over.” She really felt the impact when her dad lost his job at General Motors when she was in her 20s.

For two years, they worked day jobs and lived in Doug’s mother’s basement. Their first church met weekly in a vacant office space in Vienna, Ohio. A friend leased it to them for $1 a month. “When you’re a church, you don’t have anything to sell,” Doug says. “You have to build it on relational equity … You have nothing except, ‘I’ll be your friend. Come do this with us.’”

Once they had 90 members in 2012, they obtained the Niles campus. The Eastwood Mall leased the vacant space to them with an escalating contract, meaning the mall got a percent of their income (no matter how meager or great) rather than the usual rent. Then came the shuttered bar and the Hermitage mall space.

Doug and Stephanie said they had the opportunity to buy a proper church building, but worry about the cost of upkeep and want to stay spread out, next to bargain retailers and pizza shops. “We took [them] over and said we want to bring life to places that were kind of dead,” says Stephanie.

When asked about the shortcomings of American churches, Doug can spout off for 30 minutes. They are “lethargic,” he says, putting too much effort into maintaining buildings and catering to the already pious instead of reaching out to the lost or to newcomers. This creates an elitist air.

“You make people feel like crap because they aren’t good enough,” he accuses mainstream churches. “You make people feel like if people don’t go through all the ritualistic ideologies you have they are somewhat lesser than you, and I just don’t see that in the Bible at all.” He speaks with the fury of a former teen screw-up from a nowhere town, someone not expected to succeed himself.

Rust City’s motto is “Forget Religion, Find God and Move Toward a New Possible.” Doug wanted to start with “F Religion” (just the letter, not the full expletive). Stephanie said it was too inflammatory.

They did, however, create a space where the imperfect denizens of the Mahoning Valley could be themselves, said Doug. He is almost proud of the fact that he had to get more cigarette butt receptacles for the outside of the Niles campus, due to the crowd of smokers. He describes some of his congregants as “skeevy,” with their tattoos and torn up outfits.

“You don’t know if you are going to get prayed for or beat up in the lobby, and, to me, that’s the mark of a good church,” he said. “What people don’t realize is that everywhere Jesus went, people who didn’t [usually] go to church came to hear him.”

Some church programs are tailored to the most intense stresses of the Youngstown area: The Warren location is open several nights per week for addiction recovery groups and Rust City holds budgeting classes, which they dub “Financial Freedom Assessments.” “I think for most people they don’t know how to budget,” said Doug. “It’s not that they don’t have money; they have enough money.”

* * *

When asked to name his greatest failure, Doug said it was fallings out with people who used to be in the church. “There are people who started with us and you think they are going to be here when we are all retired, and you learn that that is just not the case. Either we failed them or disappointed them.” He said people have handed him multi-page hand-written letters about how he failed them and bashed him on social media. He said this usually comes from a difference in vision for the church that can become personal. “I think my biggest failure is not being able to handle that, because it hurt.”

Rust City’s locations are full of congregants who say the church has been a blessing in their lives.

Meghan, a 30-year-old musician from Warren, started coming to the Niles campus with her boyfriend, who plays in the band. “I was an atheist and then I decided to accept God,” she said.

Wilma Flight, a 22-year-old stay-at-home mom, credits the church with helping her ease out of extreme shyness when she was a teenager. “They helped me grow and get myself out of my comfort zone,” says Flight. “Trust, loyalty, love it’s all a thing there. … It’s different from most churches, sure, but I wouldn’t go anywhere else.”

Some once-enthusiastic church members became disillusioned. Sarah Barnhart of Warren is a devout Christian in her 20s. In 2015, she and her boyfriend, now husband, “heard about this new up-and-coming church in the area. We quickly fell in love with the emotion and passion of this church,” Barnhart recalls. “It was nothing like we’d seen before. The creative department is very talented at what they do. The musicians were incredible. The pastor seemed to preach such a relevant message.”

They became members and volunteered, opening doors and greeting newcomers. Her boyfriend took classes to become a pastor there. (Like any nondenominational church, Rust City can choose a person of any background or training to become a religious official.)

But Barnhart began to take a skeptical view of Doug’s talk of finances. “[M]oney seems to be at the forefront of their minds at all times,” she said. “The topic is brought up every single Sunday, typically a handful of times. Several times a year, they’ll even dedicate the entire message to encourage people to start giving financially or to increase the amount they’re already giving to the church.”

One Sunday, Doug brought a ladder on the stage and explained that each rung was how much a person was giving financially to the church. At the bottom was a “potential giver.” One rung up was “occasional giver,” then “consistent giver,” “tither” who gives 10 percent of their income, and “extravagant giver.” Doug put a board at the top of the ladder that read “God.” She said it felt ruthless and manipulative for a church whose congregants were barely scraping by.

At Rust City Church, one level above congregants, in terms of explicit commitment, are members—who serve as greeters at services and help organize events like service missions and their Easter egg hunt through the Shenango Valley Mall. Members are expected to contribute money.

Barnhart said some friends were kicked off service teams or not allowed to advance to membership because they didn’t have consistent income to contribute regularly. That was a tough blow to downtrodden people who thought they’d found an accepting community. “I absolutely understand that a church needs money to keep their lights on and doors open,” she said, “but the way this church expects the congregation to give is most definitely under compulsion.” After some clashes with leadership over the issue, she and her husband left.

Almost all churches depend on contributions from worshippers, with different denominations placing different rules and emphases on financial support. Doug said Rust City’s policy is that members contribute financially at a rate that fits their circumstances. “It could be $2 to $5 dollars a month,” he said, adding that he exempts members in dire straits, but everyone who benefits should give what they can.

Stephanie added that they see it as part of an individual’s spiritual and financial development. “Breaking poverty is about breaking a mindset,” she said. “Part of that mindset is the notion that [only] once you have a certain amount, then you can be generous with what you have.”

“Breaking poverty is about breaking a mindset. Part of that mindset is the notion that [only] once you have a certain amount, then you can be generous with what you have.”
—Stephanie Garasic

They admit they consider money more than other churches: “The people who get offended are usually from church backgrounds,” said Doug. “They always say, ‘At my old church, they never asked about this.’ We’re very upfront about it.”

He confirmed the sermon with the ladder occurred, but he said the point was not the more you give, the closer you are to God. “It’s look at where you are today and where you could be tomorrow.”

Rust City Church has also faced backlash on social media for its approach to children in the auditorium. Many families take their younger children to a “kid’s ministry” childcare area, a service provided at all three campuses. Then they enter the sanctuary of bright lights and Christian rock. Children are allowed, Doug said, but ushers are on the lookout for disruptive ones and a family might be asked to leave. He said this is so they don’t distract congregants. Also his sermons “tend to be PG.”

Doug can be defensive about fallings out, generally. “Sometimes people, when they’re ugly, have to villainize you,” he said. “If I’m going to leave something, I have to justify why I am going to leave and the lowest fruit is the person that’s there, to say ‘They disappointed me as a pastor; they let me down; they didn’t do what I thought they were going to do.’ Immature people tend to villainize you because they know you won’t fight back, because as a pastor you have to take a higher road and say, ‘No, I’m not going to get into the weeds and fight with you.’’’

Perhaps for the Garasics who came back to a dying area to raise up an enterprise, who rebuilt vacant and troubled spaces, who concocted their own church brand and philosophy, and who recruited from a generation disinterested in religion and an area where despair can eclipse hope, every challenge and criticism is like another insult from a Goliath, small and irrelevant compared to their own faith.