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Struck by the ROC

Sexual assault charges against pastor Geronimo Aguilar have shaken his ministry. But some former followers reveal why they left long before.

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A portrait of Aguilar taken by a Style Weekly photographer in 2001, the same year the ROC opened in a small warehouse off Midlothian Turnpike. - STYLE WEEKLY FILE
  • Style Weekly file
  • A portrait of Aguilar taken by a Style Weekly photographer in 2001, the same year the ROC opened in a small warehouse off Midlothian Turnpike.

Aguilar arrived in Richmond in 1998 with a handful of former Set Free members and his second wife, Samantha. He was introduced to the city by an uncle who was working at a church in Midlothian.

In 2000, Aguilar gathered area faith leaders for dinner at a Broad Street steakhouse to share his vision for the outreach center.

He didn't talk about starting a church. Instead, he wanted existing churches to pool their funds to jointly operate the center as a nondenominational inner-city ministry.

"The dream of the ROC was to be a kind of clearinghouse and engage small churches — the ones that couldn't provide a food pantry and drug and alcohol services — and provide those things as a team," says Joe Ellison, then the pastor at Essex Village Community Church. Ellison says he helped introduce Aguilar to local religious and political leaders.

The response was mixed, but mostly positive. "They had gospel hip-hop and all that," says Don Coleman, who was pastor of the now-defunct Charity Mission International. "Those things were just starting to catch on in Richmond and those guys were good at that — they could reach the community."

Inside a Saturday evening service at the ROC's original location, across from a strip club just off Midlothian Turnpike. - STYLE WEEKLY FILE
  • Style Weekly file
  • Inside a Saturday evening service at the ROC's original location, across from a strip club just off Midlothian Turnpike.

Coleman, now a pastor at East End Fellowship and a member of the Richmond School Board, agreed to serve as a member of the center's board.

Don Blake, the president of the conservative Virginia Christian Alliance, recalls being less impressed. "I went and listened to the gentleman's testimony," he says. "He was going to come into Richmond and do what no other Christian leader could do. I just didn't believe him and I thought it was arrogant of him to think he could do this."

About a dozen churches signed on to support the ROC, and in 2001 the organization opened in a small warehouse across the street from Pure Pleasure, a South Richmond strip club. The ROC started with a budget of $190,000, which covered after-school programs, four group homes for recovering addicts and alcoholics, meals for the homeless, and a $12,000-a-year salary for Aguilar, according to tax filings.

The programs grew rapidly, and just as quickly the nature of the ministry changed: Area religious leaders say they watched the center morph from an outreach mission into a full-fledged church. It was a controversial course, and between 2003 and 2004 there was an exodus from the ROC's board of directors. The number of representatives from area ministries dropped from eight to two, according to corporate filings.

Coleman, the School Board member, is among those who departed. As planned, the center was successfully reaching new Christians, but it wasn't leading them to area churches. Instead, the ROC, with its Saturday evening service, became their church.

"My position at the time was that I thought it would be better if we connected those people to other existing churches," Coleman says. "Because when we got involved, it wasn't the plan for it to become a church.

"Basically, people like me had to realize that's the way they wanted to do it, and that's when I had to move on."

The ROC pushed on under the direction of a board composed of Aguilar, his wife, a former devotee of Phil Aguilar named Richard Holland, and two representatives of the Mechanicsville Christian Center, Gwen and Charlie Mansini. The Mansinis are no longer involved with the ROC and have declined to comment for this story.

A 2010 service is packed at the church's former Warwick Road location. - CHRISTINE LOCKERBY
  • Christine Lockerby
  • A 2010 service is packed at the church's former Warwick Road location.

By 2009 the church's budget had grown to $10.5 million, and Aguilar's salary topped $90,000 a year. His family moved out of its modest home in Glen Allen and into a parsonage — a white-columned luxury home with an assessed value of $590,000 — purchased for Aguilar by David Lynn, a member of the church and later its board of directors.

By 2011 the ROC included more than a dozen affiliated organizations, among them a transportation company, a chain of thrift stores, a child-care and development center, a fitness center, an asphalt company and a tutoring business in Florida, according to tax filings.

Through the years the church earned high-profile backers, including Gov. McDonnell, who spoke in 2010 at the opening of the church's current location in a slickly converted flea market on Midlothian Turnpike.

(Video: Aguilar gives a tour of the ROC's current facility, which features a hair salon, laundromat, and gym.)

That year, Aguilar listed the ROC's accomplishments when he appeared as a guest at a mission in Los Angeles his father had been affiliated with. His remarks that day were broadcast on a Christian television network:

"We work with the poorest of the poor — the people pretty much everyone else has forgotten about. We have 132 outreach ministries that take place every single month and we have 10 discipleship homes. We have a huge food ministry. We give away thousands of bags of food a month. We have a wonderful bus ministry — we pick up about a thousand kids every Saturday and bring them to the ROC to have their own church service and we bring them back throughout the week for an after-school program. We have a Christian school for inner-city students who can't afford a Christian school. ... Pretty much any way that you can reach out, well that's what we're going to do."

A member of the ROC's motorcycle ministry prays during a 2010 worship service in the church's Warwick Road location. - CHRISTINE LOCKERBY
  • Christine Lockerby
  • A member of the ROC's motorcycle ministry prays during a 2010 worship service in the church's Warwick Road location.

The ministries, along with the church's informal, relaxed approach to Christianity, are what led Nancy and Ronnie Wright to start attending in 2004.

"It seemed to be what we really thought Christianity should be about — not what dress you're wearing or if your heels are too high," Nancy Wright says. "It was less judgmental than the environment that we had grown up in and focused on reaching out to the less fortunate."

In their youth, the couple attended Southern Baptist churches that they describe as strict, stuffy environments. By contrast they say the ROC seemed like a diverse, open-minded organization, and Aguilar, who went by Pastor G, was engaging.

After joining, they became part of the church's leadership group of about 50 deacons. They started a ministry within the church that provided extra help to needy children who came to the church through its bus outreach program.

Ronnie and Nancy Wright say they were removed from their position in the church leadership after they tried to ask questions about the ROC's finances. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Ronnie and Nancy Wright say they were removed from their position in the church leadership after they tried to ask questions about the ROC's finances.

But certain things concerned them. First — and this is something nearly every former member of the church interviewed by Style brings up — there were persistent rumors of infidelity among the church's leadership, and in particular, Aguilar. Two former members of the church, including Aguilar's personal assistant of 10 years, have since said on a local television news broadcast that they'd been sexually involved with Aguilar. (The women told Style they are no longer able to talk to the media about their experience, hinting that they may be called as witnesses in the pending case against Aguilar.)

Aguilar, who denies ever being unfaithful to his wife, addressed the rumors directly from the pulpit and in meetings with deacons, the Wrights say.

"He would say: 'You're going to hear a bunch of stuff and none of it's true, it's all just the work of the devil. I need people I can trust and you can trust me and we're brothers, so if you've got stuff to talk about, you can come to me,'" Ronnie Wright says. "But you really couldn't come to him."

The Wrights say that became clear when they tried to approach Aguilar after talk of some possible financial irregularities. What they heard concerned them as tithing members who'd donated nearly $60,000 to the ministry. That members should donate 10 percent of their income to their church was a point Aguilar stressed, former members say. The church's bookstore — filled with CDs, DVDs and books bearing Aguilar's visage — carries a pamphlet he wrote titled, "God's Plan for My Money."

After he found out the Wrights had questions about church finances, Aguilar refused to meet with them, the Wrights say. They were removed from their leadership position without notice. "The way we found out was one of the families assigned to us called us and told us they'd been called and told we were no longer their deacons," Nancy Wright says.

Aguilar says through Carlson that the Wrights never asked for the meeting and left the church voluntarily, though Nancy provided Style with copies of text messages sent directly to Aguilar asking if he would talk with them.

The ROCs bus ministry brings hundreds of area children to the church for services and after school programs.
  • The ROCs bus ministry brings hundreds of area children to the church for services and after school programs.

Likewise, she provided copies of an email she sent to Aguilar in October last year asking for her family's tithes back. She told Aguilar she felt deceived. Aguilar never responded, but his lawyer did, telling Nancy "all communication between yourself and any officer of the ROC, including Pastor Aguilar, shall be through this office."

Nancy Wright received another email from a company called Cyber Investigation Services, informing her that it had been hired by the ROC to investigate a Facebook page called the "Richmond Outreach Center Recovery Group." The page, with more than 800 members, is a gathering place for former members of the ROC. The notice Wright received said the page was causing the church "irreparable harm" and threatened legal action. Wright says that, other than being a member, she has nothing to do with the group and never responded. But the email still worried her because she was aware of the church's litigious history.

Aguilar filed civil lawsuits against two former members of the church in August 2011. The suits, filed in Richmond Circuit Court, demanded $10 million each in damages and alleged that the women, who are sisters, alleged in an online message board that Aguilar had molested their 16-year-old niece. Both women settled the suit and signed agreements requiring them to never mention the center, Aguilar or the lawsuit, according to court records.

In all, Ronnie Wright says, the most difficult thing about leaving the ROC last year was leaving the families they worked with through the outreach programs. His wife agrees. "We had to go visit every child in the program and say goodbye and tell them this is the last month we're going to be doing this program," she says. "It wasn't easy."

Aguilar preaches in 2010 during a tent revival outside his church's previous location on Warwick Road. - CHRISTINE LOCKERBY
  • Christine Lockerby
  • Aguilar preaches in 2010 during a tent revival outside his church's previous location on Warwick Road.

Aguilar and three of his associate pastors stepped down on June 6, a day after the details of the alleged abuse in Fort Worth were widely reported. A second pastor was charged with making a threatening phone call to a former member who told a reporter he left the church after "witnessing inappropriate behavior between [Aguilar] and some church wives."

When he resigned, Aguilar posted a letter on the church's website asking members of the congregation to pray for him. "No person will ever love you like your pastor has," it says. The letter was removed from the site a few hours after it went up.

Asked by Style if Aguilar had any regrets about his time at the ROC, his lawyer responded bluntly: "None."

As part of a severance package, the church's board of directors says it will allow Aguilar to continue living in the parsonage for six months. During that time, Aguilar will draw his $115,000-a-year salary.

"He was under an employment agreement, but I don't think that was the reason for the severance," Stephen C. Lewis, the church's lawyer, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "The reason was people appreciate what he's done and with what he's got going on, people want to make sure his family was taken care of."

Members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests call for Aguilar to step down at a late-May protest in Richmond. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests call for Aguilar to step down at a late-May protest in Richmond.

As the church tries to right itself, former members are regarding the board with scrutiny. In the absence of directors elected by the congregation — a feature of many mainstream churches — the organization is left to a group of leaders many view as having been handpicked by Aguilar. (Carlson says Aguilar, who served as president of the church's board of directors, isn't sure how directors are chosen under the organization's bylaws.)

Rick Ross, a cult expert from New Jersey who's been following developments at the ROC after members started registering complaints on his website, says the church's structure leaves it with an accountability problem.

"If members want change they're told they can leave," says Ross, who has worked as a lecturer and consultant on fringe religious groups since the 1980s. "Because this is not a democratically run organization in which everyone votes, then you don't have meaningful financial transparency and things can become abusive."

Ellison, the pastor who first helped introduce Aguilar to Richmond leaders, echoes that thought. "Sometimes these churches become personality driven and not purpose driven," he says. "If the ROC was connected with mainline Baptists or Methodists, they would have fired him a long time ago."

Ellison says he's heard the complaints through the years from members and leaders who left. The local faith community, he says, should have done more.

"My heart is broken by how many people have been wounded and hurt by the ministry," Ellison says. "A lot of members called me and told me the pain and hurt they went through and I just had to pray to God and repent. But the people I'm praying for most are the ex-ROC members. They're the ones that are wounded. They're the ones who may never go into a church again."

Junior Avila, pastor of True Vine Church, sings during a recent worship service at a former multiplex in Chesterfield County, while James Pierce dances in the aisle. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Junior Avila, pastor of True Vine Church, sings during a recent worship service at a former multiplex in Chesterfield County, while James Pierce dances in the aisle.

James Pierce, the ROC's former janitor, stands just inside the front doors of an old multiplex in Chesterfield with a stack of programs. It's almost 6 on an overcast Saturday evening and True Vine Church's weekly service is about to start.

This is what Avila's "ER for hurting people" looks like: Faded pastels and art-deco fixtures dominate a converted movie theater where the service will take place. At the front of the room the old screen is still there, half covered with a teal curtain. A small, backlit cross leans against it.

The venue is owned by another local church that uses it for Sunday services, meaning Avila holds his services on Saturday evenings — the same time as the ROC's. Everything about the location stands in unpretentious contrast to the imposing facility Avila's former employer inhabits, where decorative, chromed-out motorcycles bookend the front doors.

Avila's ministry is, in a word, churchier — even while it exists in a building designed as a showcase for Hollywood blockbusters. The differences are evident as soon as you approach the front door. Outside the ROC, members of Aguilar's security team, dressed in motorcycle vests, leather and jeans, loiter and regard strangers in silence when they enter. ("Yeah he had a security team," Aguilar's lawyer, Carlson says. "That answer should be self-evident given the people that this organization tries to help — troubled youth, ex-felons — it's a dangerous job.")

Members of True Vine sing during a recent service. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Members of True Vine sing during a recent service.

At True Vine, James Pierce greets everybody with a welcoming exuberance, introducing them to a newcomer.

There's a pleasant woman in her 40s who moved her family into the dorms at the ROC's School of Urban Ministry, where she says she endured bedbugs, smelled marijuana, and witnessed sexual activity in the parking lot. She stayed, she says, but was labeled a "backslider" and was kicked out of the program six weeks before graduation because she wrote on Facebook that she'd visited her former church.

There's a tall, 30-year-old man with a blond ponytail who says he left the center because Aguilar told members of the church's motorcycle ministry they had to check with him before they went on trips. "If a couple of guys decide to ride down to North Carolina for the weekend, why's he need to know about it?"

A man vaguely resembling James Gandolfini says he misses the ROC and still has friends who go there, but says some of the things he saw just weren't right.

In the theater, Avila preaches about the search for Goshen — God's promised land. It isn't a location, he says, it's inside you when you're praising the Lord.

The music that begins and ends the service is acoustic, and Pierce responds to it by dancing alone in the aisle. His jerky, ecstatic movements make it easy to imagine his faith surging through him.

Some former members of the church say there's no hope for the ROC — they'd like to see it torn down. Ask Pierce if the place can be salvaged and he'll bring up the same things others have: questions about the finances, infidelities, uncertainty about the remaining board members who let it all go on so long. But he doesn't want to say much more. "There's about four pastors there and they was in the wrong way," he says. "That's not my business, God will judge them."

Pastor Avila sees a path — a painful one — to the place's redemption in the eyes of those it has hurt. "When a plant is growing and it's producing bad fruit, you need to pull it from the roots," he says. "That place — it has fertile soil and I hope people see that. They could just pull everything and start fresh. People are still hungry, people are still needy. ... I think this is an opportunity to grab on to the Lord." S

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