One year ago this month, the Rev. Steve North remembered what it felt like to be held.
The senior pastor at Unity United Methodist Church in Northwood said in an interview this week he’s thought long and hard about the arson in March of 2016 that forced him and his family out of the gorgeous, historic home they were renting at 2101 Clarenden Drive in Toledo’s Westmoreland neighborhood.
He said his thoughts keep coming back to one thing: The collective embrace it felt like they got from friends and relatives close to them.
“They did not let us go through it alone,” Pastor North, 60, recalled. “This one word came to mind to describe what I felt. That word was ‘held.’ ”
The fire was the second in five years to force the Norths out of a house. It was far worse than a 2011 fire to an Old West End house they were living in back then.
The 2011 fire was started by a candle, and was ruled accidental.
Authorities believe the 2016 blaze was intentionally set. The family’s two beloved pets, a pomeranian-poodle named Noah, and a cat named Ellie, perished in the latter fire.
In addition to the inevitable anguish over his family’s lost pets and lost belongings, questions immediately surfaced over why someone apparently targeted him.
Pastor North has devoted his life to a street-level ministry that provides compassion to the poor, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, and the forgotten — and, now, a year after one of the lowest points of his life, that resolve is even stronger.
Being overwhelmed by reciprocal love and compassion has reminded him of the power of the human spirit.
The virtual embrace began with a simple gesture: A neighbor standing on the sidewalk and cradling Noah’s body in his arms, waiting to pass the dead dog over to Pastor North so he could say his good-byes. It continued with fund-raisers that ranged from a spaghetti dinner to an online GoFundMe campaign.
Though the Westmoreland house was insured by its owner, the Norths had no renter’s insurance on thousands of dollars of personal belongings that were destroyed.
“But in the middle of all of that, I felt held,” Pastor North continued. “Something real and deep and significant happened.”
The one-year anniversary of that blaze has reminded Pastor North about an unusual series of tragedies his family has experienced since he made the life-changing decision to move to Toledo in 2006 from tiny Kingston, Ohio (pop. 1,032).
During those 11 years, his family’s been homeless three times, twice by fire.
Pastor North’s been robbed, vandalized, scammed out of money, and has endured heart attacks. His family has lived like nomads, picking up and moving to 10 different residences its first decade here, he said.
Family members are his wife, Lyn, 58; and their children, Steven, 28, of Canton, Mich., Jennifer, 26, of Fremont, and Lauren, 22, of Findlay.
They came because Pastor North was deeply committed to expanding the unique, street-level ministry he created in 2004 called Lifeline Toledo (lifelinetoledo.com), which seeks to penetrate barriers and spread the word of God through unconventional means.
“I moved to Toledo to offer a different kind of church in the inner city,” Pastor North said. “I was convinced I had to do it or die.”
Lifeline’s name is a spiritual metaphor for heart monitors, striving to keep faith in God from flatlining in people “where hope’s been lost and resuscitated,” he said.
“It’s always been about church,” Pastor North said.
This summer, in spite of his tragedies, Pastor North is gearing up to expand that vision even more.
He is preparing to launch a Lifeline Toledo network of what he calls “micro-churches” in North Toledo on July 1.
The focus will be on North Toledo’s 43604 Zip code, one of Ohio’s poorest.
Many of the homes there are large and old. But, according to government data, the median home value is only $29,500 — less than some of today’s newer automobiles — and the median household income is only $12,149, well below the poverty line.
More than half of the people living in that zip code are unemployed, and fewer than one in five have full-time jobs.
Micro-churches are intentionally small, neighborhood-based churches where services are typically held in a person’s home or a central meeting place, such as a YMCA. The emphasis is on reaching out to those who don’t attend traditional churches — not on buildings themselves — by making the church experience as inclusive as possible to everyone.
He has run a micro-church out of his house on Sunday nights for years, with services typically lasting nearly three hours instead of just one. Services begin with dinner — meals, he said, are how people best connect with each other — followed by scripture readings, music, and weekly communion. Instead of him preaching, readings are handled as a group discussion.
Pastor North said he is getting financial and other forms of support from the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church to establish Lifeline Toledo’s new network of micro-churches.
He said the initiative will be done in partnership with North Toledo’s Friendly Center, a community center at 1324 N. Superior St.
The Friendly Center will serve as a hub and occasional meeting spot for the upcoming network of micro-churches planned for that part of the city.
“But that’s not the real church. The real church is in the home,” Pastor North said.
Lifeline Toledo is known to many people for its mobile medical bus.
Pastor North used to do missionary work in Mexico with Buses International, of Lorain, Ohio, a group that provides mobile medical services.
Three days before 1Matters’ annual Tent City downtown camp-out with the homeless in 2009, Buses International offered Lifeline Toledo an aging bus it was about ready to scrap.
So Lifeline Toledo started its own mobile medical service, on a smaller, more local scale.
It offers first aid and primarily health screenings, such as HIV testing, blood-pressure checks, and diabetes testing, for people who have limited access to health services. When doctors are aboard, medications can be prescribed.
“It became evident quickly it was a valuable service,” he said.
Now, Lifeline Toledo is on its third bus — a retired New York City transit bus that won’t rust because it’s made of stainless steel.
Still, the latest bus has been sidelined with a blown engine for more than a year now.
Pastor North said he’s still trying to raise $8,000 to $10,000 to buy a new engine, and get it back in service.
Dr. Anne Ruch, a ProMedica obstetrician, volunteered her services to be aboard Lifeline Toledo’s bus as a physician for about two years.
She said Pastor North opened her eyes to Toledo poverty so much that he inspired her to become a co-founder of a group called Compassion Health Toledo, compassionhealthtoledo.org, to provide more affordable health care to the city’s disadvantaged population.
With ProMedica’s help, Compassion Health Toledo plans to open a clinic in South Toledo this summer in a vacant building at 1638 Broadway that for decades was a library built in the early 1900s by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, Dr. Ruch said.
“I came to realize how much of a need there is,” Dr. Ruch said.
The goal is to open Toledo’s clinic about the same time as Pastor North’s Lifeline Toledo micro-churches begin in North Toledo so the two can work in tandem.
Dr. Ruch said Pastor North’s connection to Toledo’s homeless population is “crucial” to making the clinic work.
“He just has this way about him that’s completely inspiring,” Dr. Ruch said. “He brings out the best in every volunteer who works with him. He’s amazingly resilient. He’s just a really pleasant person.”
Pastor North has street credibility because he is nonjudgmental to people from all races and walks of life, she said.
“He’s the epitome of a nonracist,” Dr. Ruch said.
“To me, he’s like the living example of what Christ was. Steve’s down there with the most marginalized people. He treats each of them like they’re a CEO. We’re really lucky to have him.”
Pastor North said he has no regrets about coming to Toledo in 2006, even with the series of hardships he and his family have endured.
“It’s been by far the hardest 11 years of my life. But it’s also been the most fulfilling. I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Pastor North said. “My dream is to build a community that lives better together with each other.”
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