by Dan Van Veen / Jun 22 2020
Twenty-one-year-old Romeo Leal sat in the back of the First Assembly of God in Casa Grande, Arizona, with his girlfriend, Andrea. They weren’t married, but they had a son together. Romeo had started going to church again after spending most of his teen years rebelling, but now he was trying to make it work — on his own terms. That wasn’t going too well. So, when Andrea told him that one day he would be a preacher, he laughed. Romeo knew the “truth” about what kind of person he really was . . . or at least he thought he did.
“I told her she was crazy,” says Romeo, lead pastor of that very same church, now called Passion Church. And most people who knew Romeo’s past — not to mention what was to come — likely would agree with Romeo’s assessment; there was no way that he was ever going to be a preacher.
A ROUGH CHILDHOOD
Romeo grew up in Casa Grande, living most of his life in a poverty-stricken trailer park with his four siblings, mother, and alcoholic father. His father and mother and two older siblings had immigrated from Mexico. An older brother, Romeo, and his twin brother, Roman, were born in the U.S. While their mother worked two jobs to help the family survive, their father constantly drank their money away.
“Even though Roman and I were born in the United States, our first language was Spanish,” Romeo explains. “Acclimating to school was difficult and was the beginning of low self-esteem and self-confidence for me.”
On Sundays, the twins started noticing a big white bus coming down the narrow streets of their dilapidated neighborhood. Blue lettering identified it as the First Assembly of God church bus. After several weeks of seeing it come down their street, they decided to check it out together.
At the church, the boys learned about Jesus, accepted Him as their Lord and Savior, and were baptized — with no support from home. But by the time they hit their early teens, and with no encouragement or accountability at home, Romeo says they started hanging out with older kids and began drinking and experimenting with drugs.
“We never went back to church during that period of time,” Romeo admits. “When I was 15, my mom and dad finally separated, and it was a sigh of relief when that occurred as there was a lot of verbal and emotional abuse from my father.”
For the remainder of his teen years, Romeo lived life as he pleased, not realizing how his father’s alcoholism and lack of support had impacted him. In high school, he and Andrea began dating — to the deep concern of all who knew Andrea.
“I knew from the beginning, I knew he had something different about him,” says Andrea, who grew up in a Catholic household, “but I also knew from day one of dating, that we were in for a struggle, as things about the relationship were so unhealthy.”
THE HOLY SPIRIT’S PURSUIT
Although Romeo had turned his back on God, the Holy Spirit never gave up on him. Romeo says that after high school he found himself in “a very dark place,” and the Holy Spirit kept tugging at him until finally he, Andrea, and their baby, Nicolas, ended up at the only church Romeo knew — First Assembly.
“We weren’t married yet, but we came and sat in the back,” Romeo recalls. “We just felt the love of God and the love of the people there, and we started to grow in the Lord.”
Since Romeo had left the church as a child, a pastoral change had occurred and Jerry Rotan was now the lead pastor. When Romeo and Andrea came to him, wanting to be married and be right in God’s eyes, he readily agreed.
“They were trying to find their way in their relationship with the Lord,” Rotan says. “I had conversations with Andrea and I sensed in my own heart that there was a call on Romeo’s life. I didn’t know what it was going to look like, but I had a sense that the Lord had His hand on him.”
It would have been a “fairy tale” story if Romeo and Andrea had given their all to Christ at that point, but Romeo, for one, was not ready to give God complete control of his life.
“I had a good job at a bank and I was still wanting to do what I wanted to do — I was one foot in, one foot out,” Romeo says in a reference to church, drugs, and alcohol. “I found myself comparing myself to my father — as long as I worked hard, had a good job, and was taking care of my family, I wasn’t like him, so I must be doing good.”
The couple stopped attending church when Romeo was 23 as “work hard, play hard,” became his lifestyle of choice. Andrea, although admitting she was far from perfect, found herself crying out to God on the behalf of herself and her husband.
Over the next decade, their marriage began to deteriorate. Andrea became frustrated with Romeo showing up at 3 a.m. with lame excuses, finding drugs hidden in the house, and his repeated “promises” of stopping.
“For a long time, I fought and fought and fought, and then I started going out and not caring anymore,” she says. “I started school because I thought I was going to go crazy if I didn’t do something else with my life and take my focus off of him.”
After a couple of months of rebellion, Andrea could no longer take the emotional strain and responded to the Holy Spirit’s call upon her life.
“Crying, I went to my knees. I truly surrendered Romeo to the Lord — he was all His — and whatever He chose to do with me and my life was His as well,” Andrea says.
Not long after that, around May 2012, Andrea began to attend church again at First Assembly, by herself. It had been nearly a decade since she or Romeo had gone to church.
ROMEO COMES HOME
It was July 9, 2012, when the presence of God, for a third time since leaving the church, overwhelmed Romeo. This time he responded.
“I was still living my normal life — working, hanging, doing things I shouldn’t be doing — and when I woke up that morning, I felt the presence of God come on me . . . He showed me the destruction that was to come if I continued on the path that I was on — one of my children would get hurt.”
Realizing the games he had been playing with God, Romeo’s heart broke and he asked for God’s forgiveness.
“I made a promise that morning,” he says. “I told the Lord whatever it is You want me to do, I’ll do it. I’m going to grab onto Your arm and not let go and I knew He would never let go.”
From that point on, Romeo’s life was transformed.
At first, Andrea wasn’t convinced. “I had heard it a million times, so I just let him talk. But the next weekend he came to church and that was the beginning of our walk together with Christ.”
A few weeks into their return, an announcement about a Celebrate Recovery meeting (for those with addictions) was made at the church. Romeo and Andrea agreed that he should attend.
“When Romeo told me that he was going to serve the Lord regardless of what it cost him, that was a turning point,” pastor Rotan says. “He had finally made a sold-out commitment to the Lord, something he had never done.”
OBEDIENCE ISN’T ALWAYS EASY
Romeo became a faithful Celebrate Recovery member, attending the meetings regularly while he and Andrea grew closer to God and to each other.
The decision to serve the Lord, however, came with a heavy cost for Romeo. Roman, Romeo’s twin and life-long “partner in crime,” as Andrea referred to him, didn’t want anything to do with God. It was a painful parting for Romeo.
And then came the financial challenges.
“I had a great job at the bank, but I felt the Lord telling me my time at the bank was going to be over, which was extremely difficult because that was my job, my career,” Romeo says.
After God confirmed that Romeo needed to leave, he quit his job, not knowing what was next. But Andrea was in agreement with the decision and the Lord took them on a two-year journey of trust.
“I took a job working at a behavioral health center, which was a 75% reduction in pay,” Romeo says. “I knew that I knew that I was where I was supposed to be, but how do we pay bills, how do we eat?”
A FIRST FOR THE CHURCH
During this time, Romeo and Andrea remained involved in the church. He also continued attending Celebrate Recovery, advancing to the point of leading the group for several years. At the same time, he started taking classes through the Arizona Ministry Network’s School of Ministry to obtain his credentials to be a minister.
“My wife has the gift of discernment and the ability to hear the voice of God,” Romeo confirms, referring to her vision for his life.
As he was finishing his studies in August 2015, still with no clear picture of what God had in store, the associate pastor position at First Assembly opened. Romeo was offered the job.
“When Romeo took over Celebrate Recovery, it flourished immediately,” Rotan says. “Celebrate Recovery is like its own little church; every Friday night he was pastoring a church of about 100 people. The Lord spoke to me to bring him on staff.”
Unknown to Romeo, God had given Rotan another word — that he would be the next pastor.
“I waited on that, over the next few years, watching Romeo grow and become obedient to whatever God asked him to do,” Rotan says.
Toward the end of the summer in 2018, Rotan told Romeo that he was looking at retiring in the next few years and that he thought Romeo would be the next pastor.
“All of a sudden, the time frame got shorter and shorter,” Romeo recalls. “Instead of retiring in a few years, pastor Jerry ended up retiring at the end of the year.”
In February 2019, after a January vote, Romeo was introduced as the new pastor of the 82-year-old AG church — the first time for a non-Anglo to ever lead the church.
Andrea, who now also works at the church as an office administrator and in leading women’s ministries, still is in awe of God’s fulfillment of the vision He gave her years ago.
“Life is not perfect, but look at him (Romeo) — this is crazy, I still can’t believe it,” she says. “When I look back as he was, it’s like two different persons. He is everything that the Lord showed me that he was in my vision — God is so faithful!”
But God didn’t just give Andrea a vision for Romeo, he gave her one for Roman as well. Her vision was that he would turn back to God and serve and lead in the church. A little less than two years ago, that vision came to pass as Roman returned to church.
“It’s almost like watching Romeo going through that process again,” Andrea says. “It’s amazing and I’m grateful that Romeo has his twin back . . . I don’t know all of what God has planned for him, but I know it’s going to be good — he’s a deacon in the church now and he’s come a long way.”
For Rotan, who maintains contact and has a spiritual father-son relationship with Romeo, he says it was remarkable to watch God fulfill His promises.
“To watch the Lord work, it was just exciting,” he says. “For me, personally, I learned to be patient when God is working on people and the process the Lord is going to have to let them go through to get them ready . . . just love people and be patient.”
Andrea shares that God has blessed their family in other ways as well. Their oldest, Nicolas, who witnessed his parents’ years of waywardness, is now 19 and fully involved in the church and living for Christ. Maylia, 13, is involved in the kids ministry, and Josiah is a rambunctious 4-year-old. In addition, Romeo’s mother has committed to start attending the Spanish service and Andrea’s parents have recently started attending the church and she sees signs of God working in their lives.
FUTURE OF PASSION CHURCH
In the fall of 2019, the church voted to change its name to “Passion Church” as whatever they are called to do for the Lord, they want to do it with passion. That passion has caught the eye of their community as the church has doubled in size to about 325, moving to three services on Sunday, including an afternoon Spanish service. Romeo believes that effective online ministry has played a large role in this growth and the church will be seeing 600 in attendance in the near future.
“We have a lot of new families coming from all different kinds of backgrounds and ethnicities,” Romeo says. “We’re a Pentecostal church and the authenticity of what God is wanting to do here in this church is unrestricted. I believe that’s been a component of drawing people here as the feedback from new people often is, ‘Wow! I really feel the power of God moving in this church.’”
Romeo, is quick to direct all praise to God, as every day he finds himself in awe of God and His work.
“The idea that I am in the position I am reveals that God is not bound by color, language, or preference,” he states. “The majority of those I shepherd are Anglo and I have been received with open arms because of the power of the Holy Spirit. Our church is growing, we’ve become much more diverse, but we’re still unified in mission and purpose through a God-given love for each other — and this is just the beginning . . . I’m excited to be a part of a fellowship who champions diversity.”