New Awakening: 'Island of misfit toys' right spiritual fit for grandmother
New London - Beloved Grace Carter was on a mission once she heard that James Levesque had started a new Christian church in the city.
"I heard there was a young man preacher in New London who said he had a love for New London and wanted to see the city come back to its roots as far as the Great Awakening," said the 63-year-old grandmother.
"I took it personal," she added, "because I'm a longtime New London resident and, as far as I'm concerned, New London belongs to me. As soon as I heard, I knew I wanted to meet this man who said he loves New London."
That was about three years ago, and Carter arranged with a friend who was already worshipping at Levesque's Engaging Heaven Church to go to a service with her. Since then, she's been attending regularly.
"I go there and love it," said Carter, who said she was sold on Engaging Heaven midway through her first service.
She recalled Levesque that day complimenting the work of two active church participants and calling them forward and giving them a gift.
"I don't know if it was tickets or a trip or a restaurant, but it was beautiful, and I was shocked," said Carter. "What a minister, who gives something to people and not take from them. I was so impressed."
Carter said she spoke to Levesque on her first visit to his church and told him, "I wanted to see who you are."
"He looked at me straight in my eyes and I looked back, and he said, 'I know who you are. Oh my, a genuine Awakener.'"
At a recent Sunday service where Carter was warmly greeted by other worshippers, Levesque told his congregation, "Don't be captive to the chains of what you believe."
"At 15, I disqualified myself in the eyes of the world," he bellowed. "But you can't change what has happened in the past.
"You have an opportunity in front of you. Stop waiting for something greater," he said.
For Carter, who explained "I just turned everything over to God" after she said a divorce four years ago left her "broken, hurt and shocked," Engaging Heaven was the spiritual home she had been looking for.
"Pastor James is not preaching a watered-down, mushy Gospel, he's preaching an unadulterated Bible with practical applications," she said.
Fellow congregant Chris Johnson agrees.
"He's very real," said Johnson, a Navy sailor who helps with the sound system in the back of the church at Sunday services and is working toward a degree in Christian leadership.
"Pastor James really speaks his mind," said Johnson. "He's real, and what he says is unfiltered and from the heart."
Johnson also said he likes the diverse group of regular attendees at Engaging Heaven, which he described as "a good mix, a lot of different personality types, people from all walks of life from accountants to the unemployed to people in the Navy, Army, or in security at Walmart."
The people in the pews at Engaging Heaven are indeed diverse.
On a recent Sunday they were young and old, black, white and Hispanic, and came dressed in team jerseys, suit coats, skirts and jeans.
One woman came bearing boxes of lasagna noodles for Carter, a gift, because she said she knows Carter enjoys cooking.
At the back of the church, others greeted every single person who walked in, welcoming them and making sure they were comfortable.
"We're all different, but we're very much like a family," said Johnson.
Beloved Carter describes it this way: "We are the island of misfit toys. We love one another and we welcome anyone who comes in. And it's the love that keeps them coming back."
Levesque, who makes no secret about his less-than-stellar life before finding Jesus at age 17, said the focus of his work is changing difficult lives.
When he first started street preaching years ago, he said his focus was on saving souls like his own.
"I was after me, the kid who grew up in a hard situation," he said. "I wanted to see people lost, I wanted to see people hurting, and see their lives changed just as I was."
Acknowledging his past use of drugs, and other inappropriate behavior, he said, helps him to engage with many of his followers.
"I've died to who I was," said the 34-year-old, tattooed Levesque. "I'm a different person now. My past is no secret, I'm changed.
"I did not come to this in an orthodox manner. I came in the door because I fell in love with Jesus."
He views his church as a bright light in a dark city, he said.
"I know I'm hitting a vein," he said. "I'm doing something that New London really needed."
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