By Ed Runyan
It’s was 8:30 Friday evening, and Pastor Julia Wike was driving a large, maroon van marked on the side with the words “The Basement Outreach Ministries” on some of the more-dangerous streets north of downtown, looking for people who needed her help.
“The funnest thing is just looking,” she says, explaining why she loads up the van with Burger King hamburgers and drives into low-income neighborhoods looking to give the food away. “When I’m driving down the streets, it’s so exciting,” she said.
She puts a type of enthusiasm into her search that is similar to the way someone else might enjoy the search for a great bargain or a great gift for a loved one.
But Pastor Julia is just one woman, accompanied by a male assistant. She and Michael Johnson reach out to lost souls in spite of the obvious danger of going into neighborhoods where lawlessness is rampant.
When asked why she does it, Wike references the mistakes she made when she was young, and her decision 20 years ago to become a social worker and help others get out of “the life” she also lived.
But God is part of everything she does.
“He went out where the sinners are,” she said of Jesus, “so I trust the Lord. I don’t have fear.” Only one time did something “inappropriate” happen to her, she said.
This night, it didn’t take long for her and Johnson, who has accompanied her since March, to find people with an empty stomach or a troubled spirit.
She and Johnson stopped at a home on Scott Street where several children were playing, offering them cheeseburgers.
But on the neighbor’s porch there were three adults, including a man who wanted to talk.
Johnson asked him if there was anything he wanted to pray about, and the man mentioned his mother’s illness and the pain the illness has brought to her and to him.
Through prayer, Johnson directed the man to look within himself and to forgive himself the same way God forgives.
“I think he’s judging me for the way I’ve done in my life,“ the man said of God.
“You’re judging yourself too harshly,” Johnson told him.
Across the street, Pastor Julia was talking to a woman on her front porch who lost part of her leg to amputation.
Later, Johnson explained that the people they encounter may not know him by name, but they know of Pastor Julia’s ministry, which has been providing hot meals and bags of groceries in a church basement at 857 North Park Avenue for nearly three years.
“It’s relationship building. They know the van. They know her,” he said of Wike. She has been employed as a social worker for several agencies, currently working for the Trumbull County Board of Developmental Disabilities.
Her reputation with Outreach Ministries makes it easier for them to move through the neighborhoods, Johnson said.
One time, Wike and another volunteer were on foot in the Southwest area when they saw three young men on a porch. Her companion told Wike, “It’s a drug deal, and we walked into it,” Wike said.
Despite the drug deal, Wike asked the young men about their salvation. She ended up talking with one of the three for a time, drugs still in his hand, she said.
Frank Fuda, Trumbull County commissioner, said he finds Wike’s efforts remarkable.
“She’s so dedicated. She goes right into the streets and gets the prostitutes and takes them to church. She has no fear. She’s so dedicated to God and the people,” he said. “If she could round up every one of them, she would.”
Outreach Ministries offers food distributions at its location in the basement of a church at 857 North Park Ave. from 7 to 9 p.m. the fourth Friday of each month.
It provides hot meals and spiritual support at 7 p.m. every Tuesday in the basement of a church at 155 Tod Ave. NW. A snack and Bible study are offered there at 6:30 p.m. Mondays.
The organization receives help from several area churches but is not affiliated with any of them, Wike said. Anyone interested in helping Outreach Ministries should send donations to Outreach Ministries, 857 North Park Ave., Warren, OH 44483.