A former drug addict who was recently baptized in the church he burglarized earlier this year is speaking out about his miraculous encounter with God’s redemption. Brenton Winn was hell-bent on his own destruction when he entered Central Baptist Church in Conway, Ark., on Feb. 28 — but God had different plans.
Winn, 23, who was high on methamphetamines after relapsing from a faith-based recovery program, broke into the church, destroying $100,000 of church property, Baptist Press reported. The young man didn’t pick Central Baptist for any particular reason — all he knew was that he was mad a God, and he “felt desperate.”
After completing a two-week recovery program in 2016, Winn stayed clean for a year, getting a job at a local Lowe’s store. He traces his relapse back to September 2017, right after his cousin committed suicide. Soon, he was homeless, hopeless, and full of anger toward God.
Last month, Winn stood before the congregation whose house of worship he’d wrecked months before, and received the sacrament of baptism from Associate Pastor Mike Lefler. He says he believes God used his bad intentions for good, even guiding him to Central that night back in February, knowing all the damage he would cause.
“As I’m starting to understand how God works, I’ve realized I didn’t pick the church that night. God picked me,” Winn told Baptist Press. “If it had been any other church, I think I’d be sitting in prison right now.”
It all began when Senior Pastor Don Chandler met with the prosecutor on his case just days after Winn vandalized the church. For Chandler, forgiveness wasn’t an option — it was an imperative.
“You can’t preach something for 50 years without practicing it, especially in front of your whole church,” Chandler told Baptist Press. “Had we not shown some grace to him, everything we’ve talked about and encouraged, would have gone by the wayside. It was simply the right thing to do. This was not a hardened criminal. This was a young man who had made some mistakes. He was on drugs and alcohol when he did what he did. But he was redeemable.”
Pastor Chandler believed Winn was “redeemable” even when he didn’t, and that single act of mercy proved to be the catalyst for turning his life around.
Winn had been dependent on drugs most of his life. Though he was raised in a “God-fearing,” church-going home, he said he began experimenting with methamphetamines at age 14. By age 16, he was a daily user.
“Before I knew it, I had a full-blown drug addiction,” he said. “From the time I was 16 until a few months ago, my life was nothing but chaos, suicide attempts and brokenness.”
When Pastor Chandler met with the prosecutor, he mentioned he and the church would like to help with Winn’s rehabilitation. They connected Winn with Renewal Ranch, a Christian residential recovery ministry that partners with Central Baptist.
The judge on Winn’s case, who just happened to be a board member of Renewal Ranch, gave him the option: go to jail for up to 20 years, or complete Renewal Ranch’s 12-month Bible-based recovery program. Winn chose Renewal Ranch, and just six months into the program, he experienced a conversion.
Bible study and regular church attendance are central to the Renewal Ranch program. On Wednesday evenings, ranch residents attend church at Central Baptist. After accepting Christ following one of the Bible studies at Renewal Ranch, Winn chose to be baptized at one of Central’s Wednesday night services.
“I gave my heart to Christ that night,” Winn said. “I used to think it was a coincidence [that I chose to break into the church that night], but now I call it confirmation that God is real, and He answers prayers. What was weighing on my heart was that I needed a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Winn still has about five months left of the 12-month program. After living on Renewal Ranch’s 102-acre property for six months, participants live in off-campus apartments affiliated with the program, find employment, and continue their bible studies at Renewal Ranch.
“Our goal of this program is to make reproducing disciple-makers for Jesus Christ,” Renewal Ranch’s founder and executive director James Loy told Baptist Press. “I tell people, my goal is not for them to be abstinent of drugs and alcohol. I want that for their lives, but my main goal is for these men to fall in love with Jesus. Through that personal love relationship. There’s freedom from the bonds of addiction.”
Loy knows this freedom first-hand. He founded the ministry in 2011, six years after kicking a 23-year drug and alcohol addiction and committing his life to Christ. Since then, 300 men have experienced the same freedom through his ministry.
As Winn completes the second half of the program, Central Baptist leaders have continued to offer nothing but support and encouragement.
“We’re challenging our members to continue praying for this man because his story is not over,” Pastor Mike Lefler said. “And that’s true for every one of us. God is still working a beautiful story of grace in every one of our lives.”