Taking a gamble: Pastor Jerry Zehr finds his calling after chasing fame

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By Mark Ambrogi

After taking a shot at Hollywood, Jerry Zehr found himself traveling the dinner theater circuit as a singer and actor.

“It looked glamorous, but it was a pretty empty lifestyle,” Zehr said. “You’re traveling and you don’t know anyone. Inside of my heart it didn’t feel right. That’s when I had a faith conversion. I felt I wanted more inside.”

Zehr’s grandparents were Amish, and he grew up in a Mennonite family.

“It was pretty conservative, you’re going to go to hell if you drink, smoke, gamble or dance,” Zehr said. “I didn’t believe a loving God was about judging you so harshly. So this was a time when I said, ‘What do I really want my life to be about?’”

Zehr discovered a progressive Protestant church he could embrace and decided to go to Disciples of Christ seminary in Indianapolis, becoming a minister in 1985.

Zehr, a 60-year-old Carmel resident, took over as the senior pastor at Carmel Christian Church more than a year ago.

In 2012, Zehr wrote a book “Blurring the Lines,” loosely based on his own experiences.

“The book’s premise is what are you willing to sell your soul for,” Zehr said. “Out in L.A., I was always being tempted with so many opportunities. There was cocaine. A guy taking my resume shots asked me to take off my shirt and asked if I wanted to do a little porno, saying ‘I’ll give you 100 bucks.’”

Zehr turned it down, of course.

“Now the character in the book, he does do it,” Zehr said. “But what fun (for readers) would it be if he turned it down. But I realized I was trying to give up a lot of my old self to move up the (entertainment) ladder. It was pretty empty.”

So Zehr gave up acting and put his teaching degree from Ball State to use, becoming a speech and drama teacher at Peru High School.

“I got in a church where men and women were in leadership positions, and they talked about the love of God and not the fire and brimstone stuff,” Zehr said.

That is the basis of Zehr’s church.

“I don’t care if you are gay or straight, whether you’re divorced, you’re welcome here,” Zehr said.

Zehr does have one passion many stricter Christian churches don’t embrace. He is a superb poker player, winning $22,000 in Planet Hollywood’s Texas Hold ’Em tournament in Las Vegas this summer. Zehr is quick to add he gave 10 percent back to the church.

Zehr also has appeared in the World Series of Poker. His fellow poker players are often surprised he is a minister.

“I found it was a great opportunity to meet people on a regular level,” he said. “They didn’t see me as a minister. They just saw me as Jerry.”

During his yearlong stint in Los Angeles, Zehr also dabbled with comedy improv. Yet his most memorable moment was an unpaid stint. He had been selected to sing as a planted audience member as part of the Stump the Band segment on “The Tonight Show.”

“Many years later, some members of my church in Fort Wayne said they saw me sing in a ‘Best of Johnny Carson’ episode,” Zehr said. “I wish I had a copy of it.”

Bridging religions

Zehr has organized Interfaith Alliance of Carmel. The group, of various religions, had its first breakfast last month at The Mansion at Oak Hill. Zehr said Mayor James Brainard, who attended the breakfast, has been supportive of the group’s development.

Zehr was one of the founding members of the Interfaith Alliance of Indianapolis in 1985. Then he formed a long-time friendship with Shahid Athar, a Muslim.

“He’s my brother, my younger brother,” Athar said of Zehr. “I’ve been to Jerry’s church several times, and I’ve seen the way he communicates with the people, especially the children. Some clergy members are stiff, but he is a friendly person.”

About Zehr

Personal: Met his wife Diane, a retired minister, at a seminary. Has two step-daughters. Has run four marathons. Can perform magic tricks.

Favorite acting role: Playing Sancho in “The Man of La Mancha.”

Favorite way to relax: “I enjoying biking and running. Poker is relaxing to me.”

Favorite vacation spot: “We love the ocean.”

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