Urban Rochester Church Follows Spirit Of God From The Heart Of The City To The Heart Of The Country

Pastors Jeffery and Jonvonna Simmons. (Photo by Alex Boutakov Photography)
Pastors Jeffery and Jonvonna Simmons. (Photo by Alex Boutakov Photography)
Pastor Jeffery Simmons. (Photo by Alex Boutakov Photography LLC)
Pastor Jeffery Simmons. (Photo by Alex Boutakov Photography LLC)

By Rick Kern

In John 3:8, Jesus describes a mysterious, yet intriguing, characteristic that is found in all Christians as He explains, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit (NIV).” At the moment, there may not be a better description of Renewal of Life COGIC (ROL) as they follow the Lord from the heart of the city to the heart of the country to share the heart of God out in Palmyra.

Located about 20 miles southeast of Rochester, New York in Wayne County, the town of Palmyra boasts a population of roughly 8,000. It is a far cry from the 209,000 people that call the City of Rochester home, and the teeming urban neighborhoods that enjoyed the many expressions of love ROL gave to the community for years. Such is life for those born of and moved by the Spirit of God!

Renewal of Life was established in September 1995 by Pastor Jeffery Simmons and met in the Carter Street Recreation Center in Rochester, New York. Within two years, the church purchased and renovated a building on Portland Avenue in the city where it has fellowshipped for the past 19 years. ROL has always had a strong heart for pursuing the work of God and serving the community. Throughout the years its ministry has been a balanced two-edged sword that taught the love of God through the Word and expressed it by reaching out and serving the community in several deeply impacting, creative, and meaningful ways.

“Where we were, we were instrumental in that area,” says Simmons, “we often give clothes away, that’s one of our biggest things — food and clothes are important in urban ministry, it’s one of the things that people need.” He continues, “We teamed up early on with the city school district and we had summer training with some of the teachers.” The church’s education director coordinated a program where children from the community could come to the church each Saturday to learn and use the computers. “She would teach them new things on the computer, she would help them with their homework or reports. We were connecting with the community,” adds Simmons, “we’re really more like a missionary base than a spiritual service type of church.”

Their ministry activities reflect a passionate heart to make a loving difference in the name of Jesus among those hungering for it. ROL puts legs on their prayers and walks the talk. They may be more like a missionary base than a “spiritual service type of church,” but lives are changed there by the Word of God as well. As their website puts it, “ROL is a place dedicated to helping individuals discover and grow in their walk with Christ by renewing our minds and thus, changing the way we think about life.”

Pastor Simmons qualifies it saying, “Spiritual services are really good too, I don’t want to negate having spiritual services there — but praying for people outside the walls of the church and witnessing to them is the biggest thing.” He goes on, “However, our church did not grow as much through having people come in. It was just us being in the community and being effective… That’s everything.”

If it sounds unique and impressive, it is, but it is just the tip of the ROL iceberg. For example, their Care Team ministry raises money for the cancer patients at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center every two years. “We try to do a big fundraiser, my wife Jonvonna started that ministry, she’s been doing that for about ten years now.” And while the money is a huge blessing, the greater and more compelling impact lies in the people-to-people dynamic.

“What Roswell would do, it would bring people in and they would give their testimonies regarding the different stages they went through,” explains Pastore Simmons. “It encourages people who are going through cancer.” He continues, “Last year when we had it, there were a few people who had stage four cancer and were at the event. They told us how it helped them mentally, coming and giving their testimonies and talking about their cancer journeys. I think that program is beautiful.”

Just as love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:8) ROL’s ministry keeps moving forward as well. They do Thanksgiving baskets, give toys, hats, and gloves to Rochester General Hospital, have a great youth program, and — get this — they have lunch in the parking lot. “That’s in the parking lot,” laughs Simmons. “What that consists of is we come out, and the surrounding communities join us to eat and fellowship every single Saturday in the summertime.” Operating from July through August, ROL offers free food, clothing, and other aids to members of the community — yep, all in the parking lot!

On top of its vigorous outreach thrust, like any fellowship, ROL has praise and worship, family nights, and both men’s and women’s ministry. Their mission is to, “…preach and teach the gospel of Jesus Christ, to show love to all humanity, to embrace truth of God’s Word, and give ourselves to God’s Kingdom.” They spent some 23 years doing just that in Rochester and now they have begun to do it in Palmyra.

First Lady Jonvonna Simmons. (Photo by Alex Boutakov Photography LLC)
First Lady Jonvonna Simmons. (Photo by Alex Boutakov Photography LLC)

You would think that with such a labor-intensive ministry program, Pastor Simmons would be at church and on outreach 24/7! He absolutely does go day and night — but as a bi-vocational pastor! He works as the Cemetery Manager for the two cemeteries owned by the City of Rochester. It’s a mixed blessing in that it helps him better identify with the struggles his parishioners face in their day-to-day grind as he shares them, but it also keeps him from being available the way he would like to be.

“I think it can hurt the ministry but at the same time, you can understand what the people are going through because you are working also,” he observes. “I think that would help our ministry because I can understand what they’re going through at the job with bosses and the complications that they have to deal with at the job.” “But,” he continues, “it’s two-fold…On the one hand, I cannot visit the hospital the way I want to, or I cannot be at the church and be at the beck and call of the people. On the other hand, though I think it can grow much better if I’m always there, you never know with this situation. It’s up to God,” he adds, “He knows better than I do.”

Regardless of location or leadership dynamics, ROL has always had a strong heart for pursuing the work of God and serving the community. Their ministry throughout the years has focused on many facets of sharing the love of God and living out His Word including worship, teaching, serving, evangelism, and showing His love through meeting practical needs. Simply put, ROL has been His loving hands and feet reaching out to a hurting, sin-darkened world that is aching to believe that the light of God’s love is real.

Simmons is the first one to say he couldn’t do it alone, recognizing that ROL is its people. “What I rely on is kind of a team,” he staunchly acknowledges. “I created a team at the church where we can somewhat help each other because most of us are working.”

And that ministry team will continue with an impressive vision that has been embraced by this spirited fellowship. They hope to build the “Renewal of Life Enrichment Center,” a ministry nexus that includes: spiritual empowering services, economic development programs, health initiative programs, financial empowerment classes, and a family counseling center.

That’s some pretty bold visionary thinking from this father of three who has been married for 30 years. “I believe that ministries are all about people, faith, and endurance,” he emphasizes, “nothing else.” Continuing he adds passionately, “What I’m excited about is new ground in Palmyra. I’m ready to run and do what I’ve done in the city out there and to see how God is going to bless us.”

To learn more about all God is doing at Renewal of Life COGIC, visit their website located at www.rolcogic.org or call them at (315) 502-0232.