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Blessings in the Neighborhood

Bob and Judy Willard have a passion to reach the inner city of Cleveland, where they live and minister.

Bob I. Willard and his wife, Judy, walk 3 miles every week through the Buckeye and Woodland Hills neighborhoods on the east side of Cleveland, urgently praying for their community.

Along with a low-income public housing project and single-family homes, they pass bars, liquor stores, check-cashing businesses, payday loan signs, and vacant lots. Crime prevails. On Oct. 1, a man sitting in his car was murdered in the area.

“We choose to live where we minister and have a passion to reach people in the inner city of Cleveland,” Willard says. “We see what they see and feel what they feel, and pray for peace and safety and against the spirit of violence.”

Willard, 59, a U.S. missionary with Missionary Church Planters & Developers, pastors The Meeting Place Church in Cleveland, assisted by his wife Judy, 58.

He has followed a circuitous career path. After serving in the U.S. Navy for 12 years as a supply officer, he joined the corporate world in 1997. A decade of promotions and material success almost sapped his earlier call to ministry.

He surrendered his secular ambitions in 2006, relinquishing an annual six-figure income. After earning AG ministerial credentials the next year, he joined the staff of Cityview Christian Center in Indianapolis, where the Holy Spirit nurtured a burden for the inner city.

Seeking God’s direction, the Willards chose Cleveland, among the most dangerous urban locales in the U.S. They scouted the worst neighborhoods, with Buckeye ranking at the top as the neediest. In 2010, the couple and their four children moved there into an extended-stay hotel for several months.

Soon after, the Willards bought a renovated home and launched a weekly Bible study in their living room. Bob found a temporary job in a warehouse driving a forklift truck. Judy began tutoring local students in English, math, and Bible lessons from her dining room table, which is now a daily learning center for 25 students.

Willard struggled for 3 years, traveling to raise financial support from churches in the Ohio Ministry Network, Indiana District, and International Ministry Network.

In 2013, the church acquired a rundown building next to the Willards’ home for a mere $500.

“Only God could arrange such a gift,” Willard proclaims. The renovated 2-story building provides space for Sunday and Thursday evening worship services, as well as the learning center.

Daynet Little, 24, a volunteer team leader at the learning center, began attending The Meeting Place 3 years ago.

“I grew up in Buckeye, but I was depressed and not into church,” she says. “Pastor Bob and Miss Judy helped me realize that I do matter, and I asked Jesus into my heart.”

Kenneth M. McQuiller, 29, joined The Meeting Place staff after his 2016 graduation from Northpoint Bible College in Haverhill, Massachusetts. He serves as a MCP&D missionary associate and associate pastor, responsible for the ministry’s youth and educational programs.

As a bivocational pastor, McQuiller works 25 hours a week in a bank. His wife, Shelby, 32, complements his ministry as youth pastor. McQuiller initially served with Willard as an intern in the summer of 2015.

“I saw the sad faces of the neighborhood kids who deal with tough family issues,” he says. “I wanted them to know that we feel their pain, and point them to Jesus.”

The next project for the church, which is part of the International Ministry Network, involves rehabilitating a foreclosed tavern donated to The Meeting Place by the Cuyahoga County Land Bank. Plans include a Christian coffeehouse, a job training program, space for artists, and a staff apartment.

Willard hopes necessary funds can be raised by next summer.

“It will transform our ministry by putting us on the main commercial street to share the gospel where prostitutes, drug dealers, and the homeless congregate,” he says.

Peter K. Johnson

Peter K. Johnson is a freelance writer living in Saranac Lake, New York. More than 500 of his articles and short stories have appeared in Christian and mainstream magazines and newspapers, including the Pentecostal Evangel,Charisma, the Saturday Evening Post, Guideposts, and Decision. He also serves as a consultant and contributing editor to a scientific journal.