Alcohol and narcotics!

Joey Candillo knew these two vices all too well as an Independence teenager. Not only was he a drug user, but he also was a drug pusher. He was arrested in 1997 for selling drugs and served time at the Boonville Penitentiary.

Joey was 22 and “at rock bottom” when he began serving his four-month sentence and began searching for the true meaning of life, which he found in the Lord Jesus Christ.

“That was a wake-up call. God really got a hold of me,” he says, recalling he attended a chapel service and heard for the first time that God loved him and had a plan for his life. “I was really blown away that God would forgive me, because I had done a lot of bad things around Independence.”

As he listened to the chaplain’s message of forgiveness, Joey thought: “This guy doesn’t know what I have done.” But despite his doubts, God dealt with him, he says, and “I came forward and gave my life to Christ” at the end of the service.

Today, 39-year-old Joey Candillo is ministering to some of the people he used to do drugs with. He is pastor of Grace Church Independence, which he recently planted at 222 N. Osage St. – just off the Square.

Sitting in his office at the rear of the 6,000-square-foot building next to Diamond Bowl, Joey recalls how close he came to missing God’s plan for his life.

Upon his release from prison, Joey began worshiping at Eastside Baptist Church, where he was baptized. On one of Joey’s earlier visits to the Independence church, the pastor gave the young convert his telephone number, saying, “If you ever need anything, call me.”

And Joey did one evening after a spat with his girlfriend. Instead of “going out and getting drunk” as he wanted to do, he telephoned his pastor.

“It was about 10 at night,” he recalls, “and he talked to me. And by the time we got off the phone, I was ready to go to bed and sleep it off.”

Says Joey: “If it wasn’t for Eastside Baptist and the pastor who loved on me unconditionally, I would be back in prison for sure.”

Joey, though, never returned to prison. Instead, he was obedient to God’s call to the ministry. A year after he was “saved” in prison, he started four years of schooling at Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo.

Three months after graduating, Joey and Mike Bobbitt planted Second Chance Ministries, a church for troubled teenagers in northeast Kansas City.

“I had a real burden to reach kids that were like me growing up. We did that, and had a lot of success.”

Directly across the street from Second Chance Ministries was the long-established Bales Baptist Church that planned to close its doors. But to prevent the closure, Bales and Second Chance Ministries merged into one church. There Joey pastored for 11 years.

Then last summer, Joey felt God was leading him away from Bales to plant another church, possibly to Independence where he has lived since 1982.

While looking for a place to plant a church in northwest Independence, “This building (on Osage) opened up,” he recalls. “We looked at it a few times, and in the process of praying and fasting, God opened it up.”

The first 30 members were Independence residents who attended Bales Baptist.

“They were tired of driving (to Bales),” he says, “so when I came here and they found I was leaving (Bales), they said, ‘We want to come to you.’”

“There are no perfect people” is the motto of the fundamentalist church that meets for Sunday worship at 9 and 10:30 a.m. in the 200-seat auditorium.

Because of space limitations, there is no Sunday school. However, there are Bible studies on Wednesday and Thursday nights, in addition to an addiction recovery group that meets on Monday night.

Since its first service on Nov. 15, 2013 – with 30 in attendance – Grace Church is now averaging approximately 200 worshipers at both services.

And on Jan. 5, when most churches canceled services because of the heavy snowfall, “We went ahead and had church, and 163 people showed up,” he says.

Noting “things are going really well,” Joey envisions some 300 worshipers for Easter services after a record-high attendance of 259 earlier this month.

“If we continue to grow, we are going to add a third service,” he says, and that might be a Saturday night service. We believe (such a service) in the summer would be a great draw.”

Now that the weather is getting nice, Grace Church plans to do a lot of “nice things” in the community. During Santa-Cali-Gon Days, the church will open its doors so people can use its rest rooms and cool off in its air-conditioned auditorium. It also is sponsoring free indoor concerts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights of the Labor Day weekend celebration.

“I also want to partner with some of the area churches,” he says, like doing a three-on-three basketball tournament on the hill at Truman and Noland. “The event is free and the winner gets a hundred bucks.”

As for the mission of the church, “We are trying to connect and reconnect people with God,” he says. “That’s the bottom line. We want people to begin a relationship with God and grow in that; we don’t turn anyone away. We are going to love on them wherever they’re at.”

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Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.