We were hugged. Every two steps I took, I met a person in a green shirt, they gave an introduction, welcomed me to Genesis Church and gave me a big hug. I’ve been to a lot of churches, but none like Genesis. A greeter took my husband, myself and Paul and Theresa Root to the front row. While I was slightly embarrassed about the special attention, it was a kind gesture. We learned that Damon Owens, lead pastor, had been in the emergency room overnight for abdominal pain. The doctors ordered him to stay home and rest. Paul, director of Church Planting for Converge PacWest, was ready to preach, but Damon’s wife Shantell assured him she had it under control.
Genesis was just finishing a 21-day fast, and with Damon’s sudden illness, Shantell preached on leaving the backdoor open and spiritual warfare. The vibrant worship and opening to the service produced a room full of people ready for God’s Word. There were tissue boxes all over the room, and I wondered why – it wasn’t a funeral home. But regularly throughout the service, people were brought to tears. People were hugged, prayed for and hugged again.
“As a church community, we want to grow smaller as we grow larger. We don’t want a mega 'church,' but we want to do mega ministry within the community,” Shantell said. “We want to see lives changed and people experience hope in Christ Jesus.”
I can’t be entirely sure, but my gut tells me lives were changed in that January church service. Shantell has a special gift to see people’s pain and discern people who need help, yet she’s able to relate to an executive of a large company. In the middle of the service she walked right up to a beautiful, tall woman, put the microphone down, held the woman’s hands and spoke to her as the woman cried. Later I asked Shantell what happened.
“In the middle of the service, God showed me her pain. I could tell she was wearing a mask and no one was paying attention,” Shantell said. “I told her God hadn’t forgotten about her. I remember feeling like that. When you’ve experienced and overcome pain in your past, you’re then anointed to speak to it. I’ve experienced the pain of rejection, abuse and poverty in my life. People don’t need us to just preach faith, they need us to walk with them in transparency and share our journey of faith. That was actually her first time visiting us, and she later joined Genesis.”
Genesis Church is located in the Sycamore neighborhood of Antioch, California, an economically depressed area and under-resourced community known for being an undesirable place to live. Because of violent crime within the community, many people live in pain, are in and out of jail and struggle to get by. The cost of living continues to increase, leaving many homeless or living paycheck to paycheck. When Damon and Shantell planted Genesis in fall 2015, one of their most frequently asked questions was, “How long will you stay?”
“Consistency is more than an hour and 15 minutes on a Sunday morning,” Damon said. “Being visible in the community throughout the week lets people know we are here and we care.”
One of the ways they show this is through a food pantry. What started as a treasure hunt to bring hot meals to the homeless has turned into one of the largest food pantries in the neighborhood. Damon says they started meeting the needs of their neighbors.
“You can preach all day, but if my refrigerator is empty, I can’t hear you,” Shantell said.
She is right, and as a result, the church now has a partnership with the Food Bank and local grocery stores to gather groceries and donate them each week. People who used to take food home are now the ones distributing it. Damon says volunteers were always allowed to take what they needed to get by, but God has blessed them, they don’t need to take anything home anymore. God is amazing.
“Our vision is for in-reach as well as outreach,” Damon explained. “We have people in the church who are struggling paycheck to paycheck, but others in the community need help too. On average we feed about 450 individuals a month.”
The Owens also pray with families and minister to them when the people come to pick up food. They advocate and assist folks within the church and community to secure affordable housing. There are so many stories of life change at Genesis, the Owens had a hard time narrowing down one individual to talk about. They settled on Jamie.
Jamie is married to Samantha, caretaker for Shantells’ grandfather years ago. Shantell happened to run into Samantha and invited her to church. At the time, Shantell didn’t know what the couple was struggling with nor was she familiar with Jamie’s life. They later found out Jamie was a product of the prison system.
“He was conceived in prison, born in prison and he even wound up incarcerated in that same prison with his father,” Shantell said. “He was stricken with drug addiction and was in and out. He had been exposed to church but always failed. He came to us quiet, broken and unsure.”
But for the first time he found a church family that loved him. The Owens’ motto is, “You have to love people where they are, broken or whole, addicted or free.” It doesn’t matter. Genesis is a family where everyone can belong. The Owens learned Jamie and Samantha were homeless, living couch-to-couch and couldn’t find full-time employment. Fast forward to Jamie today. He is the big, tall man in the first row, dressed in slacks and a sweater, welcoming guests, hugging people and praying with them. I would have never guessed the Jamie I met was this Jamie. He’s now one of the strongest leaders at Genesis Church.
“God has transformed him from the inside out,” Damon said. “He doesn’t look like what he’s been through, and that’s God’s grace on people’s lives. He is now gainfully employed, and he and his wife have their own place.”
One reason the Owens relate to many diverse types of people is due to their own experiences. Both were real estate agents. When the market crashed in 2008, they found themselves without a stable income. They were on the verge of losing their home when they stopped at a Dickey’s Barbecue Pit for a quick lunch. Damon looked at his cup and saw Dickey’s was a franchise. Being an entrepreneur and a man of faith, he contacted them right away.
“Six months later we were in Texas for a month attending Barbecue University,” Shantell said. “We signed up to open a Dickey’s restaurant, and paid our money, but it wasn’t enough. We were short due to unforeseen building expenses.”
At this point the Owens were too far in to back out. They had to open. It was Black Friday 2009, and there wasn’t money to put in the cash register. God provided grace, success and customers. The Owens moved on to owning three Dickeys restaurants. Through this opportunity they employed many within the church and the community who might otherwise be unemployable, providing life and job skills to obtain better employment. The Owens recently sold their restaurants.
“We want to be 80 percent ministry focused and 20 percent outside focused,” Shantell said. “We are looking for another business, but something that won’t take up as much of our time.”
Both agree that it’s now time to build the ministry. The community needs support and resources in order for the people to grow into their full God-given potential. Damon says they will remain bi-vocational for as long as they need to. Genesis averages around 100 people on Sunday morning, with 49 total baptisms within their first year of ministry.
“Just because you’re a product of your environment doesn’t mean you need to be a prisoner of it. Every challenge in life will either make us bitter or better, and every problem will either make us or break us. We remind the people of Genesis they are no longer victims, but victorious because of the cross, “ Damon said. Our goal is to let people know there is another way. Christ is the way, and only by his grace can the people of Sycamore and the greater Antioch area experience a life of meaning and purpose.”