Geronimo Aguilar's story sounds like something ripped from a Christian bestseller. Is he the next great hope for Richmond's inner city? 

The Prodigal Son

Driving through South Richmond in his black Chevy, Geronimo Aguilar takes in the scene: the new tattoo parlor on the left, the motel ahead that advertises free Cinemax, the strip clubs that pack in the crowds every night.

"This is perfect," says Aguilar, a tall, tattooed man of 31whose muscular build and olive skin enhance his resemblance to professional wrestler the Rock.

A California transplant, Aguilar and his new ministry, the Richmond Outreach Center — the Roc, as it's called — have in the past seven months found a home in an old storage warehouse across the street from a stripper hot spot, Pure Pleasure. A formidable opponent, that club, but Aguilar doesn't seem worried.

This afternoon, with his wife, Samantha, and 21-month-old daughter, Brooklyn, by his side, he has finished making the rounds of some 20 homes right off Midlothian Turnpike, delivering free groceries topped with leaflets that proclaim "God shall supply all your needs."

A lot of people say Aguilar is the next great hope for Richmond's inner city. More than a dozen Richmond-area Pentecostal churches, all of them tucked away in the suburbs, are backing Aguilar's work here by contributing the volunteers and money that keep the Roc afloat.

"I truly believe in what he's doing," says Gwen Mansini, the director of urban ministry at Mechanicsville Christian Center, a 1,500-member church. Along with her husband, Charlie, she's on the Roc's board of directors.

Churches like Mansini's fund the Roc's $10,000-a-month budget. (Aguilar declines to name his salary. "It's under middle class, let's put it that way," he says. "Me and my wife live in a three-bedroom house and we're as happy as can be.")

Aguilar — or Pastor G., as his flock knows him — is an amiable, approachable man with a down-to-earth style. He favors Mexican food, calls Al Pacino second only to Jesus, and spends his spare time in a recording studio where he raps and cranks out CDs with his wife.

It's too early to tell whether the churches' faith in Aguilar is well-placed, or whether Aguilar will be a reputable, stable voice in a part of town where leaders are hard to come by. What's certain is that he knows the mean streets well.

His own story sounds a lot like something ripped from the pages of a Christian best seller. At age 3, he was abandoned in New York by his father, a Hell's Angel biker. At 8, he saw his stepfather shoot his mother in the head. At 15, he became a drug dealer in southern California, where he sold and later used heroin and crack and PCP — any drug, really, that he could get — until the day a pastor led him to repent.

Then comes the curious part: That pastor turned out to be his long-lost father, an ex-con who found Jesus during one of his prison stints. "I don't think Oprah Winfrey could have set something like this up," he says.

Phil Aguilar, Geronimo's father, is an ambitious, controversial preacher. Since 1982, his "biker ministry," Set Free Christian Fellowship, had grown to include a network of group homes in Texas, Illinois and California that gave drug addicts an alternative to pricey hospital treatment programs. A great deal of the ministry's financial upkeep — and its clout in Pentecostal circles — came from the support of Paul and Jan Crouch, two evangelical bigwigs who gave Phil Aguilar frequent airtime on their Trinity Broadcasting Network, the world's largest Christian television network.

Along the way, the elder Aguilar — a hybrid of populist preacher Billy Sunday and "Easy Rider's" Captain America who favors motorcycles, tattoos and, on occasion, bleached hair, and who tells followers to "get high on Jesus" — has been the subject of some colorful copy in the national press.

In the past decade, the media has reported on Phil Aguilar's ex-convict, heroin-user past and his two convictions for child abuse in the 1970s. A Santa Barbara sociology professor wrote a book claiming that Set Free was a cult in which former members had been subjected to sex abuse and seizure of possessions. (Set Free denied the charges.) There have been several lawsuits, too; in 1993, a teen at a group home in Texas claimed a Set Free employee offered him crack cocaine in exchange for sex. (Again, Set Free denied the charges. The suit was later settled out of court.)

According to press reports, that same year, Phil Aguilar temporarily left his church amid allegations that he was having an affair with a congregant. Once a flock of 4,000, it had dwindled to 350. Aguilar returned the following year, having "regained his fire," as he says on his Web site, www.philaguilar.com. The church now has about 500 members.

Past controversy hasn't stopped Geronimo Aguilar's father from forging ahead. In 1995, he founded the Los Angeles International Church and Dream Center, an inner-city mission that soon attracted 1,000 members and a roster of missionaries such as ex-TV evangelist Jim Bakker.

Around that time, Aguilar passed the torch to his son Geronimo, who was ordained through his ministry in 1990. Since then, Geronimo Aguilar has been fashioned in his father's image, as a preacher who reaches what Phil Aguilar, in an e-mail, calls the "1 percenters (black sheep) of society."

Since Geronimo Aguilar came to Richmond three years ago, he has, like his father, used his gritty past as way to minister to inner-city crackheads and other untouchables. His mission, his calling, his very entry into Pentecostal circles is largely due to his father's influence. (In a recent e-mail interview, the elder Aguilar wrote: "Soon i hope Geronimo renames his Place Set Free outreach center!!!!!!!!!!!")

Even Geronimo Aguilar's name comes courtesy of his father. "He thought it was a wild name," says the son, who wears the moniker with pride; during one talk, he lifts his shirt to show the name tattooed in an old English-style font across his upper back. (His wife's name has found a home on his right ankle.)

"Geronimo has learned a lot from the time he spent with me, although he is still a novice when it comes to really spending time with the broken people," writes Phil Aguilar by e-mail. "I believe that Geronimo has helped lead a good work there with the assistance of one of my top soldiers for Jesus that i raised up named ranch richard." He's referring to one of several people who found their way to Set Free as recovering drug addicts and have moved to Richmond to work alongside Geronimo Aguilar.

Given the heritage he has been bequeathed, can Aguilar avoid the controversy that has beset his father's ministry? Aguilar says he doesn't concern himself with the question. "Most of the stuff they wrote was a long time ago," he says. "Some of it's 10 years old, so I really don't think about it. My dad is a great man and anyone who knows him knows the real truth.

"If people really follow the Bible, there'll be controversy with it. Jesus had it. They called Jesus the devil."

So far, the little press Aguilar has culled in Richmond has focused on the Roc's activities, the daily after-school programs for neighborhood kids, who often use the computer center, play basketball, or tend the vegetable patch by the front door.

He and his wife, Samantha, have a hip-hop group called In4Life, which has done 500 concerts in the past two years. (Among the songs he's penned is "There They Go," a rap version of "Hava Nagila." His group will hit the road in late October to perform at schools and churches in Texas, Florida and Maryland.)

"His experiences, having been a drug dealer, having been a drug addict, having been a gang member — he understands better than someone who's grown up in the suburbs," says Wayne Mancari, pastor of the 550-member Cornerstone Assembly of God, one of the churches that supports the Roc.

The ministry has also attracted people who've left jobs and families to work there. For one, there's Seth Peter Franco, a 23-year-old who gave up a promising basketball career at Houghton College in New York to serve as a youth director at the center.

Then there's Karen and Jake Holmes of Miami, who met Aguilar when he performed at a school there. She left her steady work as a mural painter, he his position as a math teacher at a public school. "We left September 11th," says Karen Holmes, 47. "When we found out about the Towers, it would have been a good excuse to stay, but Jake and I looked at each other and knew we had to come." Here they'll launch the Roc's latest project — a women's home.

The ministry also has a group home — the House of Paul — for recovering drug addicts. (It's been open about ayear; before its opening, it operated out of Geronimo Aguilar's Glen Allen home.) Richard Holland, an ordained pastor — and vice president of the center — heads the three-level home in South Side. He came from California, too, having spent two decades at Phil Aguilar's Set Free, first as a recovering heroin addict. He then gained his nickname, "Ranch," as a minister who oversaw a one-and-a-half-acre ranch near Perris, Calif., where addicts went to kick heroin and get straight with Jesus.

"His father trained me up," says Holland, a bespectacled, goateed man of 49 whose faint, cracking voice makes him sound as though he's stricken with emphysema. He says his voice changed during his years in lockup for drugs, when he did 150-pound curls religiously. That must have strained his voice, he says.

Holland has a lot of experience in this field. He helped Phil Aguilar start group homes that in three years grew from one to 30 and included 6,000 people. And like the elder Aguilar, Holland has a checkered past. His includes 15 armed robberies and 200 burglaries. "Give or take a few," he says, "I mean, who's counting?"

Selling drugs was the final clincher, landing him in prison for eight years. There, he was known as "Doc Holliday"; he sold TVs to fellow cons and was part of a network of heroin dealers. "You don't get asked like that unless people trust you," he says. "That's like the best thing that can happen to you in prison."

Holland's bubble burst, he says, that morning he woke in his single-cell, looked in the mirror and, at the age of 30, concluded: "You're a jerk. You think you have it going on. You don't." He soon called out to Jesus, kicked heroin, and led nightly Bible study classes for fellow inmates.

When he was released, he made his way to Set Free. There he eventually met Geronimo Aguilar.

eronimo Aguilar doesn't readily share the details of the day his mother, Caren, died. When asked about it in his office, Aguilar shakes his foot as he recalls his stepfather, Carl, who shot his mother to death outside her home in California.

It had been five years since his mother moved with her son from Queens to California and found work as a waitress. In that time, she'd remarried and divorced. One weekend, when Aguilar was 8, he spent time with his stepfather, a man who, he says, had a violent temper. When the man drove him home, Aguilar waited in the van while Carl went to Caren's front door. Aguilar saw him walk with his mother toward the vehicle. Suddenly, he pulled a gun. He shot her several times, once in the head.

"He was just screaming and yelling hysterically and I was just in shock," says Aguilar. That night Carl drove him to a friend's house, left him there and sped off while the family locked their doors and windows. For the next few weeks, Aguilar stayed with a family friend in Minnesota until the news came that his stepfather had been found dead. He had shot himself.

During the next few years, his mother's father, an elderly Jewish man who had survived the Holocaust, raised him. "He called me Gerry," Aguilar says. "He hated 'Geronimo.'"

His grandfather often left him alone for long stretches while he gambled in Las Vegas, Aguilar recalls. At 15, Aguilar took to the streets and began selling drugs. At 17, he was his own best customer.

One day he was walking down a block in Anaheim, high on some drug, most likely PCP, he says, when he saw a church across the street. He'd never been to one. He'd tried everything else. The sign said it was open every day, every hour. He walked in, saw a man. "If you guys can't help me," Aguilar said, "I'm going to get a gun." The man, "Ranch" Holland, summoned Pastor Phil.

Ever since he found Jesus in prison, Phil Aguilar had prayed to find his son. Of late, he had heard of a drug dealer in the neighborhood named Geronimo. He knew it could only be his son. They went to his office and prayed together.

"When I was walking into his office, it felt like a load of bricks had been taken off me," says Geronimo Aguilar. "I spent many years being angry because everyone who was supposed to be there for me I felt wasn't." He acknowledges that the meeting remains a hazy memory. "To be honest, I was high, tripping on something," he says; he simply recalls the pastor pulled a photo from his wallet, one of him and a toddler, and explained to Aguilar that he was his father.

"Once I gave my heart to the Lord, he changed my heart and gave me forgiveness and showed me that everything we go through is for a reason," he says. "Who knows? Maybe one day someone will come here who's hurting — who's lost a mom, a dad — and I might be able to relate with them and show them that hey, I've made it through and you can, too."

Geronimo Aguilar spent the next seven years in Anaheim, Calif., working in his father's ministry, Set Free Christian Fellowship. He soon quit drugs (been clean ever since, he says), and in the years ahead, worked in his father's ministry.

The day Geronimo met his father, Holland says now, was preordained. "One thing the Lord impressed upon me," says Holland, "is that one day the mantle would be passed to Geronimo."

It's Saturday night at the Roc and Geronimo Aguilar's all in black, with a tight strand of beads around his neck. Usually the hour is reserved for the center's band to pound out rap music rhythms and altered rock tunes. Aguilar's wife's usually leads the singing. Tonight there's something else on the agenda; Aguilar's marrying off a House of Paul member, a 41-year-old former drug addict and ex-con named Byron McNair.

"Out of every wedding I've ever done, I've never been so excited in my life," says Aguilar.

For Aguilar, marriage is familiar ground. He's been married twice, once at 18. From the first, he has a boy and girl. (A 1993 story in the Orange County Register reports that his first wife, Stacee, lived on a Phil Aguilar Set Free ranch for four years. In the article, she charges that in that time she was not allowed to see her mother and father. The parents, for their part, have called Phil Aguilar a "deceiver" and "false prophet.")

No such discord surrounds Geronimo Aguilar's second marriage. "Everything's cool," he says. He adds that his wife's mother lives with them in their home in Glen Allen.

Tonight, Aguilar's 24-year-old wife, Samantha — a dead ringer for Kate Winslett — comes forward. She holds a microphone, lets out an earthy, soulful voice. She sings: "Have I told you lately that I love you?" Aguilar sways slightly, his eyes closed before his opened Bible.

t was Aguilar's uncle Bert who first brought Aguilar to Richmond. "I'm encouraged by my nephew. He's doing mighty work for the Lord," says the man, a Pentecostal who ministers to bikers and brags that he hasn't done an armed robbery in 23 years. (Of the Aguilar clan, he says, "We were the family most likely to kill.")

Three years ago, Bert Aguilar was ministering at Victory Tabernacle in Midlothian. At one church function, his nephew did a hip-hop version of "Amazing Grace." The church was looking for an outreach to the inner city; they found it in him.

A church elder, Ed Ellen, helped the Roc get off the ground. To start, he gave $1,500 a month for the upkeep of a group home. Ellen, owner of a construction company, Dee Shoring, also regularly hires House of Paul members, starting them off at $7.50 an hour for manual labor. (He declines to divulge his current contribution to the Roc.)

One of those workers is the recently wed Byron McNair. A week after his wedding and a honeymoon in the mountains courtesy of the Roc, McNair's back at the House of Paul. He and his new wife, Rose, don't live together yet; separate rooms for men and women is the rule here. Today, after a day's work at Dee Shoring, he talks about the money he's saved, the plans he and Rose have for an apartment.

In almost two years, McNair says, he's returned to crack cocaine once. He's determined to stay clean. "God blessed me," he says. "He'll continue to bless me as long as I keep the Word."

He leafs through some photos of his recent wedding, looks at one and shakes his head: "God brought me a long way," he says. "I never thought this would happen."

Another longtime associate is Santiago Santos. "I feel like we're brothers," says Santos, a guitarist and recovering drug addict who came to Set Free shortly after Geronimo Aguilar's arrival. In his five years there, Santos formed a lasting friendship with Aguilar. They both had lost a parent young; Santos's father was an inmate who died in the Attica prison riot of 1971.

This year, Santos, now 36, moved with his wife and son to Richmond to serve as music director at the Roc. He's clearly devoted to Aguilar. When he tells of the death of his daughter from a previous relationship, and how Aguilar wrote a song to console him in the midst of the girl's death from cancer, he starts to recite some of Aguilar's lyrics. As Santos does, he chokes back tears and abruptly leaves the room. Minutes later, he returns, composed. "Music is important," he says simply.

In nearly two years, the House of Paul has seen 50 people come through its doors. Some have relapsed, gone their way; what the number is, neither Holland nor Aguilar say they record. A dozen, Aguilar wagers.

"This isn't a crash pad," says Aguilar. "If they need help finding a job, work, we'll help them do that."

Through it all, he's guided by the father he calls his best friend, the man who bequeathed him a life and a legacy and a mission.

"That's part of why I have a heart for this," he says. "What helped me is a place just like this." S


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