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Pastor Joshua Randolph, a former drug dealer who spent time in state prison, sprints through more gears than a mountain biker on a steep grade as he confronts, charms, cajoles and inspires followers at a recent Sunday morning worship.

The 38-year-old drew more than 100 people to back-to-back services at his fledgling Salvation Praise Ministries, which congregates at Foss Park District in North Chicago.

Randolph, who's best known as Pastor Joshua, said he's left everything from the streets and prison behind — except his tattooed and iron-curled biceps — but took with him a burning faith in God. Followers said Randolph has the passion and humility to inspire those who've fallen, as he did, with a belief in themselves and pursuit of goals they'd previously thought unreachable.

Wiping the sweat off his brow after a recent sermon, Randolph's eyes sparkled when asked about others' faith in him.

"My favorite passage is First Corinthians, 9:22," he said. "I became all things to all men, so I may win some."

The father of five, who credits wife Arica for sticking with him when times were tough, has committed himself to leading a multifaceted life. After 15 years as a barber, he is ramping up his ministry and pursuing a parallel career in motivational speaking.

Sunday morning sartorial splendor is not the pastor's long suit. The closest he comes to color-coordination is gleaming black gym shoes with red soles, ringed in white, to match the red lettering on his white T-shirt, proclaiming "RockYoDay," one of several church outreaches.

"I'm 5-feet-8 and 199 pounds," the former North Chicago High School football player said of his presence before the congregation.

Kenosha resident Desmond Miller, a medical professional, hasn't actually been to a Salvation Praise Ministries church service, but did become a follower of the pastor's haircuts before noticing anything else.

"At the barber shop I was going to, the owner wasn't doing a good job," Miller said. "So I started getting Josh to cut my hair. When he moved to a new location, I followed him."

Miller, a practicing Christian, noticed that between customers Randolph would not only read the Bible, "but he would actually be studying it, and he'd have two or three religious books open and would be taking notes."

Miller also noticed the way people, especially young African-American men, responded to Randolph.

"What I've noticed with him is that he listens, and if he offers advice, he's not looking for shortcuts. It's hard to relate to people if you've never been down that same path yourself," Miller said. "Joshua has, and young people listen to him because of that."

Friend Rosaland Harrison said Randolph's "congregation is filled with ex-gangbangers, drug addicts, and those who are just looking for someone to understand and not judge them."

According to the Lake County State's Attorney's office, Randolph was sentenced in 1999 to seven years in prison on a conviction of delivering cocaine. He spent three years in prison — Jan. 11, 2000 to Dec. 31, 2002 — and completed the terms of his parole on Jan. 1, 2006, according to the Department Corrections.

More than one parishioner at Randolph's second service April 19 agreed with Harrison who said Randolph has a "gift of evangelism."

Gail Andrews, a Zion homemaker and mother of three sons, said while Randolph's self-described "sweatin' and spittin'" may sound and look like "Fire and Brimstone" preaching, the muscular young preacher is quite the opposite of being "judgmental" or aligning with a wrathful God.

"I would not use those words (fire and brimstone) to describe Josh," Andrews said. "He is definitely outside the box when he preaches, but he's on fire for Christ. He's more like a (biblical) fisherman of men. And he's definitely going to be a powerful voice in the community.

"What's different about his approach is that everyone is unique and they are coming to God the way they are. They're coming as themselves."

Like Andrews, parishioner TeAqua Banks of Waukegan has also switched congregations. Banks said she and husband Arthur have been concerned about the generational gap between themselves and their children — 16, 19 and 21 — a gap she believes Pastor Randolph can bridge.

"He's definitely speaking at their level," said Banks. "He's speaking to the level of high school and young adults."

Denys Bucksten is a News-Sun freelancer

Copyright © 2015, Lake County News-Sun

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