Redemption Song

By Grady Trexler
Richmond Magazine
July 8, 2019

Celebration Church and Outreach Ministry’s lead pastor, Rob Rhoden (left), and outreach pastor, Sonny Hoge, near one of its distinctive buses

Nathan Jones and Kelli Ortiz lead singing and games during a Saturday youth worship service.

Outreach Pastor Sonny Hoge speaks during a Saturday afternoon service for youth as part of Celebration’s Whosoever Bus Ministry.

Participants in the youth service

Tischica Mabrey with children Kamrai, Michelle and Zakira

A Celebration in the Street event in the Gilpin Court neighborhood, where the church offers activities, repairs bicycles and gives away food and clothes

Sonny Hoge, the outreach pastor at Celebration Church and Outreach Ministry, stands in the lobby with a multicolored bouquet in hand. It’s the night before Mother’s Day, and he’s handing a carnation to each woman who walks into the gymnasium where the church holds worship services. He’s greeting attendees and asking how their week went.

Every Saturday at 6 p.m., hundreds gather in this former flea market off Midlothian Turnpike for music, Scriptures and prayer. The churchgoers — a racially diverse mix of families and children, young adults, and older people — sit on folding chairs looking up at a stage with a huge sign spelling out “Jesus” in capital letters suspended above. Suits and ties have no place here; most attendees are clad in T-shirts and jeans. A man in a motorcycle jacket weaves through the crowd, shaking hands with everyone he meets.

Hoge’s presence signals a rejuvenation in the life of the church, which had faltered after its charismatic founder’s fall from grace several years ago. Like others drawn in by former pastor Geronimo Aguilar’s compelling vision of a place for people in need of a fresh start to connect with God, Hoge attended a service in 2004 and soon found himself immersed in the church’s mission of reaching out to Richmond’s low-income communities.

“I went one Saturday night, and I was hooked.” —Sonny Hoge, Celebration Church outreach pastor

Nearly a decade later, Aguilar’s arrest on charges of sexual abuse involving 11- and 13-year-old girls in Texas threatened to tear down everything that members such as Hoge had worked so hard to build. Attendance languished, finances dwindled, and Hoge left, unsure that he’d ever return.     

But he’s back here tonight, and almost every Saturday night, because he decided to give a second chance to the church that has given so many others second chances. He’s here because the needs in Richmond’s poorest, most crime-plagued neighborhoods are as great as ever. “The work hasn’t changed,” Hoge says.

I. In the Beginning

Celebration Church started as the Richmond Outreach Center, known as the ROC, founded by Aguilar, an artful speaker with a cinematic life story. The way “Pastor G” told it, he was a broken man who saw his mother murdered when he was 8 years old, dropped out of high school and began selling drugs before he was 20. But in an act of God, Aguilar claimed, he wandered into a church and met his long-lost father, who had become a preacher. This moved him to clean up his act and to become a minister himself, according to his oft-told account. He toured with a hip-hop gospel group, In4Life, and worked with various churches.

Aguilar settled in the Richmond area, one of the places he had visited while on tour, in the late 1990s and founded the ROC in 2001. It quickly became one of the area’s largest megachurches.

“I went one Saturday night, and I was hooked,” says Hoge, who started attending the ROC in 2004 after a friend’s recommendation. He was interested in the types of outreach that he would be able to do at the ROC under Aguilar. Hoge says his former church in the East End did some outreach, but not a lot. As a child, even though he grew up in a broken home with a single mother, he didn’t know how bad things were in other parts of Richmond.

“I didn’t know there were kids not being educated,” he says. “I didn’t know there were people not eating.” When he realized the depth of poverty in the city, he was determined to do what he could to help. “The ROC just had more to offer in the way of things I wanted to do — working with kids, tutoring, reading to them, coaching.”

Hoge says he considered Aguilar a friend. He describes the former pastor as a “dynamic communicator” and a “great leader,” someone who looked out for him and his family.

So in 2006, he enrolled in the Richmond School of Urban Ministry, a ROC institution to train preachers and church leaders. “I left my job, left my house and moved into this building for a 10-month program,” says Hoge, referencing the 33,000-square-foot building on Chamberlayne Road that housed the program then.

After graduating, he worked full time at the ROC, doing outreach he found meaningful — in 2009, for example, he began to minister to and build relationships with students at George Wythe High School.

At its peak, the ROC would draw around 2,000 members to its Saturday-night services­, dubbed the “Six o’ Clock ROC,” and send 20 buses out to neighborhoods each week. It would own two thrift stores, serve food from a cafe, rent space to a private school, operate a tattoo ministry, and several homes for those battling alcohol and drug addiction or fleeing domestic violence and human trafficking. But there were hidden chapters in Aguilar’s story that would haunt Hoge and the rest of the church.

In 2013, Aguilar was extradited to Texas to face charges of sexual assault and indecency with minors from incidents in 1996 and 1997. Later that year, he and three senior pastors from the ROC resigned, including Executive Pastor Jason Helmlinger, Aguilar’s brother Matthew Aguilar and Andrew Delgado. All but his brother served on the board at the ROC and were closely allied with Geronimo Aguilar. In addition to criminal charges, several reports of infidelity and inappropriate sexual relationships with church members began to surface. During his trial, Geronimo Aguilar, who was married, admitted to an affair with a personal assistant. Aguilar’s wife testified about other infidelities, including some involving church members.

On Oct. 13, 2015, Aguilar was convicted in Texas of two counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child under 14, three counts of sexual assault of a child under 17 and two counts of indecency with a child.

How did Hoge feel about what Aguilar had done? “Some shock, some hurt, obviously, some anger,” he says. But he didn’t leave the ROC immediately. “I still believed in what was going on in that church.” The ROC was serving the same neighborhoods and schools, and Hoge didn’t want to leave that behind. He stayed on as the youth pastor until 2014, when he was dismissed for budgetary reasons, and then he began attending and working at other churches.

In the aftermath of the scandal involving Aguilar, the ROC began to downsize, selling off its old campus on Warwick Road, one of its recovery houses, its School of Urban Ministry building and Aguilar’s parsonage. The church went through a few pastors before changing its name in 2015 and installing the Rev. Robert “Pastor Bob” Rhoden, founder of the West End Assembly of God, another Richmond area megachurch, as interim pastor.

For a while, Rhoden and his son, Rob, took turns preaching to the congregation. Then, as the interim term for the elder Rhoden passed, Rob Rhoden took over leadership with a new team of pastors in place, leaving his old post as executive pastor at Richmond’s Commonwealth Chapel.

Their objective was in line with Hoge’s vision of keeping the good things that the ROC did for the community. But first, in Rob Rhoden’s words: “A rebirth needed to happen here.”

II. Urban Missionaries

Rob Rhoden’s introduction to ministry took place during a mission trip to Belize with his church’s youth group in the summer before his senior year at Henrico County’s Douglas Freeman High School. While on the trip, his youth pastor gave him a leadership role.

“That last night, I was lying up on the top of a roof of a missionary’s home, looking at the sky, and had what I would describe as a calling — an overwhelming sense that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life,” Rhoden says. He’s never considered doing anything other than ministry since.

But Celebration presented a new challenge, even though he had 24 years of pastoral experience. Rhoden received his degree from Union Presbyterian Seminary, and he had served at Commonwealth Chapel and the West End Assembly of God but never at a church with the kind of crisis the ROC was facing.

“It was difficult,” he says. “The first year, I drove home many nights wondering, ‘Can I do this?’ ” He recalls that one of his lowest points was during his first business meeting as lead pastor at Celebration in the spring of 2016, when he had to report a $750,000 annual loss. Rhoden says he turned to God to bring together a group of people who would help him move Celebration away from its troubled past.

“A man was on trial, but this church was not on trial, and the hurting people of this neighborhood were not on trial,” he says. Rhoden spent his first year at Celebration helping people heal. “Look. Some bad things happened. Let’s talk about it. Let’s acknowledge it. Let’s hear it, let’s pray about it.”

He wanted to make sure that every former ROC member felt comfortable expressing their views about what had taken place, and he also instituted new guidelines, such as an open-door policy for himself and the other pastors, to help foster trust between himself and church members.

But Rhoden also knew substantial changes were necessary to redeem the church in the eyes of the community. He was determined that Celebration would never be a church centered on one person, as the ROC had been with Aguilar.

“We are not what’s called a personality-driven entity,” says Rhoden. That means that the church rotates preachers on Saturdays and speakers for Thursday-night Bible study. It also means that the focus of the church is on fostering a connection with God, not with a particular pastor. But Rhoden kept the central mission of the church the same: outreach.

“I used to pastor and occasionally take people on an urban mission trip experience,” he says. “And that flip-flopped. I became an urban missionary who occasionally pastored.”

After his departure in 2014, Hoge continued to serve Richmond’s poor communities. He worked with other churches, and he and his wife started their own program, Risen Army Ministry, giving out food and clothing to the same neighborhoods he had worked in with the ROC.

In 2016, Hoge and his family began to attend Celebration again because they wanted to go to a church with a Saturday-night service. He says that he had been back a few times before, but his wife hadn’t set foot in the building in several years. Rhoden was also a welcome change, he says, adding, “I did my homework on him.”

Hoge says anyone he asked about Rhoden only had positive things to say. And, most important for him, the outreach ministries were still active.

“We’re still serving communities, we’re still serving neighborhoods, we’re still serving the poor, we’re still serving the schools,” he says. “I still want to be a part of that.”

III. A Rebirth

“In the neighborhood, they don’t even know what Celebration is. It’s the ROC,” says Hoge.

He’s talking about Celebration’s Whosoever Bus Ministry, in which volunteers from the church ride buses out to six different neighborhoods — Hillside, Gilpin and Creighton courts; Southwood; Woodland Crossing; and Lafayette Gardens — to take children back to the church for an afternoon, age-appropriate worship service. The buses also provide water and snacks to the children, many of whom are on school-assisted meal programs. The bus ministry started under Aguilar to mentor children in faith and character development.

Hoge says that most of the families reached through this ministry don’t see a difference between the old ROC and the new Celebration Church because, for the most part, Aguilar wasn’t involved in the bus ministry. For them, the ROC doesn’t mean “Pastor G”; it means people such as Hoge and the other volunteers.

On one hot Saturday in May, the bus ministry is in full swing. A group of 20 or 30 volunteers split up among the five buses — one bus makes a trip into two neighborhoods — after meeting at Celebration.

Rachel Campbell leads one bus into Creighton Court, where volunteers split into two groups. She directs the bus driver, Jerry Taylor, who plays Christian music out of a speaker in his pocket, and an intern with the church, Josh Davis, as they go from door to door in the neighborhood. They move down a list of addresses she has on a clipboard.

At first, no children want to come. They and their parents open the door slowly and tell her that they won’t be attending today. But after five or six doors, a few children do decide to come back to Celebration, and pretty soon, a group of youngsters accompanies Campbell and Taylor around Creighton Court.

Sasha Williams has been sending her children — Madison, McKenzie and Olivia — to Celebration for six months now. She says she’s not really worried about the church’s past.

“Kids are unbiased,” she says. The way Williams sees it, if there was something wrong at Celebration, one of her children would inform her.

Tischica Mabrey’s kids have been going to Celebration and the ROC for as long as 10 years, after a neighbor told her about the bus ministry. She says that although she had heard rumors about Aguilar before the formal charges were brought against him, she never wanted to get into his personal business. Even after Aguilar’s resignation in 2013, Mabrey tells me she didn’t pull her children away, because she still trusted the bus ministry volunteers to keep them safe.

By the end of the morning, 20 or 30 children follow the volunteers back to the bus. They are loud and excited. Most know the volunteers by name and are quick to hold a hand or get a hug. A few of the children tell others that they’re going to “the ROC.”

Hoge and Rhoden say that this ministry has only changed in subtle ways since Aguilar’s resignation. Rhoden says the church used to send 20 buses out to the neighborhoods, with hundreds of volunteers. He says he thinks the smaller operation allows the connection with the neighborhoods to be deeper. Instead of ministering to 1,000 youth, participants minister to 150, making the impact they have on each child greater.

The size of the church — and therefore, the number of volunteers — has dramatically decreased. At a service on May 11, the night before Mother’s Day, attendees are in the hundreds. Celebration has a gargantuan parking lot, but it’s barely a third full, a reminder of what used to be.

“It’s just not like that anymore,” says Hoge. But he sees this transition as a good thing. “We really didn’t need relationships or partnerships back then. But again, that’s not healthy.”

Now that the church is smaller, it works more regularly with others in the community to accomplish its goals. For Hoge, that makes the ministry even more meaningful. He tells about a recent community event in Woodland Crossing on Walmsley Boulevard, where church members from Celebration and local police officers teamed up to provide food and games for the community.

Rhoden points to a different sort of relationship that Celebration fosters: partnerships with other charities that work out of Celebration’s building, such as Daily Planet, which helps people sign up for Medicaid expansion, and The Resource Connection Inc., which educates underprivileged people about services available to them.

Also, the makeup of the church and its funding have significantly changed. Rhoden says that the church has focused on drawing financial support from a broad base of small donors, rather than one or two large sources of income. That way, the church isn’t dependent on any one person or group. Although attendance on Saturday night is lower than it once was, Rhoden says that Celebration’s slow growth is more sustainable than that of the ROC.

But he says that, ultimately, he doesn’t want to forget about the ROC.

“We don’t speak disparagingly about the past,” he says. “We don’t bash it. There are people whose lives were deeply changed and impacted, and we don’t want to diminish the value of that for them.”

Rhoden believes that Celebration has come into its own as a church. Although it maintains some of the programs that were started during the Aguilar era — the bus ministry, the recovery houses, the thrift shops — there are key differences. No longer will the church prioritize rapid growth over long-term sustainability, no longer will it keep its finances and inner workings secret, and no longer will it be dominated by one primary pastor.

“Now,” he says, “we’re dreaming and thinking about what does the next chapter look like?”


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