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Randy Lawrence overcame personal struggles to open True Life Center in Zephyrhills

Randy Lawrence was selling drugs and going to strip clubs.

After partying at a beach bar, he drove home early one Sunday morning with a hangover and wearing sunglasses. He passed a church. "There was so much life there," he said, "while I felt like death."

As he suffered personally, a random book inspired him to turn his life around.

"I was changed in that moment," said Lawrence, now 40.

It was 1997 when he read Beyond the Norm by Norm Miller, the chairman of Interstate Batteries who found religion. Miller included a copy of the book to anyone who purchased the batteries. Lawrence, a stock broker at the time, also owned an auto garage with a friend from his days at the University of South Florida. He saw the book sitting on a desk, took it home and read it in two days.

"(Miller's) life was changed by God," Lawrence said. "That resonated with me because I related to that emptiness. I said, 'Lord, if this is true, come into my heart and show me what direction to go.' "

A couple days later, he received a mailer about a Christian school in Tampa opening an outreach center in Orlando, where he sometimes traveled for work. Lawrence called the number on the card.

"How on Earth did you get my name?" he asked. The person on the phone said they only sent mail to people who requested it.

"It freaked me out a little bit," he said. "It was like God used that letter to reaffirm his presence."

Lawrence didn't attend, but he said the whole incident sent a clear message to him.

"I needed that 2-by-4 upside my head to see that God had a plan for me despite all the mistakes I had made."

A week later, after much thought, he hesitantly went to church.

"I can't articulate everything, but I knew there was some presence," he said.

"It struck me … I always kind of believed in something but never in a tangible, personal way." Suddenly, "It became possible for God to be real."

Lawrence grew up in Seminole and had attended the First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks in Largo a few times at Christmas as a child. Now he was there again and meeting people who "who cared about a partying stockbroker," he said.

Looking back, he sees them as "some key men that God positioned in my life."

He continued going to church and was baptized. Articulate and business-savvy, Lawrence eventually became ordained and spent several years as the church's singles pastor. He met his wife Sarah Jo at the church.

Pastor Charlie Martin was with the church for 37 years before retiring recently. He has known Lawrence since he was a child.

"I lost track of him for a long time," said Martin, who now lives in North Carolina but stays in contact with Lawrence and his wife. "He came back to us when he was a businessman. That's when we got back together."

Lawrence worked with the college-aged ministry, making an impact on young people who could relate to where he had been.

"He's a very transparent person,'' Martin said. "He is willing to lay his life open so other people can see — look what happened in Randy's life. Maybe that can happen in my life too.''

About five years ago, Lawrence and his wife moved to east Pasco County, where new neighborhoods and businesses were popping up almost everyday.

"An effective way to connect people to the Lord is through new churches," he said.

The True Life Center is nondenominational, but his friends from the Baptist church were supportive.

"Randy is just a fine guy and I knows he's done a lot of hard work in that area," Martin said.

Lawrence said the Lord directed him to the Zephyrhills/Wesley Chapel area and the type of church he should start.

He recalled the first Sunday morning service. He had invited more than 200 people to the church office in Zephyrhills. Only his wife came, so he preached from his heart directly to her.

They experimented with other methods, converting their upstairs bonus room in their Zephyrhills house to a children's ministry, and then doing outdoor services for their neighborhood.

Eventually, things started to take off. They moved into rented space on Allen Road and recently took over a new building nearby that they've been extensively renovating.

"We were packed out every week," he said of the previous 70-seat facility.

Seating capacity in the new church is 300, plus there is a cafe and a 2,000-square-foot children's ministry area. The first service there will be for Easter.

Lawrence continues to help people with drug addiction and anger problems. And they started a food pantry that's open each Thursday.

They offer services on the Internet, using his previous connections with the Christian Television Network.

And last year they started a ministry in Islamabad, Pakistan, where about 35 people meet each Sunday beneath a tent to attend the True Life Center online, using Bibles Lawrence mailed to them.

"That was totally a God thing," he said of how it all came about.

The Lawrences have a 5-year-old daughter, Moriah. In addition to growing the church, he owns a real estate business.

Many who attend the small Pasco church have been affected in substantial ways.

"It has changed my life," said Vicki Schrader-Carpenter, who lives in Dade City and has been going to the church for two years.

She was having trouble with alcohol and drug addiction. "I have been set free," she said. "It opened a door for me to connect with him. It took away shame."

She called Lawrence "an amazing shepherd."

Susan Morrison and her husband Jack, who have joined the congregation with their three sons, agreed.

"God used (Lawrence) to minister to us,'' she said. "Everything that he says is going to happen comes to pass."

She volunteers in the church office, so she also gets to see him behind the scenes in his real estate business. "I watch him operate in integrity all the time," she said. "Because he's hardworking and walks in integrity with his business, his marriage, with his daughter, people can emulate that. I see it."

Lawrence doesn't take credit for the impact he has on others, but sees his previous challenges as an impetus to do God's work.

"My life has been set free of all the garbage and mistakes I made. As a result of that, His purpose is for us to be a channel for other people to be set free."

"Faith In Motion" is a series of features about an individual or group doing something inspiring in the course of a spiritual journey. Ideas are welcome via e-mail. Send them to mindy.rubenstein@yahoo.com.

Randy Lawrence overcame personal struggles to open True Life Center in Zephyrhills 04/03/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 16, 2010 3:49pm]
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