A former heroin addict who turned to religion and became a prominent pastor has been found dead in his northern New Jersey church on Friday, authorities say.
The Rev. Ron Christian, 51, preached to those who walked in his shoes, and he was known for preaching to wanted murderers, drug dealers and other criminals. Christian would encourage them to do what was right and turn themselves in.
The Essex County Prosecutor's Office says a family member found him dead Friday inside the Christian Love Baptist Church in Irvington.
The church was started by Christian, dubbed by some in his community the "urban pope," with roughly a dozen members. Today, it counts some 6,000 in its congregation.
Many of them were at the church Friday to share hugs and tears, grieving over a hero of the streets. Shante McGhee was crying on the steps of the church.
"He calls my son 'little preacher,' told me my son is going to be a preacher," said McGhee.
Christian showed up everywhere, knew everyone and ministered to anyone, mourners said.
"He didn't care what your situation was, he was out there with you," said Rev. Jeffrey Brown of New Life Family Church. "If you was in the trench, he was in the trench with you."
Rev. Robert Cole Jr. of Holy Temple Baptist Church said, "As you see on the sign, 'All sinners are welcome,' and he meant what he wrote."
Christian was a prison guard who battled heroin addiction before he lost his job and was sentenced to prison in 1996 for theft. Upon his release in 1997, he joined a church in Newark where his father, a retired pastor, was working.
He decided to follow in his father's footsteps and became a minister, which led him to this community where drugs and violence are daily problems.
He was known for being a pastor whom wanted murderers, drug dealers and other criminals could turn to: Christian would encourage them to do what was right and turn themselves in.
"Regardless of how incorrect or how bad the circumstance was, there needs to be a place where you are honest with God," he told The Star-Ledger in 2008.
"You do one ounce of bad and 50 pounds of good, and people always tend to focus on that one ounce of bad," said a community activist who calls himself Street Counsel, who himself served 20 years for armed robbery with a BB gun.
"It's a major blow," he said. "He talks with you."
Rev. Jacqueline Robinson of Greater Mt. Moriah Baptist Church just had breakfast with Christian Thursday.
"He came in happy talking to the owner, he looks around and sees me, we hug," she said.
In a statement, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. said Christian's energetic sermons, dynamic personality and kind words inspired everyone he met. "It didn't matter who you were because Rev. Ron welcomed people from all walks of life into his church and into his own life," he said.
The prosecutor's office says foul play is not suspected, but officials are awaiting autopsy results to determine the cause and manner of death.
Christian is survived by his wife and five children.