At 16 years old, Laurel resident Gavin Brown was walking home on Contee Road from Laurel High School when he said he felt a calling to serve God.
"I sat down and realized that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't do good on my own," Brown said. "I needed the Lord to come into my life and my heart. I had to allow Him to be the leader in my life to truly allow my performance to take over."
Nearly two decades later, the 35-year-old father of two said his journey to serve God took him around and outside Prince George's County, only to return in June as the first African American lead pastor at Lifehouse Church in Beltsville — the same church he attended as a child.
Brown replaces the Rev. Chris McMillian, who served as the church's pastor for more than a decade.
Born in Baltimore, Brown said he moved to Laurel around 1989 with his parents and five sisters, where they lived in the Cherry Branch townhouses in a low-income residential housing complex, Kimberly Gardens. While his mother stayed at home to take care of the children, his father worked three jobs to keep the family afloat.
Drugs, prostitution and police car lights were common sights around the neighborhood, Brown recalled, where "the pizza man stopped delivering at noon because it was that dangerous."
"There were not a lot of father figures in the neighborhood," Brown said. "I was lucky to have my father, but he wasn't around because he worked a lot. What really kept me on the straight and narrow was working two to three jobs."
At age 14, Brown kept himself busy working at Taco Bell, Ledo's Pizza or Buddy's Crabs & Ribs, even if it meant telling his employers he was 15 years old — the age requirement for young employees.
Brown said he was also a student in the nonprofit organization First Generation College Bound, and participated in its Homework Club. However, he often missed study and work sessions due to work.
The Laurel-based organization helps struggling students beginning in grade school, offering college application help and following up as they work on their college careers. Brown said the organization's president and CEO, Joe Fisher, was instrumental in his upbringing, starting when he was in seventh grade at Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School.
Despite the challenges Brown faced at home and in the classroom, Fisher said Brown always remained honest about what he wanted in life.
"Gavin was very entertaining and very gifted at communicating with people," Fisher said. "He was a sincere person and committed to what he was involved in."
Brown visited Valley Forge Christian College — now called the University of Valley Forge — during his sophomore year at Laurel High, but decided to attend Morgan State University in Baltimore after hesitating in his eventual decision to serve in the ministry. Following his high school graduation in 2000, Brown attended Morgan State's summer program prior to the fall semester.
Fisher said he kept in touch with Brown, who felt something missing in life while at Morgan State.
"He called me that summer, even though he had money to go [through scholarships], and he said, 'Mr. Fisher, I don't belong here.' I'll never forget that," Fisher said. "I went to pick him up and I said, 'Where do you belong?' and he said, 'I belong at Valley Forge Christian College.'"
Brown graduated from the Pennsylvania college in 2004, and returned to Bowie as a youth pastor at Cornerstone Church. He was ordained with the Assemblies of God while serving at the Bowie church.
His faith was tested in 2005, Brown said, when he received a phone call and learned his oldest sister, Toni, died from a diabetic coma at age 24. Toni was pregnant at the time of her death, having struggled with diabetes since she was 12.
"It took the wind out of me," Brown said. "I wouldn't wish any sibling to see another sibling in a casket."
Eighteen months later in 2006, his younger sister, Lisa, and her 7-month-old daughter were fatally shot in the Brown family's apartment in South Laurel. She was 22.
All four family members are buried at Maryland National Cemetery on Route 1 in Laurel. Brown said he went through a period of depression, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and took time away from the ministry to heal.
He returned a month later and transferred to TrinityLife in Lutherville, where he worked from 2008 to 2014.
"In those moments, I realized that people need hope," he said. "We live in a very fallen world that, at times, seems hopeless. You can either respond with bitterness or the attitude of, 'I'm going to get better and be better because of this and God leading me.'"
In 2014, Brown and his wife moved to Michigan, where he worked at Brightmoor Christian Church until his return to Bowie earlier this year. Brown said his calling to God "became more synchronized" as he found the desire to lead a church.
He began a "trial run" at Lifehouse Church in March and was voted with 98 percent approval in June as the church's seventh lead pastor.
Returning to Lifehouse
In grade school, when Brown attended Lifehouse Church on Montgomery Street, which was then called First Assembly of God, he said the congregation was predominately white but grew more diverse toward the end of his high school education.
Long-time member Mary Jo Edwards said she recalled Brown visiting Lifehouse in those early years. Edwards has attended Lifehouse Church since 1990.
"I knew him when he came to our church as a young boy. I was a lot older than him, but I always liked him," she said. "I remember one of our pastors asking him to speak on a Sunday night when he'd never done it before. And he did it."
When she heard of his possible return, Edwards said she was excited and "fell in love" with the energy Brown brought to his services.
"I'm looking forward to the church growing," Edwards said. "He has a lot of ambition and I like his way of preaching. I have such a good feeling that we're going to see good things happening here."
Tiffanie Nickleberry, the connections director, said that although she didn't have a significant role in the church committee's search for a new pastor, she knew Brown was the perfect choice after hosting a small dinner party Brown attended. Nickleberry and her husband, Marshall, have attended Lifehouse for eight years.
"I automatically knew at that point that it was God's will that he would be the new pastor," Nickleberry said. "Before, I really learned the word of God and grew spiritually, but what pastor Gavin brought that had been missing was the spirit of God in the sense of joyfulness and patience."
There was a feeling of "heaviness" within the congregation earlier, lacking a playfulness Brown later brought to the table, Nickleberry said.
"With his presence, it seemed like there was a lighter spirit," she said. "You could actually feel the presence of God. As Christians, we should know how to have fun. God does want us to be full of joy and join in fellowship with one another."
Building relationships will bring success in the future at Lifehouse Church, Brown said, as he begins a new chapter in his journey to connect with God.
"We are going to be a church that provides for the community," Brown said. "We want to get involved with the fabric of what this city is about and do our best to make it better. This is a place where we're going to reach people, teach people and release them into this city and our world to do great and mighty things for the Lord."