When George and Sarah Williams felt called to be missionaries, they were prepared to go anywhere in the world.
“I said I’d go live in a hut in Mexico if God wanted me to,” said Sarah, who has a degree in Spanish from Hillsdale College.
She shook her head slowly.
“God is so funny.”
Of all the places on earth they could have gone, the Williamses became missionaries to Toledo -- their hometown.
They are the founders of the Lewis House, a nonprofit Christian outreach center in the heart of the struggling Five Points Neighborhood of West Toledo, near the intersection of Lewis, Sylvania and Phillips avenues.
The move to West Toledo started after George’s mother in 2005 bought a 90-year-old house at 4130 Lewis Ave., planning to open a picture-frame shop.
For decades, the 3,300-square-foot house had been used as a funeral home, a union hall and a social club, but not as a residence.
“It was basically unlivable,” George said.
But after the Williamses were married in 2005, George’s mother put off plans for the frame shop and invited the newlyweds to move into the Lewis Avenue house as urban missionaries.
With some elbow grease and help from family, friends and volunteers, renovations got under way while the Williamses were living in the house.
They had no plans at the time to start a church at the time; their only goal was to live out Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The Bible had become “revelatory to me,” George said. “I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s like the Scriptures were alive.”
It was Jesus’ words in Matthew, Chapter 22, about loving your neighbor, that laid the groundwork for the Williams’ missionary journey in Toledo.
Those verses “radically changed the way I lived,” George said. “It recalibrated everything in my life. If Jesus said this is the most important commandment, then that’s what I’ll do.”
Five Points is a rough, troubled part of town where unemployment is rampant and gunfire occasionally echoes through the streets at night.
George, 30, a graduate of Bedford High School, and Sarah, 31, a Toledo Christian grad, wanted to turn things around and create a sense of community, driving out fear and violence with love and good works.
“We just took real simple steps. We needed to find people and start loving them,” George said.
Their first venture was to bring hot chocolate to people waiting at a bus stop on winter mornings, and then just hang out with them.
"I imagined that these people, waiting for a bus to get to work on a cold winter morning, could really use some love,” George said.
The bus stop crowd always asked what church they were from.
“We’d say, ‘We’re not from a church,’ and they’d ask, ‘Well, why are you doing this?’ And we’d say – and we still say this today – ‘We’re here because God loves you and so do we.’ We let everything build from there,” George said.
The bus stop became a “training ground” for their ministry, the Williamses said.
Their next outreach was to the “goths,” young people who wore black clothes, black lipstick and black fingernails and congregated at what they called “Freak Fountain” in downtown Toledo, near what is now Imagination Station.
“We’d get close enough to where they could hear us pray but far enough away that we could run if they tried to beat us up,” George said. “We’d start singing worship songs and none of us are musicians, but it turned out they really liked bad music. They embraced us, they took us in. They said, ‘We don’t like God, but we like you.’”
Soon the Williamses were busing the goths to the Lewis House for meals every Friday night. In the summer of 2006, the weekly dinner crowd grew from 30 to about 100 people.
Some of the people were surprised by the Williamses’ kindness.
“I asked this one guy, he was about 18, what he wanted to eat and he just shrugged, so I made him a plate of food,” Sarah said. “When I handed it to him he said, ‘You’re the nicest person I’ve ever met. Nobody has ever made me a plate of food before.’”
The Williamses have made it their mission to love people who are not used to being loved.
They have held block parties, offered free weekday lunches to children in the summer, held Bible studies in the park, handed out free clothing and school supplies, given free music and gardening lessons, delivered bags of bread every week -- even walked the dogs of ailing neighbors. While George works part-time job at UPS to provide his family with health care coverage, the nonprofit Lewis House relies on donations to cover expenses.
“The Lord taught us about ministry as we started hanging out with these people,” George said. “What does the Lord want us to do? Here’s a whole community around us and it lacks a sense of community. Who will love these people? Who will shepherd these people? This is our jurisdiction, the nearly 2,000 homes in our geographical area.”
In the last year and a half, the Williamses’ mission to Five Points has taken another turn as the couple began feeling that God was calling them to start a church.
That was something that had never been on their radar before.
“We would always refer people to local churches, which is good in theory,” George said. “But they had a hard time grafting in. We need a church in the neighborhood that’s transformative, one that’s balanced and culturally relevant to this urban neighborhood.”
In late 2011, George and Sarah and their two daughters, now ages 2 and 4, moved out of the Lewis House and into a home half a mile away to begin focusing on starting City Light Church.
Another couple, Sam and Allana Guidry, moved with their four children from Adrian, Mich., into the Lewis House to continue the urban outreach programs.
Earlier this month, however, a month after Allana Guidry gave birth to the couple’s fifth child, she was diagnosed by acute lymphoblastic leukemia, an aggressive form of cancer that has put many of the plans for the Lewis House on hold.
It was so unexpected and the diagnosis was so recent that the urban missionaries have not had time to sort things through, Sarah said.
For now, the Williamses said, they asking people to join them in prayer for Allana’s healing.
They still intend to move forward with City Light Church, which will be affiliated with the Open Bible Churches denominoation, and are searching for the right location in the neighborhood.
“I know the urban missionary concept works. I’m hoping that the urban church concept works,” George said.
Information on the Lewis House is available online or by calling 419-476-8359.