“… and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”
— Isaiah 40:4
Sporting starched beige chinos and a “Jesus Rocks” T-shirt, a middle-aged white man clutching a Bible cuts an unlikely figure shuffling awkwardly along the rough mile of Chamberlayne Avenue where it enters Richmond's downtown.
The bright white of James Pierce's new sneakers competes with the glaring May sunshine when he steps directly in the path of a 20-something man doing his best thug strut along the weedy sidewalk.
“Where would you go, heaven or hell?” Pierce asks without hesitation.
“Heaven!” the man says, the plastic tip of a smoked-out Swisher Sweet nearly dislodging from its perch on his lower lip.
Pierce is out to win souls — along with a dozen of his seminary classmates today — and seems pleased that victory comes so easily in this sidewalk battle with Satan. He hands the man a flier inviting him to attend church before moving on to his next spiritual saber charge.
Pierce won't win the war for Christ in one day of crusading along Chamberlayne, but he's resolved not to lose it either.
He and the other students walking the street this day are among three dozen or so students who recently graduated from the School of Urban Ministry, a theological seminary on Chamberlayne recently opened by the Richmond Outreach Center.
The South Side megachurch better known as the ROC, which is pronounced “the Rock,” is one of the fastest-growing churches in Richmond. With a congregation that's swelled to about 5,000 people in less than a decade, it's also one of the fastest growing on the East Coast.
The church places its primary emphasis on redeeming some of the city's hardest-luck cases. With almost daily outreach ministries in rough neighborhoods such as Hillside Court or this desolate stretch of Chamberlayne, the church has its sights set on winning souls for God among some of the city's most spiritually needy people.
Pierce's personal journey from comfortable building contractor to impassioned soul winner is a Lazaruslike saga of descent into sin, a second chance nearly ended by a death-defying accident — and eventual redemption.
His arrival at the ROC was preceded by nothing less than a rebirth.
Pierce's tough life began on Richmond's South Side, where early run-ins with the law eventually earned him 12 years in prison. That's where he first found God.
When he got out, he started his roofing contractor's business and made money. He mostly forgot about God except on Sundays. Then came the accident.
“I fell off a big roof out at Black Creek,” Pierce says, the slur in his voice and an odd, shallow, fist-sized depression above his left temple signifying the near-fatal head injury he suffered. Shortly after the accident, he says, the doctors confronted his wife: “They said, ‘Do you want to pick a room for him? Because he’s never going to walk and talk again.'”
In Pierce's mind, once broken by injury and uncertainty, God's plan is as clear as the resolve in his voice while he spreads the word in the city's roughest neighborhoods.
“A couple of weeks ago, God was talking to me and he showed me how far I'd come,” he says, crediting the church with his transformation. “God's got a plan.”
In many ways Pierce's story is a variation on a theme among believers at the church founded by Geronimo “Pastor G” Aguilar, a charismatic young California native with his own harrowing tale of redemption. The church was founded just eight years ago and has grown quickly into a spiritual refuge for all manner of tormented souls in search of forgiveness and acceptance.
Though the church's basic religious tenets diverge little from common Southern Baptist themes, Aguilar says he's proud of the church he's building. It's less about bringing people into a building on Sunday and more about sending people out of that building the other six days of the week. The church's visibility in the community sets it apart.
“I would say our philosophy is different than most,” Aguilar says. “Most churches are focused on in-reach a lot more than they are on outreach. I think we've sort of flipped it.”
How they've done that is unique for the Richmond area.
Thursday evenings are packed at the church's Warwick Avenue home — a former church and school complex that's been converted into one part church, one part rehab center and one part Jesus theme park. Congregants arrive in convoys of high-mileage minivans, on a fleet of Harley-Davidson motorcycles and by school bus driven from housing projects all over the city.
Aguilar's motorcycle ministry, the Soulwinning Soldiers, is central to portraying a tough yet compassionate image in the community. With all the trappings of an outlaw biker gang, the group is highly visible. But rather than busting up bars, it operates more like a service ministry akin to the Jaycees or the Shriners.
The church's success is partly built on the idea that religion can come off as hokey to nonbelievers, that a traditional church can turn off those most in need of spiritual rejuvenation. So toughening it up and giving it a rock 'n' roll image makes Aguilar's brand of religion palatable for the rough-around-the-edges crowd.
The folks who walk through a gauntlet of tough-looking bikers to enter the front of the church are a mixed bag. To some extent, it's not unlike any citywide megachurch where blacks, whites and Hispanics of all economic classes mix freely, hugging and smiling. But the spectrum here seems to pass beyond the basic rainbow colors into the ultraviolet — the parts of society that usually aren't part of the spectrum of organized religion.
A gaunt woman with blotchy skin clearly in recovery from substance abuse walks with head high. The angry stares of a hard-edged young black man suddenly soften when a Mohawk-maned white biker with an equally hardened look walks up for a hug and a handshake. Many members, when asked, will freely tell of lives of sin, drugs, alcohol, rough homes, crime-ridden neighborhoods and stints in jail or prison.
The church foyer smells and looks like the entrance to a carnival or rock concert. T-shirts and concert CDs are for sale. The air is thick and sickly sweet from the smell of soda and melted cheese over nachos.
When Aguilar and his wife, Samantha, come on stage (there's no altar), it's with a full rock band. Performances are choreographed, and the music sounds more like Christina Aguilera than some guy named Aguilar. Musical numbers end with raucous cheers.
“We don't ever have any kind of marketing plan to get people who don't have problems into our church,” Aguilar says. “Our mission is really to help those who are lost, who are broken — I honestly believe if your ministry is built on people who are broken and hurting, you're never going to run out of people to reach.”
It's an attitude Aguilar got from his father, Phillip Aguilar, founder of the Set Free church in Anaheim, Calif. The elder Aguilar, a former heroin addict, also offered a haven for people otherwise unwanted by the community.
In his case, dancing with the devil might serve as his final undoing. His California church also included a motorcycle ministry — the Set Free Soldiers — but their activities haven't been confined to hugs and prayers. The 61-year-old faces an August arraignment on a variety of felonies, including possessing a firearm as a felon, possession of a deadly weapon and street terrorism, all stemming from a bar brawl last year between eight of his bikers and members of an area Hells Angels chapter.
Geronimo Aguilar is the 2.0 version of his father. While his father looks every bit the calloused biker in leathers, Aguilar is clean-cut and fit, given to argyle V-neck sweaters. And where the elder has run-ins with the law, the son has been active — and actively recruited — in relationships with local law enforcement.
“I always say, sometimes we need to learn from other people's mistakes,” says Aguilar, who speaks openly about his father's troubles. “My dad would be the first to say he hasn't always done things the right way.”
While his dad was up on gang-related terrorism charges, Aguilar was working with then-Attorney General Bob McDonnell (the Republican candidate for governor) on his Richmond Gang Reduction and Intervention Program to deter gang involvement in the neighborhoods where the ROC has made inroads.
Among the 130 ministries the church provides for its members — one is an auto detailing service — are activities that are as much about keeping people occupied and off the streets as they are about serving a higher power.
Former Richmond Police Chief Rodney Monroe, now in Charlotte, N.C., saw enough value in the church's programs to continue regular contact with the church since his departure last year. He's asked Aguilar to set up a ROC church in his new jurisdiction.
“Having a good relationship with law enforcement can only benefit what we do,” Aguilar says. After all, his target audience is the same as local police. The only difference between their missions is that his is to prevent criminals while theirs is to prevent crime, he says: “We're all on the same team.”
Even with all the bad-boy motorcycles and rock-star polish, Aguilar says his teachings take a literal approach to biblical interpretation.
“The Bible is my only authority,” Aguilar says. “Stick to it and not make it more complicated than it is. It's really not that complicated. He says go, teach people, reach people. That's really what we do.”
That's the mission of the church's School of Urban Ministry, where these basic conservative Christian values often appear in almost anachronistic ways considering the modern approach. The women who attend will never be preachers, for example, because the ROC's tenets include a belief that women can only teach other women, and that ministry to the entire church is reserved for men.
Despite his literal brand of Protestantism, Aguilar sees plenty of value in other faiths. “My mother was Jewish,” he says. “The Bible was a Jewish book. Jesus came as a Jew. I just think Christianity is the rest of the book that maybe Judaism doesn't follow.”
Pastor Jason Helmlinger is dean of students at the urban ministry school. Since 2007 he's churned out about two dozen trained ministers each year from the two-year program, each sharing Aguilar's dream of “starting ROCs all over the country.”
Wearing stylish gray slacks and a striped dress shirt that would blend in at any Richmond nightclub, Helmlinger's brush with sin was largely second-hand. A former Henrico County Police officer whose assigned duty was homicides and violent crimes, he left police work in 2006 after witnessing the worst of humanity.
“I was sitting in Dove Court one night doing undercover,” Helmlinger says. “I was thinking if someone could just come in here and reach these kids. At the time, I had no idea it would be me. Then I heard Pastor G's testimony.”
Like James Pierce, 20-year-old Tappahannock native Bennett Coleman's journey to God — and to the ROC's ministry school — started with an earlier fall.
Young, black and troubled is how he describes himself in high school. Now he's a fresh graduate of the urban ministry school, going into the second year of training, an internship. An accomplished rapper, he plans to aim at urban youth with a hip-hop ministry.
“I was just going through the motions,” he says of the man he was in May 2008. “I was doing some knucklehead stuff I didn't want to be doing.”
He was making a tidy profit around school selling drugs when he first got dragged to a teen event at the ROC's Tappahannock ministry. There he met Pastor Tim Matthews, and saw a church that was very different than what he was used to.
“I saw bikers and convicts and cops,” he says. “Everybody was just getting along. I was like, ‘Man I want to be here.’”
Some of his old friends remain skeptical of his change.
“People are like, man the ROC is brainwashing you,” Coleman says. “I'm like, man don't my brain need a good washing?
“It starts changing you without you even recognizing it,” he says, falling into the hip-hop cadence that has become central to his religious awakening. “I think God could use my talent. He's going to glorify and amplify it 10 times more than it was.”
To Coleman, religion is stronger than the streets.
“To be saved is to just realize that God died for us,” he says with an earnestness that somehow doesn't seem at all at odds with the Chamberlayne streetscape where he practices saving souls. “I used to be a concrete head. If I wanted to fight someone, nobody could turn me away from that.
“Now God can use that,” Coleman says. “He died for us and I'd be willing to do it for him. You can feel it, like I know I'm saved. And no one can turn you away from that.” S