LIMA — You couldn’t tell by looking at him.
As Pastor Wayne Bradley stands proudly in front of the church he has painstakingly coaxed from the ruins of a downtown office supply store, he is the picture of robust health and high spirits.
He has a mission. He has a church. And with a check for $15,000 as good as in his pocket, he is on the verge of making the down payment that will make this one-time eyesore near the corner of Metcalf and High streets a center of healing for the strung out and needy.
He is one happy man.
“I was told that this building been empty for a little over ten years,” he said. “I feel that the Lord kept it empty because He was waiting for us.”
But Bradley hasn’t always been this upbeat. The opening of this church — I CAN Celebration Ministries — on June 11 represented the culmination of Bradley’s long climb from a life of crime, homelessness and despair, to a place where he can now extend a helping hand to those who need it as desperately as he once did.
“About 20 years ago,” he said, “my brother murdered my mother and father in Chicago. It basically destroyed the whole family unit because you had some who couldn’t look at it in any other way but to say they wanted him dead, too. It really sent me into a major tailspin.”
That tailspin led him to San Diego, where he spent eight years homeless, living under a bridge.
“I was strung out on drugs and alcohol and anything that I could use. I just didn’t want to be who I was. I was hating the world, hating everybody. I didn’t even know God at that time.”
But all of that changed one day when Bradley sat down next to an elderly woman at a San Diego bus stop.
“I sat down next to her,” he recalled. “And I looked into her eyes and she looked at me and she knew I was up to no good. And she said, ‘Young man, I just want to tell you, no matter what happens or whatever you do to me today, that Jesus loves you.’”
And that is when everything changed. Bradley broke down in tears. The woman pointed him in the direction of a cross that stood on a little hill down the road in El Cajon. It marked the location of Victory Outreach, a ministry and shelter where he wound up spending eight months, getting sober and “getting my life a little bit on track.”
His life turned around, Bradley went back to Illinois, where he met his future bride Jacqi. A Lima native, she managed a BioLife Plasma Center in Rockford, Illinois.
“I was living in a shelter at the time,” he explained. “I used to go over there to sell my plasma to get money, and that’s how I ended up meeting her. The day I met her, the Lord told me she was going to be my wife one day. I was able to introduce her to Jesus. I didn’t have much, but we would go to the park and I would read a Scripture and do different things and, man, she caught on to this Jesus thing.”
In 2006 the couple moved back to Lima, where Bradley found a job as a truck driver. But ministry was his true calling, so he and his wife soon became involved in an after-school program at Quest Academy, and in 2010 they started doing volunteer work at the Beaverdam truck stop ministry Transport for Christ.
They found a spiritual home of their own in the United Methodist Church.
“I started going over to Shawnee with Pastor Bryan Bucher,” Bradley said. “Then I started going over to Allentown with Pastor Neal Whitney. And Pastor Whitney said, ‘I’d really like you to consider going into the program and become a licensed pastor.’ So I ended up doing that. I became a licensed pastor in the United Methodist Church.”
His first assignment was a church in Lafayette, a church that was on the verge of closing due to declining membership numbers. Over the course of five years Bradley managed to keep the church alive, building membership to a respectable 70-80 people. But ultimately, Bradley’s outreach efforts crossed a line that put him at odds with some members of the congregation.
“At some point I started taking people from Lima,” he explained. “From the rescue missions and the streets. And people running the church decided they didn’t want those kind of people out there. By then I had developed relationships with a lot of people out there who truly understood what was going on, but we ended up having to leave that church because of some of the ways we disagreed on what the ministry was supposed to be about.”
So Bradley and his wife decided to strike out on their own.
“We didn’t have a place to go. So we started I CAN Celebration ministry in our garage here on West Elm Street.”
Outgrowing the garage in just two months, the ministry moved to a building at the corner of Spring and Union, staying there a year before moving into its new home at 615 W. High St.
The facility is a work in progress. Bradley and his wife have turned the large front showroom into a bright, well-lit chapel where they currently conduct their worship services. But the rest of the building is, to put it kindly, something of a disaster area. Damaged by fire, and suffering from years of neglect, it will take a lot of work to turn it into the community rooms, offices and temporary living quarters that Bradley intends to create here.
But is he daunted by the challenge?
“Man,” he said, “We’ve been able to help people get their lives back. And now, as we move forward, amazing things are starting to happen.”
Reach Dayton Fandray at firstname.lastname@example.org.