The Richmond Outreach Center's Saturday evening service is about to start when Journey's "Small Town Girl" blasts through the assembly hall — a converted grocery store off the Midlothian Turnpike in South Richmond.
A timer ticks down the seconds to 6 p.m. on two massive, projected video screens that bookend an empty stage. When the clock hits zero the overhead florescent lights dim and the house band, a rock group with eight backup singers and three lead vocalists, takes the stage.
The band launches into a soaring, repetitive anthem. I'm pressing on / pressing on to the higher calling of the Lord.
The music is loud and congregants are cheering. It's a diverse group, and dress ranges from a Metallica shirt with the sleeves cut off to a pressed shirt with cufflinks and suit pants. Some people raise their left hands in the air and sway. Stage lights flash behind the band.
At the end of the song a bearded man in a flat-brim cap takes the stage. "For those of you who don't know me, get to know me," he says. "I'm M.J. Aguilar."
Unbeknownst at the time, they won't be getting much of a chance. It's May 25 and M.J.'s brother and the church's founder, Geronimo Aguilar, was extradited to Texas earlier in the week after U.S. marshals took him into custody at his Richmond home. He'd later be charged with seven felony counts, including two cases of aggravated sexual assault of a child under 14.
But that wasn't the worst of it. A little more than a week after the May 25 service, warrants made public disturbingly graphic details of the alleged sexual assaults. A day after the details became public, June 5, Aguilar and three of his lead pastors, including his brother M.J., resigned their positions. A news release from the church says only that the terms were "mutually agreeable." The resignations leave the church's youth pastor as the only minister on staff.
There are hints that the terms weren't quite as agreeable as the curt statement suggests. A longer letter from Aguilar was posted on the church's website the next day. But just a few hours after it went up it was deleted. So were the church's social media accounts on Instagram and Twitter, which had been used to distribute Aguilar's letter.
By Friday the ROC's website has been scrubbed of pictures of Aguilar, which had prominently decorated the site.
The details surrounding the charges against Aguilar appeared to break the dam. Local media outlets covered in explicit detail the allegations in the arrest warrants, which Fort Worth police had made public.
They center on two sisters. One told detectives that Aguilar sexually assaulted her repeatedly, beginning in 1996 when she was 13 and Aguilar was 26, according to the warrant. The warrant alleges the abuse continued until the woman was 16.
Her sister was 11 when the alleged abuse first began, according to the warrant.
The warrant alleges that after Aguilar "had sent his wife to California, he was lying in bed between the then 11-year-old victim and her 13-year-old sister," he ran his hand up the girls leg, touching her vagina.
The abuse escalated, according to the warrant: "The suspect continued to inappropriately touch the victim by rubbing on her buttocks in their home and placing his penis against her buttocks while cleaning at their church."
Detectives allege in the warrant that in 1997 Aguilar was having sex with the girl "and was seen by the victim's parents with the victim and confronted by the parents."
"The parents of the victim provided a written statement saying that the suspect had admitted to having sex with their daughter after he was caught in their living room under a blanket with the 12-year-old victim," according to the warrant.
Another witness told detectives that when he was 16 he observed "Aguilar buttoning up his pants and putting on his belt while the victim's older sister who was 13 or 14 years of age at the time was watching the suspect at the end of the bed and covering herself with a blanket," according to the warrant.
"The victim's sister looked at him and said, 'I can't stand the smell of sex,'" the warrant alleges.
The parents of the victims had moved to Fort Worth with Aguilar to join him at a church called New Beginnings, according to the warrant, which describes Aguilar as a "trusted spiritual leader" to both families.
And at least until last week, that's how Aguilar was viewed by many in his congregation at the Richmond Outreach Center — more commonly referred to as the ROC. When allegations were made public last month, the church stood behind him.
During the May 25 service Aguilar is in custody in Texas awaiting a bond hearing. On stage back in Richmond, M.J. Aguilar turns to address the allegations against his brother by introducing a ROC board member, Mike Dixon, who reads a prepared statement released two days earlier.
Dixon tells the congregation that Aguilar has decided to temporarily step down as the church's lead pastor and the president of its board so he can devote time and energy to "certain legal matters in Texas."
"While we believe the accusations against him to be completely untrue and unfounded," Dixon tells the congregation, which interjects with a burst of applause and cheers, "we have accepted his request for a temporary leave of absence."
There's more applause when Dixon says the board decided to continue paying Aguilar during the leave, meaning Aguilar can continue to draw his $93,000 salary, as reported on the church's annual tax filings.
Back on stage Dixon yields the white, wireless microphone to M.J. Aguilar, who introduces three pastors from other large churches: Jonathan Falwell of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Mark Becton of Grove Avenue Baptist Church in Henrico and Carter Goolsby of the Mechanicsville Christian Center.
While the three men offer their encouragement to the congregation, each acknowledges the difficulties the church will face going forward.
"It doesn't matter how dark the clouds might be," Falwell says. "That while we are going through these times, my God is going to perfect us. … He is going to establish us. And he is going to raise us up that in the end there will be victory no matter what the world might say. And it doesn't matter what Satan is doing, it doesn't matter how strong he might think that he is, it doesn't matter how much me might try to attack us.
"Our God wins." S