PARKERSBURG - It's almost a cliche.
A lifelong, hardened criminal goes to prison, finds God and changes his evil ways for religion.
One man who experienced such a transformation was Christopher Longgrear, 59, born and raised in Marietta, who came from a broken home and had been in and out of jail and prison 15 times between the ages of 14-25.
Photo by Joe Albright
Christopher Longgrear demonstrates what a typical preaching session looks like at Fresh Fire Ministries Church. Longgrear preaches and sings to his congregation while standing and walking around, preferring a more lively ministering to that of being behind a pulpit.
Then he turned to God.
"I didn't have any role models growing up or anything to grab my interest as a young man," Longgrear said. "I was in and out of trouble with the law because being a criminal was the only thing I knew. I made several disturbing decisions in my early years and am lucky to be alive today."
Longgrear finally saw the error of his ways on Aug. 23, 1980, when he was witness to an act of God while waiting arraignment for a crime he had just committed.
"I had been running from the call to serve the Lord most of my life before witnessing what I can only describe as a visit from an angel in my jail cell that night," Longgrear said. "I thought I could outrun the calling, but after the visit I knew there was no more running."
For the next 10 years, Longgrear ministered evangelism in the West Virginia prison system, including at the Moundsville State Penitentiary, during his incarceration at Mansfield Reformatory and the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lancaster.
"My ministry started out small, I held church in the prisons or doing street ministries and helping the inmates find and get back on the right path through God," says Longgrear.
Once Longgrear completed his last sentence, he became involved in a project in Belpre and was named co-founding pastor of what became "The Celebration Center" church organization.
Following the Celebration project, Longgrear in 2000 founded Fresh Fire Ministries International in Parkersburg in an old warehouse on Camden Avenue.
"Our church is nothing special. We only pay rent, instead of owning, which allows us to devote more money to our Ministry and mission," says Longgrear.
The church is non-denominational.
Fresh Fire Ministries focuses on preaching and teaching the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and the New Testament.
Longgrear is joined in his ministry by his wife of 32 years, Sandy. The two have been pastoring together for more than 20 years.
"Our mission is to take the Gospel of the grace of God to everyone we can, everywhere we can, everyway we can," Longgrear said.
They try to get the church's message out anyway they can. On Sunday, there are two worship services - one at 10:30 a.m. and another at 6 p.m. - both featuring Longgrear and his wife.
The couple also holds the Fresh Fire Study School of the Bible from 7 to 9 p.m. on Fridays. The two hours consist of Longgrear dissecting and analyzing stories from the four gospels and the New Testament.
The church studio records a radio program that is uploaded to digiagape.com three times a week and a television program, aired on Suddenlink in the Athens area, titled Gospel of Grace.
On top of his church activities, Longgrear still preaches at four prisons on Thursdays to inmates who want to see the error of their ways and change for the better ... as he once did.
He is always aware of the doubts of the inmates and uses himself as an example of the rewards for faith and perseverance in God.
Longgrear knows that there will always be doubters outside the razor wire and chain link fences as well but he knows that as long as he continues to follow the path laid by God that he will no longer be seen as a criminal for those who truly observe his ministering.
He is quick to offer an example in the form of an old parole officer who went wherever Longgrear was ministering and told people Longgrear was running a con and you couldn't trust him or believe anything he said.
The man later apologized after deciding that Longgrear's metamorphosis was genuine.
As a result of the skeptics and doubters, Longgrear makes his credentials known to all who step in the church as validity or proof that he is indeed a changed and improved person. To his credit, Longgrear has received a bachelor's of science and a master's degree in theology, a doctorate of ministry and a doctorate in religious studies.
He is working on a third doctorate degree.
Christopher Longgrear is an example of someone who was lost but was then found with the power of God and prayer. To witness his transformation, Longgrear encourages visitors to the church on Sundays at 3901 Camden Ave., Parkersburg, to see first hand the power and awesomeness of what God can do.