By Alia Campbell
Audley Castro can still imagine himself sitting in church. It’s a Monday evening and he is sitting in the pews of Full Truth Tabernacle church in the small community of Mt. Ogle in Jamaica. Going to church has become part of his daily routine, but this time it’s different. The phone rings. One minute, two of his friends were sitting around cleaning their guns, just a few miles away in Castle, and the next they were gone. They had been shot to death.
On a much more recent day, far from Jamaica in the chill of a Pickering, Ont., winter, he comes through the entrance of the Apostolic Pentecostal Church in only a light black jacket, a sweater and black trousers. A small-built man with lean muscles, now known as Pastor Castro by most people, he makes his way up a long flight of stairs towards his office. He balances a coffee cup in one hand as he opens the door, revealing four burgundy leather chairs. The furniture is a rare display of opulence in the spacious room, which is otherwise filled with personal mementos. He takes a seat in his black office chair, and asks in a calming voice for “Just one moment please” as he makes a phone call. His solitary office space is a small part of a life that is more accustomed to crowds and activity.
Much of that involves APC, a Pickering Church and charitable organization that also provides mentorship programs for boys and girls starting at age nine, as well as couples and family counselling.
Castro, the founder and pastor, grew up surrounded by people too, starting with his parents and seven siblings in St. Andrew’s, Jamaica. He smiles fondly while remembering the mischief and fun he and the other kids would get into together. There was no phone, Xbox, or Game Boys to keep them entertained, but that gave them an opportunity to create their own fun, he recalls.
His high school years were a different story, though, when he started to follow his own path.
“That’s where I hung out with some of the wrong people, just made some bad decisions privately, never was in any public issues with the law, but my surroundings were pretty dark,” he explains. By around 18 or 19, he began to feel unsettled with his lifestyle, as if he had explored every option and life had become boring. He was doing the same things over again without going anywhere.
“There was a deep sense of dissatisfaction, where the pleasure was not pleasurable anymore, the fun was not enjoyable anymore, and I just felt like I had enough,” says Castro. Around that time, he started going to church; something that has always been part of his family’s routine. After that, much of his life changed – but there are some things that have stuck with him.
A large part of his work as a pastor involves trying to reduce gun violence in the Greater Toronto Area.
“Several of the folks I ran with died from violent gun play issues,” Castro said, acknowledging that he could easily have been among the victims. “It’s an illegal weapon that can, with a simple pull of a trigger, change many life stories in adverse ways.”
Gun activity in the GTA is often blamed on gang activity and illegally purchased weapons, factors recognized as far back as 2007 in a research report published by Public Safety Canada. There were 462 shootings and firearms discharges in Toronto alone in 2020, according to the Toronto Police Service public safety data portal. Thirty-nine people died and 178 were injured.
For Castro, it’s important to advocate for a different lifestyle, and to help those in his community find alternatives to violence. But he knows it isn’t always easy to turn away from a life of crime.
“It can be pretty attractive,” he says. “Crime and violence and the immediate rewards of it can be powerful; it can have a lot of lucrative benefits.”
He urges those he comes across — whether perpetrators or victims of gun violence — to think long term.
“Don’t sell long term success for short term gratification,” he tells them.
Castro has mobilized members of his church to help in the mission. Mark Rowe, a minister at APC who works closely with Castro, believes using social media will help reach young people whose lives are being affected by gun violence.
“We’ve got to maximize our social media platforms to spread the message…whether you know someone, or you’ve been a victim yourself, to testify about it,” he said. The purpose?: “You’ll be able to make a difference.”
Rohan Green, a Sunday School teacher at APC and David Kerr, the youth pastor, are also involved with the work Castro does to tackle gun violence in the GTA, starting with the very young.
“One of the biggest things that I feel is the responsibility of a youth pastor is to help the next generation reach their maximum potential,” said Kerr.
Rohan, meanwhile, believes Sunday School is an important place to counter negative messages.
“Society often judges people’s failures publicly and harshly,” he said. “But it will not teach morality, so it’s imperative to have institutions which will instill morality into students.”
On a typical Sunday, congregants of all ages file into the Apostolic Pentecostal Church, filling hundreds of seats. Within minutes, Pastor Castro is running, jumping, screaming and shaking and it’s contagious. People are running through aisles, clapping and raising their arms in surrender to their God.
Shouts of, “Preach pastor!” or “Amen!” are thrown his way as the musicians on the organ and piano accompany his message.
Castro didn’t come to Canada with the intention of starting a church or playing a role in trying to reduce gun violence. It began small, in 1993, when he and his wife rented out a basement apartment in Pickering where they taught Bible studies.
The crowds and venues got larger over the years, moving to the latest location in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed the progress of some plans in the works, such as a community neighbourhood watch program and Living Green Community Gardens, a project being done in coordination with community organizer Michelle Francis. Entrepreneur mentorships and apprenticeship programs are also in the works.
As Castro reflects on why, with all there is to do, he is so focused on trying to curb gun violence, he recalls another moment in a church that has stayed with him — the time he conducted a funeral service for two young brothers who had been shot to death. They were buried in the same grave.
As he thinks back over his life, he reveals something else, something he says he hasn’t told anyone before: what would cause him to stop.
With a look of complete determination and an unwavering voice, Castro says: “The day that I walk into a building, whichever building that may be, and I can’t square my shoulders, take a breath and tell myself that this is a great moment. The day that I feel stale or ordinary about it, that’s when I’m quitting.”