Dream Takes Shape – The Kansas City Star, July 2009

ALLISON LONG/Kansas City Star  John Wiley (left) and Kevin EuDaly of the “Dream Center” hope to turn it into a place to help families living on the edge

ALLISON LONG/Kansas City Star
John Wiley (left) and Kevin EuDaly of the “Dream Center” hope to turn it into a place to help families living on the edge

Pastor’s dream takes shape as nonprofit buys old hospital

By LEE HILL KAVANAUGH
The Kansas City Star

Just in the nick of time, an envelope containing $8,000 arrived to help Pastor John Wiley and a charity group make a down payment on the former Park Lane Medical Center.

Pastor John Wiley passed by the abandoned Park Lane hospital every day.

Somebody ought to buy that building, he’d think.

Another time, he waited as a school bus pulled into a pay-by-the-week motel and 10 children piled out.

Children here?

That’s when the reality hit him. Just three miles from his River Christian Fellowship church in Raytown was the starkness of the working poor living in motels.

Many are families who have lost their homes to foreclosure. They’ve been downsized at work, or hospitalized with a major illness, or their car needs repair. They’re stretching from paycheck to paycheck, trying desperately to avoid relying too often on relatives or staying in shelters or sleeping in a car.

As time passed, Wiley found himself preaching more sermons on the poor, thinking more about the children whose lives exist in poverty …

And thinking about that abandoned hospital at 5151 Raytown Road, in view of the Truman Sports Complex …

Buy the empty building and use it to help those families.

“Yeah, right,” he chuckled under his breath. But Wiley, 47, is used to what he calls “God moments.” No, he doesn’t hear a voice. But a peace washes over him, letting him know he’s on the right track, sort of his own religious GPS.

Wiley’s idea — a “dream center” where families can live until they get back on solid financial ground — already exists in Los Angeles. The model has been reproduced in New York, Philadelphia and St. Louis.

Why not in Kansas City?

On the last day of June, Wiley’s dream took on the substance of bricks and mortar when he and the board of a new nonprofit, River of Refuge, signed papers and handed over a down payment for the former Park Lane Medical Center.

Wiley is executive director of the nonprofit, which is separate from his church.

The money had trickled in over five weeks, ever since he’d announced it to his 300-member church — including one gift that came in just minutes before the board’s appointment with the real estate agent.

A woman dropped off an envelope holding $8,000, saying only that she and her husband had prayed about it.

No name, she whispered.

In two years, the nonprofit must make a balloon payment of $1 million or the building will return to the owners.

Renamed River of Refuge, Dream Center, the 150,000-square-foot building — with a five-floor residential section — will be a place where families can learn to be self-sufficient. But first, it needs repairs. It has broken pipes and damaged walls, and it’s missing air-conditioning units and copper pipes and fire extinguishers.

But at least 50,000 square feet of one wing is office space, still in pretty good shape, Wiley says, and could be rented to other nonprofit agencies soon.

“My hope is that the building will be sort of a one-stop place to connect families with services,” he says, grinning with the enthusiasm of a used-car salesman sealing a deal. He knows that compared with fixing the broken dreams of a life, fixing a building is easy.

Many people hope the dream doesn’t fizzle.

“First off, John Wiley is an awesome guy,” says Cotton Sivils, executive director of Hillcrest Ministries, a program that works to get homeless families out of the cycle of debt and homelessness.

“A lot of well-meaning, good-hearted people have got into something like this and learned real fast how complicated it can be.”

The Rev. Dawn Weaks, co-pastor of Raytown Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), is praying for Wiley’s plan.

“I mean, come on, you raise $60,000 in a month, then get the good price for this old, abandoned building. This isn’t about John,” she says. “He’s dreaming a nearly impossible dream, but it’s coming together, and it’s something we desperately need.

“This is a God project, and will be a community project for the entire area.”

• • •

Embracing big dreams has always been Wiley’s style, along with his trademark goofy grin, T-shirts and shorts.

He founded two churches, became a Raytown councilman, bought a community swimming pool and constructed a church building on land acquired at a reduced price.

Why not find a new use for an old hospital?

But his over-the-top style hasn’t always played well. Take, for example, his church’s in-your-face billboard: “Our church is full of screw-ups. There’s room for a few more …” More than a few ministers called to discuss his approach, he says.

He laughs. “Yes, I am a screw-up. I admit it. But God has changed me and my life.”

He grew up in California and Arizona. After years of trying to be the class clown and fighting his parents, he quit school and ran away from home at 15. He immersed himself in partying. Loathed anyone religious. Never set foot in a church.

At 17, he joined the Navy. Although he scored high on entry tests, anything requiring book study was impossible. (Years later, he learned he had dyslexia.)

One day, he went AWOL and partied “like a wild man,” he says. But running from authorities made him weary. He turned himself in and was sentenced to six months in the Navy’s brig.

While there, he had his come-to-Jesus moment when an inmate told him about God.

Within days of his release from the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas, he started preaching at the first church he saw. A minister at another church noticed him.

“John had a passion for people and wasn’t afraid to work hard,” said Rick Malm, now senior minister at the Summit Church in Corpus Christi. “He was a guy I saw a lot of potential in.”

Wiley also met a woman named Mary Jo Bjella. Three days later, he asked her to marry him. Much to her family’s horror, he says, “she said yes to a guy who was a high school dropout, who’d just got out of prison and who was a self-proclaimed Jesus freak.”

They celebrated their 27th anniversary this year.

Malm urged Wiley to get his GED. Wiley started working with the children’s ministry.

He went on to preach for 15 years in churches in Texas and Colorado, eventually founding a church in Littleton, Colo. But while there, he had a crisis: He felt his passion for the ministry waning.

“There’s a fine line from doing something you were hired to do as in a J-O-B and doing something because it burns inside of you, something that you’d do even if they didn’t pay you to do it.”

After much prayer, he turned his church over to its elders and took a job in equipment sales in Raytown.

For six years, he says, “I became just a guy who goes to church. … I didn’t tell anybody that I was a pastor.”

His return began when his three children asked him to lead a Bible study for their high school friends, 15 teens in the Wileys’ living room. His wife dubbed the fellowship The River. Attendance grew as neighbors joined. Within months, it blossomed into a little Christian church that moved into a strip mall, and kept growing.

In 2002, friends urged Wiley to run for the Raytown council. This was a way he could help his community, he thought.

The Southbrooke Estates neighborhood association asked Wiley to get the city to take over the association’s 45-year-old pool. But Raytown wasn’t interested.

Wiley, switching to his pastor’s role, went back to the Southbrooke leaders and asked them what a church could do. Their answer: Buy this white elephant of a pool.

Wiley’s church did, repaired it and then reopened it.

“Gosh, it really set us back about two years as far as growth of our church,” Wiley says. “We must have put at least $20,000 (over the years) into it, but it was the right thing to do. It doesn’t make money for us, but the community enjoys it.”

In another outreach, Wiley’s church made a commitment to serve food each week to families at the Crown Lodge, a pay-by-the-week motel.

They’ve been doing this for nearly two years.

The River’s enthusiasm and dedication to doing “the right thing” caused more than a few people to notice.

After the 2004 murders of John and Mildred Caylor, who ran a Christian bookstore, their sons decided to sell the couple’s 10 acres to Wiley’s church at a greatly reduced price. Within days, construction began on the new River Christian Fellowship church, 6400 Woodson Road. A fountain in front remembers the Caylors.

Wiley knows naysayers will come out over the new plan. He’s bracing for possible opposition from neighbors.

The closest is Two Rivers Psychiatric Hospital, which shares a drive and a parking lot with the Park Lane building. Interim CEO Charlene Arnett says she’s taking a “wait and see attitude.”

“No one has talked to us about it,” she says.

Wiley is confident that River of Refuge can raise $1 million in two years.

“Caring for the poor is the right thing to do,” he says, grinning again. “… The million dollars will come.”

He’s feeling that peace.

Flowing, he says, like a river.

To reach Lee Hill Kavanaugh, call 816-234-4420 or send e-mail to lkavanaugh@kcstar.com

Copyright © 2009 The Kansas City Star.

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