"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."