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Former Carolina Panther now pastor of diverse flock at Indian Land church

On any given Sunday, Derwin L. Gray will be standing with his flock at the doors of Transformation Church. As a diverse crowd of young and old, black and white pours out the doors of the Indian Land sanctuary and congregates under the floor-to-ceiling windows in the lobby, a 5-foot-10 figure in a relaxed-fitting hoodie, a high wall of hair atop his head, moves through the crowd talking with the families that fill his pews, hugging small children and chatting with senior ladies.

In a few minutes, he will take the stage in front of hundreds of people without changing a thing except for the small microphone pinned behind his ear. Without a podium but with a slick video production that projects his image and relevant Bible verses onto screens on either side, Gray preaches one of three sermons that day, in between performances of a Christian rock group.

His message blends the ancient history of the church with a teaching on how Christians should live today. The Apostle Paul preached the gospel to Jew and Greek, slave and free, man and woman, breaking down the barriers that divided people then. Why, then, Gray argues, should Christians in America be so divided along racial lines in the 21st century?

“This would be like me writing ‘I am under obligation to reach rich people, trailer trash people, undocumented aliens,” he preached. “(Paul was) under obligation to form gospel communities that reflect everybody.”

Twenty years ago, Gray spent his Sundays very differently. Instead of going to church, much less leading one, Gray made his living as a defensive back in the National Football League, first for five seasons for the Indianapolis Colts, then finishing his career with the Carolina Panthers.

For a while, that was what Gray preferred. He’d never been particularly religious growing up in San Antonio, Texas. In fact, for roughly the first half of his life, “my religion was football,” he said.

“People loved me because I played football. Girls liked me. I stood out based on what I did,” Gray said, sitting in a small office just off Transformation’s main stage. “I had a mission to get out of the ghetto, and football temporarily met my needs.”

Until one day it didn’t. Then something else entirely took over.

Seeking a meaningful life

Growing up in a rough area of San Antonio, Gray, 43, remembers a life defined by an urge for love and the need to prove his worth – a need he would describe today as something “greater than humans can give.” But at the time, he would have taken approval from humans too. The future family man was primarily raised by his grandmother. His childhood left him seeking meaning in life, but without the spiritual tools he would later use to find it.

“I wasn’t a religious person. As a young man, I might have told you, ‘I believe in God,’ but I really didn’t know what that meant,” Gray said.

To add to his personal struggles, the man who would one day speak to more than a thousand people in any given week grew up fighting to overcome a speech impediment. “I was a compulsive stutterer, so the idea that now I’m invited all over the world to preach the gospel, that humbles me every time,” he said.

Like a lot of young boys, Gray found meaning on the playing field. He proved a breakout performer on his high school team in the late 1980s, so much so that he became a standout college defensive player at Brigham Young University. Off the field, Gray’s time on the Provo, Utah, campus was defined by the day he met his future wife, Vicki, a track athlete for the Cougars. They married two years later, and Vicki Gray has acted as her husband’s partner throughout their ministry together. As with a lot of things now, he sees a providential hand behind their meeting.

“We met on Jan. 15, 1990, which just happens to be Dr. (Martin Luther) King’s birthday,” he says now with a laugh. “So a black kid from the hood and a white girl from the mountains of Montana met on Dr. King’s birthday, and today we lead a multi-ethnic church.”

When he was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 1993, his dreams of football glory became a nightmare. In the NFL, the game he’d played for fun and built much of his self-identity around was now a cut-throat business, and some of his toughest competitors were on the same team. He remembers sitting in meetings with men 10 or 15 years older than him who saw the young kid as a threat to their livelihood. Veteran players would sometimes send him the wrong plays just to make him look like a screw-up.

Even as his star rose in the professional ranks, he knew his playing days would be short, and he didn’t know who Derwin Gray was if he wasn’t a football player.

“My whole identity was based on football, so that just caused more anxiety,” he said. “I felt like this is what I worked for my whole life. I was going to be famous. I was going to be on TV and make all this money. I thought, ‘It’s got to be better than this.’”

‘The Naked Preacher’

While he was in Indianapolis, Gray had his first encounter with an avid proselytizer, someone so zealous in his faith he didn’t need to be fully dressed to preach it.

Colts linebacker Steve Grant had a reputation in the locker room for pulling out his Bible after the postgame shower and quoting scripture to unsuspecting teammates with a towel wrapped around his waist. Gray remembers other players dubbed Grant “the Naked Preacher.”

Gray remembers once during his rookie season, Grant came to him to ask if he knew Jesus and let him know that whatever accomplishments he thought he had in life, he still needed a personal relationship with his Savior because, in the words of Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The older man must have sensed some of the rookie’s desperation, but it wasn’t the right time for the message to sink in.

“As a 21-year-old, he just freaked me out,” Gray said.

But that anxious feeling didn’t go away, and in his fifth year in the league, Gray had a profound experience that he remembers by the date. By Aug. 2, 1997, he felt he had reached a place where he had nothing else but God’s love. Seated in a dorm room in Anderson College, Ind., during Colts’ training camp, an indescribable feeling led him to call his wife and make a renewed commitment both to her and to Jesus Christ.

“I felt a fundamental transformation ... and I just started weeping and crying right there in the dorm room,” he said. “I felt God was telling me, ‘I love you, and I have plans for your life.’”

‘God is going to start using you’

In 1999, Scott Carroll had not heard of Derwin Gray, and he didn’t have much reason to. Gray, a safety, had joined the Carolina Panthers the previous season and only played three games before he was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury, downtime Gray spent reading the Bible after his dorm room conversion experience.

But as the youth director for the S.C. Baptist Convention, Carroll was looking for a football player to speak at a football-themed rally for young people in Columbia, and his contacts at the Panthers recommended a new believer who had made an impression on his teammates and coaches leading team devotionals.

“We didn’t know a lot about Derwin coming from the Colts, but it was easy to see his leadership qualities, which is why we made him special teams captain right away,” said Frank Garcia, who played offensive line for the Panthers between 1995 to 2000. “He had a strong faith, and he was part of a regular Bible study group that John Kasay and Mark Rodenhasuer and Sean Gilbert would organize to help keep the game in perspective and just be with like-minded people.”

So Carroll, a Rock Hill native, reached out to Gray and asked him to speak to an estimated 7,000 teenagers in Columbia’s Capital City Stadium. It was Gray’s first public speaking engagement, and it didn’t seem like an easy one.

“I had a wrestling match with God. I asked him, ‘Why do you want me to speak to teens? Surely you can find someone who doesn’t stutter or has better self-esteem,” Gray said. “And I remember sitting in the bath and God saying, ‘If I can raise my son from the dead, what makes you think I can’t make you talk?’”

So Gray made the trip south for his speaking engagement, with what Carroll remembers was a set of note cards clutched in his hand. His anxiety about the event wasn’t relieved when he realized the program would also include some remarks from the Gamecocks’ new head football coach.

“I remember Lou Holtz came in with his two state troopers, and Derwin got nervous and said, ‘You didn’t tell me I was going to be speaking after Coach Holtz,’” Carroll said.

But once he took the stage, Carroll remembers, Gray quickly put down his notes and just spoke to the crowd about his own experience coming to God. It seemed to have a powerful effect on his young listeners, and both men recall teens experiencing their own personal conversions that night. Today, Gray preaches regularly without a noticeable stutter.

“I asked if anyone wanted Jesus to change their life the way he changed mine,” Gray said. “And I just had the sense something powerful had happened.”

In the team dugout afterward, Carroll told Gray, “God is going to start using you now.”

“The next day,” Carroll said, “he got his first speaking engagement.”

A church that looks like heaven

Shortly after his Columbia speaking engagement, Gray retired from pro football and began One Heart at a Time Ministries. He began speaking to audiences around the country. But even as he enjoyed spreading the gospel, one thing bothered him about the crowds that came out to hear him: their color, or lack of it.

“I would travel and speak for five years, and it was always either all-white or all-black,” Gray said. “American society is racially integrated, but on Sundays it’s racially segregated.”

Going back to the Bible, Gray read about the early days of the Christian church, when Jewish preachers went out to convert Greeks and Romans, building an international church that included all races and classes of the ancient world. He started asking if a church could work the same way today.

“I wanted to see a church where hipster white dudes and country blacks and people from all different backgrounds and socioeconomic classes could be unified in Christ,” he said.

After he finished his masters of divinity degree, Gray organized an initial group of 178 that would found Transformation Church on Feb. 7, 2010. The church moved into a converted warehouse on Charlotte Highway in what then seemed like a pretty empty section of Indian Land, with a vision of turning it into a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural church. Gray said he was advised not to start off with such a grand concept, that he could grow his ministry faster if he cultivated more traditional ground. But that initial group would grow to nearly 3,000 parishioners spread across three weekly services at the main campus and two satellite campuses.

In its first year, Transformation was recognized as the second fastest-growing congregation in the nation by Outreach magazine, and it maintained a spot in the top 100 in 2011 and 2012. By that final year, Gray’s old friend Carroll had joined the leadership team to put together a satellite church on Cherry Road in Rock Hill. Carroll, who now pastors the similarly structured Outbreak Church in Rock Hill, said he long wanted to plant a church that reached out across demographic lines.

“It’s difficult,” Carroll said. “Churches typically have a stereotyped view of what particular ethnicities are going to be like. Even unchurched people will ask, ‘Is it a black church or a white church?’”

But when someone asks him why he would want to organize a church like this, he tells them “because heaven’s going to be like that.”

Through all its growth, Transformation has stuck to its vision of an integrated church, with a congregation that Gray estimates is 55 to 60 percent white. He credits the people he put together on his leadership team with making the vision a reality.

“Our people will reach out to others at work, at the YMCA, wherever they happen to be,” he said. “They love Jesus, so they love people.”

Voices in the crowd

Gray knows that his football celebrity is a hook for some people, but more so seems to be his laid-back style of preaching.

As the crowds pour out of Transformation on a recent Sunday, a mosaic of parishioners say they found the church in various ways because of Gray’s personality and style.

“I heard him on the radio, and then I found him online,” said Rod Funderburk, who attended the morning service with his 6-year-old daughter, Alyson. “He’s just different. He’s more real world in how he puts things. He makes it more understandable.”

“It’s just his love for God, his humbleness. He’s just being himself,” said Jesse Smith, who said Transformation has a different feel than other churches he’s attended. “My father is a pastor and I have brothers who are pastors. This is different.”

Dressed in a leopard-print jacket and wielding a cane, 89-year-old Violet Wrenn praised how friendly everyone at Transformation has been since she and her family began attending a couple years ago.

“I went to a lot of churches, and at most, they can make you feel like you don’t belong,” Wrenn said. “Then some are like this.”

Even Gray’s former teammate Garcia sought him out when Garcia went through a divorce and felt he needed some spiritual guidance.

“I don’t know what brought me to him. He just popped into my head,” Garcia said. “I just knew his leadership style, how he gave people strength and direction, and knew he could mentor me through that.”

Even though he’s the lead pastor at Transformation, Gray credits a whole team of pastors, staff and volunteers who manage every aspect of the church and its operations, making Transformation the kind of church one 60-year-old worshiper could describe to Gray in the most flowery language a pastor can hear.

“Just the other week, I spoke to a black man who told me, ‘I knew there was a church that looked like heaven, and I finally found it,’” he said.

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