New Awakening: Two pastors took road less traveled
New London — James Levesque likens himself to a competitor in a relay race.
"I believe with all my heart that these men that saw the Great Awakening in this land are handing me a baton, and you know, they actually put the fastest in the final lap, the fresh legs," said Levesque, pastor of Engaging Heaven, the charismatic congregation that is buying the historic First Congregational Church at State and Union streets. "And I can almost see myself reaching back in a generation and pulling a message from these men and running it to the finish line."
When Levesque's storefront church on Masonic Street outgrew its space and he prayed about finding a new, bigger location, the pastor said, the Lord put "the word" in his head to find a space linked to the Great Awakening.
First Congregational wasn't built until 1850, more than a century after the evangelical religious movement known as the Great Awakening swept across New England. But the congregation traces its roots to before the American Revolution and, according to Levesque, built its 700-seat sanctuary in response to the deeply personal and emotional religious movement.
Now New London is ripe for another religious transformation, said Levesque.
"The Lord himself is highlighting this city for something great, and I think that God has a beautiful purpose," said the 34-year-old.
Levesque, who tried heroin at 14, fathered a child at 15, and embraced Jesus as his savior when he was 17, said, "There is no shame about my past."
"My love for God draws me to do amazing things for him," he said. "It's taken a boy with zero education and brought him around the world for him to see people's lives change."
Levesque said he livestreams his weekly sermons to 20 countries around the world and has preached in places as far away as Korea, India, Africa, England, China, Canada and the Netherlands as part of a traveling ministry.
Born in New London and raised in Groton's Branford Manor, Levesque was a high school dropout when he was invited to Seaport Community Church and his life took a dramatic turn.
"After the service, with a Bible in my hand, I looked up to heaven and said, 'God, if you're real, just reveal yourself to me.' And liquid love came out of the sky," said Levesque, who later affiliated with Gateway Christian Fellowship in West Haven and studied under the senior pastor there at the time, Brian Simmons.
Levesque started Bible study in his mother's home and began preaching on the streets before eventually opening his storefront church near City Hall on Masonic Street in 2009.
"I know in your mind, there is nothing to qualify me for what I did," he said. "I had no degree, not even a GED, but I'll tell you, I'm the farthest thing from a loose cannon."
Levesque and his wife, Debbie, started their church with three other people but quickly outgrew their rented storefront.
"Sometimes God chooses the most unlikely scenarios," said Levesque, explaining his congregation has grown by word of mouth, and his own personal outreach.
'Jesus was alive'
For Joe Paskewich, 59, the pastor of Calvary Chapel, which is also increasing its presence in New London, the path to preacherhood was just as unusual.
Twenty-five years ago, after "bumming around the country," Paskewich returned to his hometown of New London and started a Bible study group in his living room.
An eighth-grade dropout who got into trouble with drugs, alcohol and the law despite the fact that his father was a city police officer for a time, Paskewich said spirituality became real for him when, in the mid-1970s, he heard some hippies who had picked him up while he was hitch-hiking talking about Jesus in the present tense.
"I always thought Jesus was a dead hero, but they were talking like Jesus was alive," he said.
That struck a chord with him.
The conversation led to Paskewich's own life-changing encounter with Jesus, and in 1989 he returned to New London and started his Bible study group.
Four years later, his gathering had grown, and Calvary Chapel moved to the 60-seat former New Life Chapel on Sharp Hill Road in Uncasville. But before long, they outgrew that space, built a sizeable addition, and eventually bought the house next door and converted it to classrooms, office space and additional chapels. Two years ago, Calvary re-established its presence in New London, when the former Montauk Avenue Baptist Church, on the verge of extinction, merged with Calvary.
Today, Calvary Chapel offers eight unique worship services every weekend, and on Easter Sunday leases space at the Garde Arts Center or Connecticut College for a single service that attracts more than 1,000 people.
The congregation also has a presence outside southeastern Connecticut, sending members to Nicaragua and New Orleans after natural disasters and to Ferguson, Mo., where Paskewich recently went with another pastor in an effort to help bring peace to the city.
Paskewich did eventually go back to school and earn a degree in sociology, but as with Levesque, his road to the pulpit was non-traditional.
Today, he describes Calvary as a Christian chapel that's attractive to people looking for something more meaningful than traditional church services.
"I think people are hungry for spiritual things," he said. "In a world where we have been led to believe that the American dream and accumulation and things are gonna bring some satisfaction, that has left some people, maybe, empty. And I think people are coming back to spiritual life and to spiritual reality."
Paskewich maintains many Baby Boomers never connected with a church or religion "and spiritual life skipped an entire generation."
Congregants attending Christian churches today, like those emerging in New London, are not necessarily returning to the church, but instead finding spirituality for the first time in their lives, he said.
"These are people who are not coming back, because you can't come back to something that you were never a part of," said Paskewich.
Levesque attributes the quick growth of his church to people's need to connect with Jesus.
"I'm telling you, we're living in the day where people have to experience God," he said, explaining that attendees at his services include Navy chiefs, Pfizer scientists, bankers, homemakers, high school students and people from the city's homeless shelter.
"We're a very diverse group," he said. "And the reality is, everyone is welcome. Because at the end of the day, they are just people who want to draw closer to Jesus. They're opening their lives to be challenged to draw closer to God."
Levesque said his family has roots in New London, and when he opened his storefront church it was because he was drawn here, to minister to the people of the city.
He was praying, he said, when the Lord spoke to him and asked, "If you could do anything in your life and knew you wouldn't fail, what would you do?"
Levesque said he'd just read a biography of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, and when Booth was asked a similar question, he answered, "I would want to plant a church an inch away from hell."
"And I thought, I want to do the exact same thing in a city that I knew pain in," said Levesque.
His church, he said, is not traditional.
"We're very unorthodox, very different," he said. "But many people today cannot relate to mainstream churches. They are looking for something different, something real. And we are bringing something fresh to a traditionally older area."
Both Paskewich and Levesque are doing the same thing in their own ways.
"Someone said that people are either drawn to New London or driven to New London," said Paskewich. "They're drawn because of what is here (the beauty of the area and its opportunities) or driven for the services that are provided here.
"And there certainly is a lot of need here. There is certainly a spiritual hunger, and people are responding," he said.
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