180’s Are Possible | One Man’s Journey from Homelessness to Leadership
Have you ever witnessed someone do a complete 180? Go to a hope-of-the-world church.
When a church is strategically planted in an urban area, and sets its sights beyond its walls into a community that desperately needs hope, it opens up a multitude of opportunities for God to touch lives in transformational ways.
Larry Willman has been the pastor of Payne Avenue Evangelical Free Church in the urban center of St. Paul, Minnesota for the past 30 years. With the vision to ‘help people be loved, set free and changed by Jesus on the East Side of St. Paul,’ he has witnessed people completely turn their lives around after being introduced to the God who loves them. This is the story about the 180 that happens in individual lives when by God’s grace, He works through the church and people realize their unique role as a leader within the body of Christ.
“I’m not sure our church is ever ‘working right,’ but somehow with the grace of God, He uses us feeble people to touch others and see Him work miracles,” said Larry. “It’s a never-ending journey with many rough spots, challenges and discouragements—and we are always learning. Every now and then we get to catch a glimpse of God’s grand work!”
Kent first came to Payne Avenue Evangelical Free Church three years ago. “He was waiting across the street for an AA meeting and one of our guys went over to talk with him and invite him to our church,” Larry said. “He had recently moved to St. Paul from Minneapolis because he got new housing over here and was working on his sobriety. He’d been struggling with alcoholism and being homeless. Since that time, God has done a great work in his life. He told me when he came to our church, he found the love of God and a spiritual family where he could belong.”
Each week Kent continues that legacy by inviting people from the community to the church and by being in the welcome ministry. “His goal is to meet all new people and help them find the same love of Christ he met when he first arrived,” said Larry. “He absolutely lights up when a person he invites shows up!”
Recognizing that Kent had a unique untapped leadership gift, Larry invited Kent to attend the Global Leadership Summit in 2014 with one of the three sponsored tickets he received from Eagle Brook Church. “Kent was super inspired. Just being in that setting and hearing and seeing people who wanted to live and lead for God, plus some practical ideas – gave us a kind of spawning ground for future ministry ideas and inspiration to keep plugging along,” Larry shares. “And after the GLS was over, Kent exclaimed, ‘I am a leader!’ Now he’s taken on the leadership of the men’s group, and continues to own the welcome ministry with new vigor. He has a vision for this ministry and for our church to reach our urban neighborhood.”
To help people be loved, set free and changed by Jesus on the East Side of St. Paul.
That is Kent’s story. He found the love of Christ through the love of God’s unique people in the church. He was taught and encountered the Gospel message that set him free from sin and guilt and shame. He was changed by Jesus’ power – and now has a new purpose for life, which is the same ministry vision and purpose of the church. “He lives and breathes it, even when it is tough,” Larry said. “He wants to help others be loved, set free and changed by Jesus.”
God continues to work through Larry’s church to serve their urban community, and with leaders like Kent, this vision is being leveraged across the congregation. “Kent continues to be an inspiration to me and the church. My goal and prayer is to have more people (Elders and other leaders) attend in 2016, and multiply the energy and solidify and unify the vision God has given us.”
Kent has been in and out of the hospital, and has nearly faced death in recent weeks. Larry asks for prayer for his ministry partner. “I would really appreciate your prayers! I can really relate with what Paul said in Phil. 2:27 about his friend and fellow minister who almost died. Losing such a great partner in ministry would truly be sorrow upon sorrow for me. God is merciful and His will is good, no matter what.”
“And he certainly was ill; in fact, he almost died. But God had mercy on him—and also on me, so that I would not have one sorrow after another.”