"But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." — Matthew 6:33
"All I can tell you is this: If you take care of God's business, he'll take care of yours." — Geronimo Aguilar
At 56, James Pierce's life is marked by ups, downs and one particularly bad fall. He grew up on Richmond's South Side, got himself in trouble and spent 12 years in prison. He subsequently found God, started a successful roofing business and brought in good money — until the day he fell off a roof. He spent five days in a coma and two months in the hospital. Doctors told his wife he'd never walk or talk again.
But Pierce recovered, though now his words come out in a cheerful-but-plodding slur. And until recently, he worked for $7.50 an hour as the head janitor at his church, the Richmond Outreach Center.
"That's a big place," he says. "I cleaned up bathrooms, I cleaned up the classrooms, I had to clean the offices. Then every other week I would mop and buff.
"I was keeping the church clean; I was really keeping it clean. The floors were just shining all the time."
Others confirm: Pierce made the place sparkle. But in November he says church leaders branded his wife, Laverne, a gossip, and banned her from the premises.
With his rough background, turmoil-filled life, and little prior experience with religion, Pierce had been a kind of a poster child for the success the church is capable of. In a 2009 Style Weekly article about the fast-growing success of the ministry, Pierce's story figured prominently and his picture appeared on the front cover of the magazine.
The Richmond Outreach Center is better known by its acronym, the ROC — pronounced "rock." Like most of its members, Pierce says the nondenominational church felt accessible to him as a new Christian: He liked the informal dress, the onstage rock band and the roughneck, biker image cultivated by church leaders who told stories about difficult lives.
Then there were the many opportunities to volunteer in the church's ministries — food banks, thrift stores, homeless and drug-rehab homes — that made him feel like he was making a difference in Richmond.
In 2007, Pierce enrolled in and graduated from the church's School of Urban Ministry, a nine-month, $2,000 program "designed to produce well-rounded Christian leaders," according to its website. That's where he learned to win souls. "I see people and talk to them about Jesus," he says. "Actually, that's the only conversation I can really carry, is about Jesus."
Pierce still keeps the diploma on the wall of his Mechanicsville home and can rattle off his grades: a handful of As, Bs and one or two Cs. He sounds less proud when he describes the day last year when the life he'd bandaged, beaten and screwed back together spun apart again into even smaller pieces than before.
Pierce says he'd been working at the ROC for three years when an assistant pastor, Andrew Delgado, called him into his office one morning. Pierce recalls Delgado saying something to the effect of: "Your wife is gossiping about the pastor and the church, and she's not allowed to come back on the property at all."
Pierce didn't know what to make of it: "I said, 'What do you mean? In the New Testament it says that when two people get married they are one.' So I said, 'Are you firing me?' And he just shook his head and didn't answer."
Pierce walked down the hall to the food pantry where Laverne was volunteering. He told her they had to go — he'd explain why in the car. Neither has been back.
Pierce and others say his experience at the ROC isn't unique. "They ask people to leave all the time," he says. "They just don't tell anyone about it."
Geronimo Aguilar, the ROC's founder, figured prominently in the news last month after Texas authorities charged him with seven felonies in connection to the sexual assault of two sisters, ages 11 and 13. The allegations date back to the 1990s and have been covered in graphic detail. Aguilar, 43, faces life in prison.
What hasn't come out are the stories of people like James, Laverne and dozens more — people scarred by their experience at the ROC long before U.S. marshals took Aguilar into custody at the end of May. Former members describe a church that welcomed the area's most fragile residents but didn't always treat them with care. They've lost friends, faith and, as in Pierce's case, jobs.
Church officials have declined to comment for this story. And until Friday, Aguilar's lawyer, David Carlson, hadn't returned multiple phone calls and emails that Style began leaving in late May. Over the weekend, Style outlined for Carlson the stories that the Pierces and other former church members and associates are telling about Aguilar and their time at the ROC. And through Carlson, Aguilar either denies or disputes nearly every detail of their accounts.
"My client has empathy for all people in need," Carlson says. "But the kinds of folks this organization ministers to, you're not going to be successful getting them all off drugs, keeping them from being repeat offenders, trying to save their lives. ... When you're ministering to these folks in need, some are going to receive it well and take advantage of it and some folks are not going to receive it well and take advantage of it. But there are many that have."
The way the Pierces tell it, Laverne stopped taking advantage of the ROC's ministries when she started asking too many questions and complaining when she didn't get answers.
A 58-year-old woman who walks with a cane, she says she inquired after some money the church's senior-citizen group had raised by holding fried-fish dinners. It was intended for a trip, she says, but after a group member spent $600 on the outing, the church office refused to reimburse them.
"They wouldn't give it to us," Laverne Pierce says. "First they said it had to be spent within the church, then they said it wasn't for taking trips. And it was all wrong."
After the Pierces were cast out of their spiritual home, they found a new one with another refugee from the ROC, pastor Junior Avila. He'd worked with Aguilar for a year between 2011 and 2012 before he left to start a church, True Vine, which meets in Chesterfield County. He preaches there with another former center pastor, Allen Caldwell.
Avila says it wasn't his intention, but his congregation quickly became a gathering place for former members of the ROC. Of True Vine's roughly 200 congregants last month, he says, more than half are former center attendees.
"We became like an ER for hurting people," Avila says. "Everybody has their own story. Some are completely hurt because they were lied to. Someone else said, 'Hey, I noticed this or that,' and they brought it to their pastor and it wasn't really appreciated. And for me it was just spiritual — I was dying spiritually."
The concerns about how the outreach center was managed rise above the level of a religious squabble: Even its most vocal critics concede the church provides critical social services to the region. On top of the need, there are questions of financial responsibility. The church's tax filings show that each year it takes in, and then distributes, millions of dollars in grants and donations, thousands of which come directly from the local, state and federal governments.
When Gov. Bob McDonnell presented a state community service award to Aguilar and the church last year, his office called the ROC a model to be replicated.
"When it comes to helping impoverished families in the Central Virginia region, the Richmond Outreach Center is a household name," as a news release from McDonnell's office puts it. "With a staff of over 150 and a congregation of over 2,000, this non-traditional, boundary-breaking church led and inspired by founder and Pastor Geronimo Aguilar, has mobilized enough volunteers to serve more than 11,000 people a week."
So how did things go so wrong? And even though Aguilar and three of his assistant pastors stepped down last month, can faith hold steady in the face of human failures?
As he's presented it through the years, Aguilar's life story is a fantastic tale of a hopeless thug saved by a miracle: His biker father abandoned him when he was 3. He witnessed his mother's murder at age 8. He was a high-school dropout at 15. And he was a strung-out drug dealer by 17.
In a haze and ready to die, he says, he decided to go into a neighborhood church. He says he'd never set foot in one before, but figured that he'd tried everything else — why not? The pastor he met there turned out to be the biker dad who abandoned him, Phil Aguilar.
This is the part in the story where Aguilar pauses while his audience gasps and applauds. Aguilar cleaned up, found God and joined his father's ministry.
In 2001, Style wrote that Aguilar's story sounded like "something ripped from a Christian best seller."
Maybe it was.
Geronimo's story is directly contradicted by an account of the father-son reunion published in a 1997 memoir written by his dad's longtime secretary, Lois Trader.
In her book, Trader describes a somewhat more plausible sequence of events: Phil Aguilar was in a courthouse and ran into the lawyer who handled his divorce. The lawyer told Phil that his son lived with his grandparents a few blocks away from his father's church, Set Free Ministries in Anaheim, Calif.
Trader declined to comment publicly when contacted by Style, but she writes that she made several visits to Geronimo on behalf of Phil. Geronimo's grandparents didn't want him to have anything to do with his father — the elder Aguilar had a bad reputation, and in the '70s spent time in prison for, among other things, beating a 3-year-old child, according to news reports.
When the two finally met, Trader writes, it was by coincidence in a city park. They played basketball together and a relationship developed. The book has no mention of drugs, gangs, murders or dropping out of school, but there are pictures of a young Geronimo with a thin mustache smiling next to his father.
According to Trader, Geronimo's grandparents had renamed him Jerry Light. That's the name that appears next to the images of him as a gawky, growing teenager in his freshman, sophomore and junior year high-school yearbooks.
Today, through his lawyer, Geronimo stands by the story he's been telling since he arrived in Richmond: He completed only his freshman year of high school, was addicted to drugs, and stumbled randomly into his father's church. Trader's account is "just not true," Carlson says.
What isn't in dispute is that after he met his father, Geronimo became an active member of Set Free Ministries, married a 17-year-old member, Stacee Davis, and had a child with her.
Like the son's church would later, Set Free used unconventional tactics to reach drug addicts, the poor, the homeless, gang members and bikers. There were motorcycle ministries, communal discipleship homes for those recovering from substance abuse, and lively worship services grounded in popular music and accessible sermons. The latter were delivered by Phil Aguilar, a charismatic figure who had lots of tattoos and talked openly about his past as a gang member, addict and convict.
But Set Free became increasingly controversial as it grew. There were newspaper articles, denunciations from other evangelical churches and unflattering mentions sprinkled throughout a 1992 book by sociology professor Ron Enroth titled, "Churches that Abuse."
A 1991 article in the Los Angeles Times includes charges that Aguilar "exercised rigid control over his members," telling them "to move out of their homes, quit their jobs, give up their cars and all their possessions and move into homes run by Set Free." The paper described it as a macho, male-dominated environment. "[Phil] Aguilar tells people who they can date, arranges marriages and requires women to get his permission to use birth control," according to claims included in the report.
Set Free told the L.A. Times the accusations were false, and in her book, Trader attributes much of the negative publicity to Geronimo's in-laws, the Davises, whom she says started complaining about Phil loudly to anyone who would listen. They appeared in news articles and television interviews describing Set Free as a cult that kept them from their daughter and grandchild.
In his book, Enroth uses Geronimo and Stacee Davis' wedding as an example of his father's authoritarian and controlling tendencies. According to Enroth, Davis' parents said Phil dominated the event: "When the wedding took place, the bride was allowed to be dressed in white, but all attendants wore black. Black balloons and black crepe paper were used as decorations since black is Pastor Phil's favorite color. The ceremony was performed in a black-asphalt parking lot."
Geronimo told Style in 2001 that he left his father's ministry after seven years. Few dates are included in Trader's book, but she writes that before Aguilar left, the ministry was crumbling. Wherever Set Free went, opponents would put up flyers on "every phone pole, corner and car in the area" that warned people away from Set Free ministries. "It was beyond ugly."
Trader's writing about Geronimo is occasionally critical. There are allegations of infidelity — a messy intra-church affair that he denies. And Trader writes that he was "lifted up into a position of leadership he had no place being."
Ultimately, she says, Geronimo couldn't handle it. After the ministry closed, "Geronimo packed up in the middle of the night and left. Not a word of good-bye to his father, mother, brothers or sister."
In 1996, Geronimo Aguilar turned up in Fort Worth, Texas. That's according to the warrant that police there issued for his arrest last month.
Aguilar was 26 and had moved from California to work at a church called New Beginnings, where he served as an outreach and youth minister. He lived with a family that had followed him to Texas, according to the Fort Worth warrant, which describes Aguilar as their "trusted spiritual leader."
The warrant alleges that Aguilar subjected the couple's daughters, ages 11 and 13, to repeated sexual abuse beginning in October 1996 after he sent his wife back to California.
The alleged victims first came forward in 2007 and again this year. The women's parents provided a written statement saying that Aguilar had admitted to having sex with both of their daughters "after he was caught in their living room under the blanket" with the younger victim, according to the arrest warrant.
The warrant says other witnesses provided written statements saying they overheard Aguilar "asking for forgiveness and begging the victim's parents not to call the police for having sex with their daughter." In the case of the older daughter, the warrant alleges a church member saw Aguilar kissing the girl and alerted the pastors.
Aguilar's lawyer, Carlson, says his client denies the charges. The senior pastor at New Beginnings, Don Couch, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram last month that he never heard allegations of abuse during the year Aguilar served there.
"We have no reason to try to cover for him. That just simply is not true," Couch told the newspaper. "He left here because he and I had some discussions. There were just some things I didn't like about the way he was bringing things into the ministry. We didn't agree on theology. In addition to that, I suspected he was abusing prescription medication. All those are the reasons he was dismissed."
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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 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."
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."
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.")
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