By Nicole Moorefield
The call to ministry came when Matt LeRoy was 12 years old.
He realized he wanted to serve God while at church camp. His father led a church in Chapel Hill and grandfather was a pastor. It’s safe to say that ministry runs in the LeRoy bloodline.
As a shy kid, he says it seemed like the worst option for him. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had found his calling.
It’s a crisp Sunday morning in Coker Arboretum. A small crowd has formed, seated on folding chairs and blankets. Among the gathered are college students, families with children, people experiencing homelessness, business professionals and the occasional dog.
This is Love Chapel Hill.
After worship concludes, Dan LeRoy takes the microphone. He is guest-preaching in his son’s stead.
Midway through his sermon, he says something that makes the crowd grin. He’s explaining how he moved his family from the Bagley Swamp area to Chapel Hill to start a church.
“We thought we were coming here because God called us to plant that church,” Dan LeRoy says. “I think he called us here to get Matt here to Chapel Hill.”
LeRoy saw his father make that move as a 10-year-old and it gave him the confidence to start Love Chapel Hill years later.
The evolution of Love Chapel Hill
Growing up in Chapel Hill, LeRoy fell in love with the town.
He remembers walking down Franklin Street in high school with friends when he realized that the Varsity Theatre would be a great location for a church.
Before coronavirus struck, the Varsity was Love Chapel Hill’s regular meeting place.
But that’s not where it started.
Love Chapel Hill was born in Wilmore, Kentucky, at Asbury Theological Seminary. After completing undergrad in South Carolina, LeRoy headed to Asbury to continue his studies. He and his wife, Sarah, moved into one side of a duplex.
At the same time, Justin Simmons and his wife, Jeanine, moved into the other. The couples became friends, hosting movie nights and growing in their faith together.
It became clear that LeRoy and Simmons had complimentary gifts — LeRoy for teaching and Simmons for administration.
When LeRoy shared his vision for a church plant in Chapel Hill, Simmons could tell there was something special there. In 2008, he and Jeanine moved to Chapel Hill with the LeRoys to help bring the church to life. Today, Simmons is the executive pastor and “director of LOVE-gistics.
At its conception, Love Chapel Hill was four couples meeting by the Old Well.
“That was an intentional thing for us that we wanted to be out in the community, not closed in behind walls,” LeRoy says.
In October 2009, the church moved into the Varsity. At the heart of downtown Chapel Hill, LeRoy says the makeup of Franklin Street reflects the diversity of God’s kingdom.
That diversity remains to this day, with around 30 percent of churchgoers in college and 15 percent experiencing homelessness. However, LeRoy stresses the importance of Love Chapel Hill not having a college ministry or a homeless ministry
“We have a church family where everyone belongs,” he says.
LeRoy points back to scripture as the blueprint, noting that the disciples, despite being all Jewish men, came from very different walks of life.
Changes with the pandemic
He says both the best and hardest part of running Love Chapel Hill is building community amongst a diverse group of people, a challenge heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Love Chapel Hill decided to go online even before the governor mandated it.
“From the earliest days of the church, we know that we were meant to be sent out in the community,” LeRoy says. “If we don’t think we can be the church without meeting in one room together, then we’ve completely lost the definition of what the church is.”
In May, the church began to “regather” outside on Sundays, first in the Forest Theatre and then in Coker Arboretum.
The church also maintained its presence at the Varsity to serve members of the community experiencing homelessness, a group at additional risk for COVID. Every Sunday morning, members provided breakfast, masks and COVID education. In the winter, they ran warm clothing drives.
Demonte Fowlkes, who started attending Love Chapel Hill in 2015 after staying in a shelter, says Love Chapel Hill stands out for how the church cares for its congregation.
“When the pandemic hit and we weren’t having service, they would still come out and bring everybody McDonald’s food and coffee,” he says.
Fowlkes got to know LeRoy better by joining the set-up and tear-down crew on Sundays.
“If you actually get the chance to sit down and talk to him, he’s just a regular guy,” Fowlkes says. “But he has so much knowledge.”
Simmons says LeRoy stands out for his authenticity.
“The experience that everyone has with Matt, especially in that initial meeting, he’s going to give you the smile of a lifetime and it is the most real and genuine smile you could ask for,” he says.
LeRoy is also a father of twin boys, and Simmons says he is just as inspiring in that role.
Bob and Vicki Stocking, who attend Love Chapel Hill, expand on LeRoy’s gifts for fatherhood.
Vicki recounts a time when one of LeRoy’s sons was feeling anxious. LeRoy told him, “This is what you feel before you’re brave,” she says.
Bob highlights the discussions LeRoy has with his young sons on the ride to school every day.
“He uses the time in the car as almost like mini Sunday school,” Bob says, where they can ask each other questions. “He doesn’t want any wasted time with his kids.”
Sarah Propst, a graduate student at UNC, describes LeRoy as both personal and personable.
“He really seeks to get to know people, to remember their names and details about them that are important to create a personal relationship,” she says.
She also says she appreciates Love Chapel Hill’s choice to not have a college ministry because it has pushed her to get to know people outside of her own age group.
“It’s been a neat experience to almost be forced to become a part of the body of Christ throughout my undergrad, and then transitioning to grad school has been easier by having those connections with people who are not my same age.”
Joel Philbrook, the connections pastor, says it’s LeRoy’s humility that makes him different from other pastors.
“He’s a dynamic personality in all the good ways and still a very humble way,” he says. “He could be very popular if he chose to put emphasis on being popular. He doesn’t.”
Bob Stocking refers to it as “a total lack of ego.”
“Matt is so brilliant that if he decided at the beginning, I want to have a 10,000-person church with seven sites, I think he could have done that. But his call is to this community in this way.”
As they say every Sunday, “Our name is our mission: to love Chapel Hill with the heart of Jesus.” And Matt LeRoy is doing just that.
Edited by Sterling Roberts