Faith, Dedication Keeps Potter's Wheel Spinning

It helps to serve more than 500 meals a week. It offers a food and clothing bank. It hosts GED preparation classes and seminars for new mothers. It helps keeps the city's youth off the streets and in the classroom. The Potter's Wheel is a fast growing and fast moving ministry that keeps spinning even through life's trials and challenges.

It's hard not to gravitate toward someone like Pastor Mike Ballard, the founder and director of the Potter's Wheel. He's unassuming and approachable. He talks to you like a long lost friend. He works out three times a week and walks four miles a day. He loves Hawaiian-style shirts. His perennial focus is on helping children.

But he didn't used to be this way.

"We're building the youth of the city. We want them to know that you don't have to live down and live hard trying to make it. You can get out and be somebody," Ballard said. "And I'm proof of that. I was homeless at 16."

Ballard's father was an abusive alcoholic. Then a teenager, Ballard was kicked out by his father who held a gun to his chest. For two years, Ballard floated aimlesslessly like a ship without a rudder.

Then the Vietnam War happened.

Ballard was drafted and served three tours of duty. When he came back stateside, the country was an entirely different place and so was he. One night in the late 1970s, Ballard was drunk and wound up on the kitchen floor.

"The Lord pushed me there. I prayed and I never pay. I cried for three weeks and I never cry," Ballard said. His life would never be the same and for the better too, he said.

He did a little bit of everything. Ballard would weld and work construction. He also owned an excavation business. He was also the associate pastor at Oak Hill Christian Center when the senior pastor asked him to start an outside ministry. It would eventually become his life's calling.

The ministry started small with activities in a park on Fulton Avenue. The ministry started holding services on Saturdays. Ballard and others would also feed and play ball with the neighborhood kids. Then, the Potter's Wheel was given a historic church at 333 Jefferson Avenue. For nearly 15 years, the ministry has never stopped giving back.

"There are a lot of broken people, a lot of people that have cracks in their lives that need somebody to go back and put them back together," Ballard said. "That's how it became the Potter's Wheel. [My wife Sharon] said God wants us to do the Potter's Wheel and that's how it became the Potter's Wheel."

Mike and Sharon were a rock-solid team, helping to grow the Potter's Wheel into what it is today. The ministry provides assistance for low income parishioners. The homeless are also given assistance. In the labyrinth of the building's basement, there are several rooms dedicated to the youth. There are stacks of books and piles of toys. There are classrooms and a nursery. You name it and the Potter's Wheel probably provides it.

"We feed every Tuesday and we feed every Saturday. We'll feed upwards of 250 to 300 on Tuesday. Saturday is closer to 300," Ballard said. The Potter's Wheel teams up with five area churches to provide these meals.

"We gave away about 36,000 pieces of clothing last year. I think if we close the doors to this place the city would be devastated."

The graduation rate of the organization's GED program is 100%, Ballard said. The services that the Potter's Wheel goes well beyond the non-profit's century-old sanctuary.

"I drive down the road and people will holler, 'hey Pastor Mike!' and I don't even know where they are," Ballard said. "They recognize that the Potter's Wheel is a beacon. That's a good way to put it. It's a beacon to those in need."

For nearly 15 years, that beacon has illuminated Evansville's inner-city, helping to shine a path for those who might have wandered. While there have been countless successes, there have also been struggles.

"Contributions have been down but we've been through it before and right now we're hanging onto our emergency money. We're hanging in there," Ballard said. "We're very blessed. We've always been able to make our bills. Payroll has been a little slack once in a while but somehow, some way God brings it in."

Despite being the chief operating officer of the non-profit, Ballard hasn't received a paycheck for a majority of the time that the Potter's Wheel has been in existence. The only time he did was when his wife, Sharon, became sick.

She passed away last October. It was four months before their 50th wedding anniversary.

"She was the pillar of this church," Ballard said as he fought back tears. "She taught Bible study here for years and years and years. She preached here for years and years and years. She was my support. She got dementia and God took her home. But she's still here. She helped me start it. She stayed with me and she left a great legacy here."

Ballard credits the work of his staff for the successes that the Potter's Wheel has seen. During his darkest days, the flock guided the leader.

"I can't tell you that I didn't have some emotions or some questions but I know who I believe in," Ballard said. "God has never failed me and never failed this place. I don't look for Him to fail ever."

We are all chipped and cracked but like a potter and his wheel we can be mended and molded into something new.
 


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