Village Grace Mission Center in Slavic Village

What happens when a God-given vision is combined with the faith of a willing heart? Richard and Reida Bartley have discovered the answer.
by Kirk Rattray

Founders of the Christian biker group, "Messiah Knights", Rich and Reida Bartley now reach the youth in Slavic Village.

In the movie The Wild One, Marlon Brando portrayed a charismatic leader who epitomized the rebellion and chaos associated with motorcycle gangs. Now that Spring has returned, motorcycles will again roar through the streets of Cleveland. In one neighborhood, people will run, not away, but toward these bikers, because this gang brings the message of hope and truth found only in Jesus Christ.

The neighborhood is Slavic Village, tucked into Cleveland's southeast corner. Bordered by Garfield Heights, Newburgh Heights, ISG Steel and Interstate 77, this former middle class neighborhood once housed 50,000 citizens, mostly Baltic immigrants. Societal changes over the last forty years have reduced that population by half. Economic levels have plummeted, and racial demographics have diversified. These changes have provided one area couple an exciting opportunity to bring the Good News to Slavic Village.

Richard and Reida Bartley have ministered in Slavic Village for eight years now. Richard grew up in the neighborhood, attended South High and graduated from Max Hayes High School in 1969. After a ten year Navy stint, Richard returned and landed a teaching position at Aviation High School. God opened the door at AHS, because he arrived for his interview "at 9:30 in the morning and at 1:30 p.m. I was in a classroom teaching." He taught there until 1995, when the city closed the school. Following that tumultuous summer of unemployment and uncertainty, Richard received an anonymous phone call the night before the 1996 school year began. He accepted an offer to teach at Max Hayes, his alma mater. He taught there until 1999, when his faith would be severely tested and God would prove His ultimate faithfulness.

But the Lord Jesus was faithful to Richard long before 1999. His introduction to the gospel occurred in 1969 in Millwood, Tennessee. During Naval school, "one weekend I had to listen to a bunch of Jesus freaks handing out tracts." He rejected the truth, as he had since the age of eight, when he stopped going to the Methodist church after his father died. In 1972, after he broke his hip in an overseas accident, Richard "started thumbing through the New Testament, but didn't take any of it seriously." Several years later, in 1980, after "my daughter started on me about going to church," he surrendered his life to Christ.

Richard bemoans the fact that he "was playing church for the next 16 years." He recalls that "I was a great churchgoer," attending every service, "but never opened the Scriptures." He laments the years he wasted listening to sermons where "they preached buildings, bodies and bucks." The Bartleys moved from that area, and discovered a Grace Brethren church, "where the difference was night and day." The motto for that church is "the Bible, the whole Bible and nothing but the Bible." Energized by their newfound revelation of the Word, the Bartleys looked for ways to share their faith. Combining their love of motorcycles with their love for Jesus, they founded the Cleveland chapter of the Christian Motorcycle Association.

This twelve member gang named themselves "Messiah's Knights" and "were looking for projects to do and things to get involved with." They received several invitations to minister to Slavic Village, and felt God's call there. In 1995, in conjunction with Western Reserve Grace Brethren church, they helped initiate the Christmas Gift Treasure Box Program, which Richard affectionately nicknames the 'shoebox' ministry. This ministry gives area schoolchildren a gift wrapped shoebox at Christmastime, filled with toys, necessities and a gospel tract, donated by Good News Publishers. Painstaking detail is given to make sure each child receives a personalized shoebox. This is Reida's favorite ministry, because she grew up in an Alabama coal mining town where Christmas presents were a luxury. This ministry has grown tremendously. Last year over 1400 children received shoeboxes, including students attending the public schools of Fullerton and Union Elementary schools!

As ministry opportunities grew, the Bartleys founded the Village Grace Mission Center in 1996.VGMC worked with local organizations such as the Slavic Village Development Corporation on projects like the annual Riverfest and the Fleet Avenue Cleanup. Just when he was building strong community ties that allowed him to share the Gospel of Christ, the enemy attacked. In 1999 Richard suffered a viscous beating that ended his twenty-nine year teaching career, but what the enemy purposed for evil God used for His glory. Richard retired and launched himself into full time ministry. Later that year VGMC held a vacation Bible school "outside in this vacant drug lot that we reclaimed for Christ." Beaming, he recalls that "everybody in the neighborhood loved it." He graduated from Grace Seminary in 2000, and VGMC purchased a building in the fall of 2001. Richard and Reida volunteer there full time now.

Bartley's heart for Cleveland is evident when he cites Act 1:8, where Jesus commissioned the disciples to be witnesses to Jerusalem and all the earth. Richard emphatically reveals that "Jerusalem means take it to your neighborhood." The Bartleys do just that at 6002 Lansing Avenue. The Village Grace Mission Center houses a library, a bookstore, a coffee shop and even a computer lab. Services include homework labs for children and tax clinics for adults. In Slavic Village the poverty rate for schoolchildren ranges from 80% to 96%, and some of the residents live on incomes of less than fifteen -thousand dollars a year. The Bartleys are making a difference there, and so can you. The VGMC is open about thirty hours a week, and welcomes new volunteers. Call the center at 216-341-2419 or visit them on the web at www.villagegrace.org. Just don't expect to watch any Marlon Brando movies there.

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