In Knox the work had dwindled in numbers. Inadequate shepherding caused a drop in interest. But Mr. Gilbert’s zeal and enthusiasm put new life into the work. Numbers began increasing at meetings. People were accepting Christ. The Lord was blessing.
The church had been meeting in a rented store building. But it was no longer adequate for their needs. About this time a frame church building on the main street was put on the market. A Christian woman in the fellowship offered to loan the money to buy the building. In 1927 they purchased this and called it “The Gospel Meeting House.”
The next year they enlarged the building and bricked it. A contractor in the group offered his services free and labor was cheap, twenty-five cents an hour. When it was finished they had an attractive meeting place on the main street of Knox.
In November, 1930, the Lord gave the Gilberts a son whom they named Bruce. He brought them much joy and they affectionately called him “Brucie.”
The work continued to grow. Soon the Sunday School numbered 200, one of the largest in the county. They started broadcasting the morning service over the radio station in Culver. This was done by telephone from Knox. In 1931 they began having a booth at the county fair where books were sold and tracts given away. A yearly conference for Christians was also begun in 1931 and large crowds attended. Elma supervised the serving of meals at these conferences. With as many as 350 coming, this was a big undertaking. And then there were always tent campaigns.
Mr. Gilbert was not only a preacher but a worker. Paul could say he preached “publicly and from house to house” (Acts 20:20). He was always after souls; having meetings, knocking on doors, visiting homes.
During 1933 the Gilbert brothers pitched their new tent (40’ x 60’) in Winamac, Indiana. (Their first tent had been 35’ x 50’.) Among the crowds that came was a Baptist preacher named Claude Bulander. He became a friend of the Gilberts and invited them to preach in his church. James said to him, “Do you know what might happen if one of us went there? Some of your members might leave the church.” Bulander said, “If the Word of God will take them out, it can take me too.” He was a young preacher but already somewhat disillusioned with the ministry and church politics.
The Gilberts friendship with him grew and they visited him often. Finally Bulander did leave the church he was pastoring, determined to follow a more simple pathway of faith in his service for God. It was a difficult step to take for a man with a wife and two daughters. To resign meant giving up the salary and financial security he had known. But faith is contagious. If God could take care of the Gilberts, He could take care of him.
In the fall of 1933 Mr. Gilbert wrote to other preachers interested in new fields and invited them to come to his home for a workers’ conference. Twelve responded and came. The warm, autumn days were rich and full as they shared the Word, talked about problems and bowed in fervent prayer together. It was a time of spiritual encouragement. There was no desire to legislate nor to direct God’s servants. Because of health reasons another conference was not held until 1938. It has continued since and is still a time of sharing and spiritual encouragement. Through the years Mr. Gilbert loved to be at these conferences, encouraging younger men in the work of God.
In November of 1933 Mr. Gilbert was invited to Champaign, Illinois, to speak at the Tabernacle, an independent church. Some of these Christians had attended a Bible Conference at Cedar Lake, Indiana, where they heard teaching on the simplicity of the early church. C. W. Ross, Harold St. John, C. F. Hogg, Alfred Mace and others often taught at this conference. They were interested in hearing more.
Mr. Gilbert was asked during these meetings to give some specific teaching on the New Testament church. He pointed out that the early church was not led by one man who did all the preaching. It was a group shepherded by several elders with opportunity for the various gifts to function. Some were deeply interested in following these principles, but others felt they wanted to follow the traditional structure. Thirty separated to form an independent church with a pastor. Sixty stayed, determined to follow the New Testament teaching they had heard.
The assembly urged Mr. Gilbert to consider moving to Champaign to help them get established. As he and his wife prayed about this they felt perhaps the time had come to leave Knox. They would still be close enough to visit the assemblies in Indiana and help them. And so they began to plan to this end.
But before moving they felt Elma needed a thorough medical examination. Through the winter her health had been poor. She had pushed herself hard, sharing in her husband’s work. She was not strong and seemed tired much of the time now. And then there was this deep cough that refused to leave.
In Chicago she entered Billings Hospital for a check-up. At the conclusion of the tests, Mr. Gilbert was ushered into the doctor’s office. With a grave face the doctor said, “I am sorry to tell you your wife has tuberculosis.” His heart sank. Tuberculosis! It was a killer in those days. What would this mean to their family, to his work?
Moving to Champaign was out. Doctors agreed a warm, dry climate and rest were most beneficial. Elma’s brother was a doctor and recommended Tucson, Arizona. He knew doctors there and the climate was excellent. To Tucson they would go.
A preacher named Edward Dillon decided to move to Champaign to help the Christians there get started. This relieved Mr. Gilbert’s concern for them. The assembly rented a lodge hall for eight years and saw blessing. Lots for a chapel were purchased in 1940. In 1941 the Gilbert brothers had tent meetings there and later the chapel was built. This work has continued as a strong witness.
He decided to leave his tent with Claude Bulander for evangelism in Indiana. In all Mr. Gilbert had twenty-three tent campaigns in Indiana through the years and Bulander had a number of others. Many came to know the Lord under that canopy of canvas, rippling in a warm evening breeze. For them it became Bethel, the place where they met God, far more beautiful than a Gothic cathedral with stained glass windows.