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For more than 15 years, the Rev. Mark Vipond has been ministering to Toledo's homeless and poor. On Wednesday, when Just As I Am Christian Church is scheduled to be sold at auction, his long-struggling ministry could be homeless as well.
"We walk by faith and not by sight - and it's a good thing because the big picture looks bad, man," Mr. Vipond said in a recent interview.
The church traces its roots to 1988 when it was a street ministry called Warriors for Christ, helping the local poor by providing food, blankets, other material needs, along with prayers for the people who were sleeping in Toledo's alleyways and under highway overpasses.
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Pastor Mark, as he is known, opened a storefront ministry on Madison Avenue in 1991 and called it Just As I Am Christian Church. The ministry then moved into the former Bud and Luke Restaurant, 1919 Madison Ave., in 1998, but found that keeping up with utility bills and maintenance costs on the large, aging facility proved to be a financial burden.
"The support is still there, but expenses have gone up," Mr. Vipond said. "People love us, pray for us. But the bills kind of snowballed. Then they turned into an avalanche."
Amlin and Associates are scheduled to hold an "absolute auction" for the church building at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, which means the facility will be sold regardless of the price.
For Pastor Mark and his wife, Judy, the sale will mark the end of a long chapter in their unique ministry.
"We're different from the missions," Mrs. Vipond said. "We help the people who fall through the cracks. The missions do great work, but they're not for everybody. I tend to get personally involved in the people's lives."
The couple say they've seen hundreds of lives changed over the years, and their greatest reward is when one of their church members "graduates" and gets out of the cycle of welfare, homelessness, and drug or alcohol abuse.
Many times, they said, they'll visit a church and be approached by someone who used to attend Just As I Am.
"A lot of times they'll say, 'You probably don't recognize me .●.●.' - and we don't! They've cleaned up their act and they look so different," Mrs. Vipond said.
Mr. Vipond said a spiritual healing is the first step, and after that the person's life can be changed.
"We show them Jesus Christ," he said. "We don't just throw them a fish, we teach them how to fish. We teach them how to lean on and trust Jesus Christ. They say 'thank you' and move on."
"Mark says we're a 'M*A*S*H' unit," Mrs. Vipond said. "That says it best. We keep them from dying on the battlefield."
The couple get teary-eyed talking about their congrega-tion, saying many have cried on their shoulders over the closing of Just As I Am.
Mr. Vipond said drugs and alcohol are the primary causes for homelessness, but beneath the surface, he has found that most homeless people turned to mind-altering substances to escape the torment of having been abused sexually, physically, or psychologically.
"They come out a background like that, and it becomes normal for them to be abused, to be abandoned," he said. "They've been told all their lives that they're no good, that they're worthless. Drugs and alcohol dull the pain of reality."
"People have this image of homeless people," Mrs. Vipond said, "but when you meet them, they are so sweet, so vulnerable and innocent. These people have been abused all their lives in one way or another."
Those who seem hard-hearted are usually covering up a sense of tenderness or sensitivity because they don't want to be hurt again, she said, adding that homeless women often seem to be the toughest.
"There was one guy who was always a lot of trouble," Mrs. Vipond said. "I don't know how many times we had to kick him out of a service.
"But during the last service, he came up to me and gave me a kiss on the cheek and said, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you.'●"
Mrs. Vipond said the people in the congregation came up to the altar and prayed for the pastors.
"They comforted us!" Mrs. Vipond said. "They were saying, 'It's going to be OK.'●"
The Viponds said they would like to move their church to another inner-city building, one that is less expensive to maintain and has a kitchen so they can provide meals.
But the couple are leaving their options open.
"Whatever happens, we're trusting the Lord," Mrs. Vipond said.
"We feel we're called to minister to the unwanted and the unlovely. A lot of people tell us they could never do what we do. Well, we're just doing what God has called us to do. We couldn't do what they do. If God wants us to pack up and move to Africa, that's what we'll do," she said.
"It's not our deal, it's His deal," Mr. Vipond said.