Paul Casola, the former pastor of the Passion Community Baptist Church in Covington, recently started a new chapter in his life with the opening of a new church in Conyers.
The church, which he dubs a “grace and peace experiment,” uses The Bridge as an integral part of its ministry – both as a name and metaphor.
“Basically with my experience being in and around the church ministry, I feel like the church can be a place that’s not safe to be yourself,” Casola said. “In a religious environment, sometimes you’re made to feel like you’re not OK… and we want to create an environment where it’s OK to be yourself and we’re not expecting you to change to fit into some kind of mold to be a part of our community. We want a place where people can be loved and accepted as they are.”
Casola had stepped down from pastoring after the May 2006 tragedy where Casola’s family, including his wife and two young sons, were run down repeatedly in the parking lot of a Covington McDonald’s and Casola’s 2-year-old niece was killed. The driver, Lanny Barnes, was sentenced to life without parole for murder and died in 2009 at Augusta State Medical prison from leukemia.
After the tragedy, Casola had stepped down to focus on rehabilitating his family with no plans to return to ministry.
But in 2010, Northminster, which was going through a split at the time, asked him to come as a guest pastor.
“So I just started speaking and they asked me to do it on a permanent basis,” he said. “I’d been getting used to speaking again. But as long as they listened to my heresy, I was happy to speak again.”
As the church was about to close, Casola got together with a group of about 20 and proposed launching a new church. Through his experience starting a church and previous life traveling as a speaker, he knew what elements a vibrant church needed.
On May 6, The Bridge church, located off of West Hightower Trail at the former Northminster Baptist Church in Conyers, opened its doors for the inaugural service with Pastor Casola officiating.
Amanda Wilson, who met Casola through a New Depot Players production where they were both actors, was tasked to getting the word out and promoting the opening of the new church.
“Knowing in all of our heart that it was time for a change, we decided to re-vamp our church home. And that is exactly what we are doing. Giving people a safe place to worship and find God’s love,” Wilson said in an email.
“The days leading up to the May 6 launch, everything that could possibly go wrong did... It was hectic. Hectic and stressful,” Wilson said.
Despite all the mishaps and stress, Wilson was surprised at the turnout of the launch of the new church when approximately 60 people came for the inaugural service and stayed for the pot luck lunch afterwards.
“It did turn out better than expected. I have never experienced anything like this. Everything was going wrong. It was an amazing feeling to be wrong,” Wilson said.
Casola’s hopes for the church are building bridges for people to come for counseling, arts activities and more – a safe place for people as well as a place for healing.
“I’d like it to be different, more focused on the whole person,” he said. “I don’t believe Jesus came to the earth and did all the stuff he did to start an institution. He was more organic than that. He was concerned about people… All the people who had problems and issues, that’s who he loved and spent time with. I don’t feel like churches do that. That’s why I say it’s a grace and peace experiment.”
As for his feelings on the tragedy that occurred six years ago, Casola said in a 2009 interview that although he could not speak for others, he had personally forgiven Barnes and his mother Mary before Barnes’ death. “I am still sad that Avery was taken from us. But any anger I had toward him or his mother, I let go a long time ago,” Casola said.
Sunday worship at Northminster Baptist Church begins at 10:30 a.m. For more information, visit www.safebridge.org or call (770) 922-5433.