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The Rev. Mark Vipond stands in the living room of his sunny South Toledo home, an electric guitar strapped over his shoulder. Eyes closed, fingers zipping along the guitar neck, he tilts his head back and lets loose with a gruff blues howl.
The husky 49-year-old minister knows what it takes to play the blues, having overcome alcohol and drug abuse to spend the last 16 years ministering to the homeless and poor in downtown Toledo.
But Pastor Mark, as his congregation at Just As I Am Christian Church always called him, is going through an identity crisis of sorts.
"I don't know if I'm 'Pastor Mark' anymore," he said in earnest. "Can you be a pastor without a flock?"
In the latest surprise in the ongoing saga of Just As I Am, Mr. Vipond and Judy, his wife and ministry partner, find themselves without a church - less than two months after their ministry appeared to have been saved from financial ruin by a local benefactor.
Money was always in short supply for the church that provided food, clothing, and the Gospel to the most down-and-out members of society. With a congregation that was unable to contribute financially, Just As I Am relied on other churches and individuals to keep its shoestring budget in line.
But earlier this year, faced with mounting utility and maintenance bills, the Viponds reached a point where they felt they had to put the aging Madison Avenue building - converted from the former Bud and Luke Restaurant - up for auction and go looking for a smaller site with lower monthly costs.
On July 21, the building was bought at auction by Lowell Yoder, a Toledo businessman and evangelist, for $80,000.
Immediately after the sale, Mr. Yoder huddled with the Viponds and another local minister, the Rev. Jim Watson, and the group came up with a plan: Mr. Yoder would rent the building to both Just As I Am and Mission Toledo, Mr. Watson's organization that provides spiritual help and teaches job skills to people who are battling substance abuse.
"We got our miracle," Mr. Vipond said at the time. "And Mission Toledo got a miracle too. God has resurrected us."
After the details were hammered out, the Viponds left town for a brief vacation. But when they returned, they discovered that their church was no longer included in the plans for the Madison Avenue facility.
"We had no clue," Mr. Vipond said. "But we're not bitter. We're just seeking the call of God on our lives. I know the Lord moved here, man. He opened the door and he'll open another one. I don't know what's on the other side of the door. I don't even know where the door is yet. But I know it's there somewhere."
Mr. Watson said the hurried arrangement the group came up with after the auction was not practical.
"When Lowell Yoder bought the building, there wasn't a lot of time. It was a surprise. I didn't have time to completely think through how we wanted to do this," Mr. Watson said. "It just wasn't a good fit. It just didn't seem to be a good fit for two organizations to be in this building."
He said Mr. Yoder had invited him to attend the auction and suggested that Mr. Watson buy the building himself.
"I said, 'The only way I could buy the building was if they would take a postdated check for a dollar,'●" Mr. Watson said.
Mr. Yoder did not return several phone calls seeking comment on the change in plans.
Mr. Watson, who came to Toledo in 2000 as executive director of Cherry Street Mission but resigned after a few months, said the Madison Avenue site needs extensive repairs to the roof, heating and air-conditioning systems, and kitchen before it can be used by Mission Toledo, which can house up to 19 clients in a building six blocks away on 13th Street.
He plans to use the former Just As I Am Church to cook meals for other downtown shelters and to teach cooking, other job skills, and Bible classes to Mission Toledo clients.
The Viponds, meanwhile, said they are looking forward and not back.
"Ministry is in my heart," Mr. Vipond said. "I've got 16 years' worth of stripes on my sleeve. I can't go back to a worldly job. We're praying about where God wants us."
He and Judy said they may work as evangelists, both in local churches and nationally, seeking to "restore the joy" to people whose lives have been shattered by poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, or other crises.
"God told me to use the gifts He's given me," Mr. Vipond said. "We're praying about how to do just that."
Mr. Watson said he believes God will bless the Viponds' ministry even if it won't be at the Madison Avenue building.
"It didn't work out the way either of us thought it would work out," he said. "But God is faithful. He doesn't always do it the way we want Him to. But Mark is a great guy and God's got a call on his life."
- David Yonke