U-Turn for Christ Births a church in Romoland, CA
U-Turn for Christ Births a church in Romoland, CA

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Broadening the Vision—U-Turn for Christ Births a Church in Romoland, CA

Story by Carmel Palmer
Photos by Tom Price

This article originally ran in Issue 70, Winter 2017, of Calvary Chapel Magazine.

“Gerry Brown!” called an incredulous voice, “I don’t believe this!” Looking up from his seat in the Romoland, CA, restaurant, Gerry saw Johnny, one of the city’s roughest drug dealers, pointing at a sign on the restaurant wall. It advertised Calvary Chapel Romoland (CCR), naming Gerry as its pastor. Years ago, Gerry and Johnny had manufactured drugs together. While Johnny went to prison for attempted murder, Gerry’s life had been radically changed by Jesus Christ. Gerry founded U-Turn for Christ, a Christ-centered discipleship program for men and women who are seeking restoration from drug and alcohol addiction through Jesus Christ.

Gerry, Peggy, and Mike talk

Pastor Gerry and Peggy chat with Mike Pelletier (left) after service. CC Romoland has grown and meets in a school auditorium.

With confidence and compassion, Gerry looked Johnny in the eye, declaring, “Johnny, God’s big enough to do that in your life too.” Johnny sat down to talk. By the conversation’s end, the hardened criminal was in tears. He bowed his head, repented of his sins, and asked Jesus to take over. He left the restaurant with a firm new faith he immediately began sharing with others in the drug trade.

“Two men I manufactured drugs with are now believers,” Gerry reported. “My heart is filled with gratitude. As horrendous as Peggy and my backgrounds were, God has used our story many times for His kingdom’s expansion.” Planted in the very neighborhoods where Gerry said he was once “a distributor of death,” CC Romoland is a unique blend of U-Turn for Christ residents and graduates and Romoland locals who display new life in Christ to an area still troubled by crime, addiction, and hopelessness.

Gerry handshake

Gerry ministers to a couple as they leave after Sunday service.

Turned Right-side Up

“Our heart is to share the hope God gave us: He can radically change lives,” said Peggy. She recalled that gunshots often rang out close to their home near Old Town Romoland. Gang graffiti covered the fences; drugs were rampant. “When we were first saved, I wanted to leave. There were too many reminders of our old life. But I felt God saying, Wherever you go, there will be a mirror—a liquor store. You can do all things through Me. He gave us love for Romoland. Our drug dealing had affected the whole community, even the elementary school, because the dealers we sold to dealt to those kids. So we wanted to impact for Christ the areas we’d impacted for Satan. We would get in the car and circle the city like Jericho, praying for God to deliver Romoland. I wanted to get out and evangelize, but I had my three little kids in the car who were scared to death.” Knowing prayer’s power in her own life, Peggy began posting brightly-colored signs around the city reading, “Prayer Changes Things: Philippians 4:6.”

Dan Brown leads worship

Daniel Brown leads worship. He is one of Gerry and Peggy’s three children and is the leader of the Daniel Brown Band.

“Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be … and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace.” Jeremiah 29:7

Meanwhile, U-Turn was praying for a place to hold Friday and Sunday evening services. Attending a different Calvary Chapel each Sunday had forged relationships between U-Turn residents and the larger CC community, but growing numbers made the arrangement increasingly difficult logistically. Around the same time, the Browns began taking a new shortcut through downtown Romoland. Each time, they passed a tiny church building that had fallen into disrepair, as neighborhood violence caused its membership to dwindle. “Wouldn’t that make a wonderful CC?” asked Peggy wistfully, knowing there was no money to buy it.

Gerry said, “We should pray and see if God wants us to have it.” Soon after, the church’s board was meeting at a local restaurant, discussing their urgent need to sell the building when Gerry walked in. One board member, whose son had attended U-Turn, recognized Gerry and approached him about the property. Regretfully, Gerry explained, finances were too tight. However, 15 days before the board’s deadline, an unused U-Turn property lingering on the market for five years was suddenly sold, providing enough money to purchase the building, make repairs, and clear U-Turn’s debts. On their first tour of the building, Peggy spotted a sign in the women’s restroom of a little girl and boy holding hands. Underneath, it read, “Prayer Changes Things.”

Peggy talks with woman

Peggy (right) encourages a lady after the Sunday morning service.

Locals watched as the dilapidated building was repaired and filled with people again—but not on Sunday mornings. Curious, they began filtering into the evening U-Turn services. Eager to evangelize but wary of overstretching himself, Gerry sought Pastor Chuck Smith’s advice on planting a community church. “If God’s opening the door, take the opportunity,” Chuck told him. “Just be careful it doesn’t take you from your first call.” Gerry had intended to name the church U-Turn, but Chuck encouraged him to name it CC Romoland, for its expanded reach. The church later moved to a larger school auditorium.

Spurred on for Service

For Doug and Kerri Poss, who married shortly after graduating from U-Turn, becoming part of CC Romoland was a natural progression. Their eldest daughter was born on the ranch while Kerri was an overseer; all four children, ranging from 9 to 18 years old, have grown up serving alongside their parents in children’s ministry and outreaches. “CC Romoland is my family,” Kerri stated. “I love continuing to minister to new people by telling them, ‘God set me free; He can do it for you.’”

Men talk

Men from the church linger to minister to each other outside after the Sunday service.

Gerry added, “CC Romoland and U-Turn for Christ are one body, one ministry. U-Turn provides a constant influx of new believers. Churchgoers can have a tendency to forget how desperate we are for the Lord. But when there are 165 people from U-Turn, that’s a lot of people who understand that. They raise the roof during worship; their excitement is contagious. Yet without maturity, that enthusiasm can easily become misguided; they need seasoned believers to come alongside them. Our members who’ve come out of a lifestyle of addiction, only caring about the next high, need believers from outside that experience to model what healthy family life looks like. As one body with many members, we must function together to be the best we can be and to have the greatest impact on the world.”

Prayer has been a cornerstone for CC Romoland’s ministry, from its first planning session through its most recent events. When gangs and graffiti start overtaking the neighborhood, prayer campaigns are launched hand in hand with on-street ministry. Again and again, Peggy reported, “We ask God to clean house, and see Him do it. SWAT teams come in to clear out criminal activity, fences are repainted, and people come to know Christ.”

Gerry concluded, “Our people learn to see prayer as an active, necessary part of accomplishing anything for the Lord. Then we move on to being God’s hands and feet.”

The manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all. 1 Corinthians 12:7

Woman standing with kids

Anna Silvis, a Sunday school teacher at CC Romoland, leads the children in song.

“I believe in giving opportunity” Gerry continued. “When you give people a platform to use their gifts for God’s glory, the resulting excitement and growth in the Lord can create church leaders. Opportunities like that involve risks, but leaders need to be willing to take them. What if Pastor Chuck hadn’t taken a risk on men like Raul Ries and Mike MacIntosh? The Calvary Chapel Movement wouldn’t have happened. Sometimes it’s a long investment.” He related how CCR Pastor Erin Winemiller came from a background of drugs and attempted murder. “God clearly changed his heart, yet he walked away from ministry a few times. The last time, his family stayed in a double-wide in our backyard while he was shooting heroin on the streets of Mexico. I sent two men to find him and bring him back. He went through U-Turn, God restored his life, and now he’s my right-hand man, walking faithfully with God for 17 years. His story is not uncommon in U-Turn or the community.”

Gerry continued, “Let me be clear: It can be a battle. The pain of pouring into people’s lives and watching them walk away is devastating—unless you have a very good grasp on God’s daily mercy to you. I’m incredibly grateful for Peggy’s and others’ love, support, and persistent prayer for me. Remembering that drives me in those times.”

Peggy added, “Sometimes people ask, ‘How do you do all this?’ We don’t. God does it. He opens one little door at a time, and we just keep walking through it.”

uturnforchrist.com

ccromoland.org

 

All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version.

© 2020 Calvary Chapel Magazine. All rights reserved. Articles or photographs may not be reproduced without the written permission of CCM. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.® Used by permission.

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