This week’s Spotlight shines on the life of a man determined to guide his community to a better future. Pastor Ben Miller mentors the youth of Gary with one hand and pens thought-provoking comics with the other.
Miller moved to Gary with his parents in 1999. Helping out at a local church inspired him to pursue a career working with kids. He had a history already of volunteering where he could and of doing short term mission work.
He spent seven years honing his skills. In 2006, Miller and his family opened Urban Faith Works. The non-profit organization offers tutoring and supplemental education to Gary students. The kids bring their homework in throughout the school year, and can attend a summer program that features outdoor learning. They also offer a weekly bible study.
“We’re another support system,” Miller said. “We become a part of their lives and encourage them to be more than their surroundings. Most of them, if not all, come from broken homes. [Urban Faith Works] is about faith and teaching kids that it cannot only affect spiritually, but academically. They can be productive people. They get the idea that they can have a future.”
Miller himself was still in school when he co-founded Urban Faith Works.
He attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Urban Ministry. The program required volunteer work as part of the curriculum.
It prepared Miller for the challenges he would face at Urban Faith Works. He was taught how to be a role model, and what to expect in such a multi-ethnic atmosphere.
The benefits of his program spread by word of mouth. Several past students are excelling in college or have joined the military and former students’ children are now students at Urban Faith Works.
Only 30 kids can attend at a time, to preserve the benefit of small class sizes. They meet after school. The students come in, are fed, and receive one-on-one tutoring. Everyone who works at Urban Faith Works fills all the roles, trying to keep the education fun and engaging.
“People expect a big change immediately but that’s not going to happen,” Miller said. “That’s not realistic. Understand that you are helping as many people as you can but changing a neighborhood is a slow process.”
Miller lives with his wife and young daughter in the Emerson neighborhood of Gary. They enjoy the parks and beaches of Northwest Indiana, as well as play areas like Bellaboo’s and adult venues like restaurants and breweries.
“There’s a bigger art community than I thought there was. It’s nice being a little bit out of the city and having this community feeling. We stick together. The rest of Indiana doesn’t really claim us and neither does Chicago. We’re the outcasts of Chicago,” he said.
But in an edgy, creative way, he added.
Miller is quite the artist himself. He took an interest in comics while studying at Moody and decided to test the medium with his own writing skills. In 2005 he self-published a mini-series called Judges, about an ex-SEAL team that hunts demons disguised as evil humans. The artwork was done by Cory Hamscher, a Marvel comics illustrator. The series was later republished as one book by Enjoy Comics.
Botched is a supernatural wrestling comic. Kaneesha is the story of a Gary native whose brother is killed by local police. It takes a harsh look at the unrest between our citizens and the police force, and, like all of Miller’s comics, has something important to say.
His upcoming project, Gunwork, is a love story set in the prohibition era.
Miller attends comic cons to promote his work and also has a local book signing tour of comic shops, to get his name out in the public while supporting small businesses.
“Everything I write has a purpose,” he said. “It’s not gratuitous, it’s not fighting, and it shows you what is going on. [My comics] start with a philosophical idea: how can someone do these things? A lot of people have stories that they want to share and don’t know how. These are real people. I went through a lot of learning before I sat down and wrote.”