A former drug addict who broke into an Arkansas church and vandalized $100,000 worth of property was baptized at the same church six months later after the pastor and church members displayed grace and forgiveness.
Brenton Winn, 23, was arrested in February after breaking into Central Baptist Church of Conway, Arkansas, and destroying everything in sight, including laptops, cameras, and other electronics. He also wrote a racial slur on a breakroom wall and set the church’s family life center on fire.
At the time, the church’s senior pastor, Don Chandler, told KTHV it was “about as messy of vandalism as you could possibly imagine.”
“I really don't know what would possess a person to do this — maybe anger with God, maybe we were just too near to him at a point in time when he decided to break in and do something,” Chandler said.
Homeless and high on methamphetamines at the time of the break-in, Winn was indeed angry with God after he relapsed from an addiction to methamphetamines despite spending time at a faith-based recovery program.
Portions of the incident were captured on surveillance cameras, and it wasn’t long before authorities caught up with the young man. Although Winn faced multiple charges as a result of the robbery, Chandler talked to the prosecutor and extended forgiveness rather than judgment.
“You can't preach something for 50 years without practicing it, especially in front of your whole church,” Chandler told Baptist Press. “Had we not shown some grace to him, everything we've talked about and encouraged, would have gone by the wayside. It was simply the right thing to do. This was not a hardened criminal. This was a young man who had made some mistakes. He was on drugs and alcohol when he did what he did. But he was redeemable.”
The judge gave Winn a choice: Face up to 20 years in prison or voluntarily enter a 12-month rehab and recovery program run by a Christian-based ministry, Renewal Ranch. The young man chose the latter, and it was there that he accepted Christ.
He shared with Baptist Press that despite growing up in a God-fearing home, he had struggled with drug addiction. “My life was nothing but chaos, suicide attempts and brokenness,” Winn admitted.
In August – six months after his crime – Winn was baptized at Central Baptist Church, the same congregation he tried to destroy.
“As I'm starting to understand how God works, I've realized I didn't pick the church that night. God picked me,” Winn told Baptist Press. “If it had been any other church, I think I'd be sitting in prison right now.”
“I used to think it was a coincidence [that I chose to break into the church that night], but now I call it confirmation that God is real, and He answers prayers. What was weighing on my heart was that I needed a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Located in Perry County, Arkansas, Renewal Ranch is a 12-month program based on biblical principles, according to its website. Since 2011, 300 men have come to faith in Christ through the ministry.
For the first six months, participants are given their lodging, food and program materials for free, and every week local pastors and volunteers lead 15-plus hours of Bible study. Participants also have access to trained biblical counselors and are required to do 300 hours of community service.
In the second six-month phase of the program, participants live in off-campus apartments operated by the program, work at jobs and continue to go through the Renewal Ranch program.
"Our goal of this program is to make reproducing disciple-makers for Jesus Christ," James Loy, who began the ministry in 2011, just six years after he began a relationship with Christ and kicked a 23-year drug and alcohol addiction, told Baptist Press.
The goal, he said, is not to be abstinent but "to fall in love with Jesus."
A similar incident occurred in February when 24-year-old Deandre Bramlett, who vandalized Living Life in Victory Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, became a member of that same church after asking church leaders for forgiveness for the crimes that cost the church tens of thousands of dollars in damages.
Pastor Henry Lavender forgave the perpetrator and told media he’s not looking back at the damage done, but forward with Bramlett’s spiritual growth and new beginning, according to localmemphis.com.
“It means to me that people can change, people make mistakes, people do things based on money and reasons for that but when a person finds god in their life, they are looking for answers,” Lavender said.
“Jesus makes it possible for DeAndre to live free. His son can be free,” Lavender told TSD Memphis. “The logo of our church has the Jewish symbol in it. That is on purpose. It means Israel shall live. We do have victory when we forgive and love one another.”