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Centre Market church filling service gap with bikes

WHEELING — It’s not every church that rolls out some 200 free bikes per year from a basement and back-alley workshop. Or that offers everything from professional counseling to near-daily recovery programs inside its walls. But, not every church is smack dab in the middle of a micro-neighborhood that was, until late 2019, an epicenter of medical and mental health services for the homeless and the addicted.

Dave Holloway, administrative pastor for Centre Wheeling Fellowship, said location makes all the difference to the ministry and, ironically, always has.

Originally a German Lutheran congregation and now denominationally independent after several other affiliations over the years, the church located between Centre Market and the shuttered Ohio Valley Medical Center at the turn of the 20th century, Holloway said. Before that, it was nearer the city’s center until the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad needed the land under that first sanctuary.

The church was rebuilt in what was then the heart of the city’s German community.

That ethnic cluster is long scattered, but Holloway said the historic presence of OVMC’s emergency department and both in-patient and out-patient mental health services created an expectation of another kind for the neighborhood that didn’t disappear with the hospital’s closure.

“It became apparent to us that a lot of these people just needed someone to talk to,” Holloway said of an environment that has accelerated the church’s move from one-and-done Sunday worship to a one-stop shop for multiple ministries and social services.

CRISIS &

OPPORTUNITY

Holloway had to stop and think when listing the various ministries the church now either offers directly or serves as host space for. “The blessings of an older congregation,” he said of having a congregation of 50 or so mostly retired people with time to serve. “We’ve just got a lot going on.”

There’s the expected morning service on Sundays plus a variety of Bible studies that vary from beginner level to “intense,” Holloway said. He noted the congregation’s preaching pastor is Terry Endsley, a bivocational minister who also manages a restaurant.

Less typically, there’s the Free Bike Depot, likely the most visible ministry the church offers.

Bikes and signs are mounted on the church’s exterior walls in a couple of locations.

A back alley and a section of basement that formerly housed a coal-fed boiler have turned into a workshop that is so tidily and artfully designed it looks like a TV set.

And, beyond that, the church either runs or hosts several Christ-centered, peer-support programs for dozens of its neighbors who are recovering from addiction, harmful habits or abuse.

There’s also life coaching for people in long-term recovery and, beginning this September, there will be on-site, professional, faith-based counseling offered on a sliding-fee scale.

The congregation also participates in a prison ministry, served as a day shelter for the homeless during COVID and was doing a free monthly dinner for as many as 180 people at a clip before the pandemic. Church is now open for business on a near daily basis, Holloway noted with obvious pleasure.

“When I first started coming in the ’90s, the building was being used two hours a week,” the retired Oglebay administrator said, noting there’s a method as to what ministries come under the church’s roof.

“We try to feel our way. We’re willing to try almost anything that will be in the realm of Christian outreach.” There’s been a learning curve, he added.

“We used to hand out money if they gave us a sob story,” he noted. Now, if a neighbor asks for, say, money for diapers, someone will buy the diapers and keep the receipt so they can’t be returned for cash. “We’ve had people we’ve told that (policy to) and they walk out the door.”

Holloway said the church has learned to take such things in stride, though. “Everything we do has the opportunity for people to take advantage of us. We try to be careful, but not so careful that we don’t help people. It’s a fine line.”

FAITH WITH WHEELS

Sometimes, that balance leads to a fine outcome, he added. One church attendee who was once living in a tent on a nearby hillside comes to mind.

“A couple of times, we found him sleeping in the alleyway,” Holloway said. “We started working with him. He earned our trust over time … to the point where we had an apartment above the (church) office — he lived there for a little while. We helped him get clothing, to relearn how to take care of himself, to bathe.”

Realizing the man qualified for public housing, the church helped with that. “He’s now living in a studio apartment, does well, has money in his pocket. He’s clean, he’s helpful,” Holloway said of a result that took nearly 10 years to reach but felt worth it.

Holloway also pointed to the Free Bike Depot, a ministry launched by church attendee John Warnick in 2017. The program, which relies on donations, has given away some 2,000 bikes to date.

Warnick, who was previously a part of the Free Wheelchair Mission and engaged in fundraising bike rides, said the program speaks to people’s needs both coming and going.

Homeless people in particular might rely on such bikes as a sole mode of transportation, he said. The first bike he gave out went to a man living in Wetzel Cave.

For others, a bike may just be a new source of joy, Warnick added. To that end, the ministry was preparing in mid August to partner with a giveaway of school supplies being conducted by Bethlehem Apostolic Temple in North Wheeling.

But, the bike ministry and other programming offered by the church also meet another need, Warnick added. There’s an opportunity to give and serve in a concrete way.

“You’re born with this little thing inside of you that wants to help people,” Warnick said, noting he suspects it’s not that hard to figure out how. “It’s in your life already. For me, it’s a bicycle.”

Once the church let his ministry “in the door,” Warnick said it has been a pleasure to offer the community a place to donate bikes — even those which are so far gone they are stripped for parts or turned in as scrap metal — and to teach others how to restore bikes to useful service.

“Sometimes, they’ll just drop a bike by the gate,” he said of the donation side of the operation, which happens almost every day. Other times, a collector will share a dozen or more bikes in one gift.

On the restoration end, the opportunities to serve are broad, he added. Warnick’s own son, Max, reimagined the church’s soot-covered boiler room as a workshop and display area, for example, as part of an Eagle Scout project.

And volunteers like Kevin Truex of McMechen and his 13 year old son, Chris Truex, are enjoying learning the art of bicycle maintenance while helping others. That father-son duo has been helping since early May, when the theft of Chris’s friend’s bike led to the discovery of Free Bike Depot.

Chris Truex picked a bike out for the friend, who was ill at the time, and the family was pleased at the results. “We’ve seen him (friend) riding on the street … and he was just as happy as ever,” Kevin Truex said.

That resonates with both Warnick, who wants to spark hope, and Holloway, who anticipates a neighborhood grown strong and well.

“They take much more than a bicycle out of here,” Warnick said.

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