Pastor Joe explores life of discovery

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of a series of Saturday profiles of area residents and their stories. To suggest a profile, contact features editor Burton Cole at bcole@tribtoday.com.

To the congregations of Believers Church in Warren and Boardman, he is known simply as Pastor Joe. It’s his brand. You could attend Believers Church for a month of Sundays without ever hearing or knowing that his real name is Joe Cameneti Sr.

As a young man in his early 20s, Cameneti was hardly the pious Pastor Joe his congregation knows today.

“I was doing drugs and drinking all the time,” he said. “Yes sir. I was doing a lot of terrible things. I was stealing stuff and selling it. I was living in great darkness.”

Cameneti’s soul, it seems, had long been the object of a spiritual tug-of-war.

As a Catholic altar boy, Cameneti knew he was destined to achieve something special.

“The priest, Father Crumley, once said to me, ‘You have a call on your life.’ I sensed even then that I was called to serve God, but I couldn’t fit it into that box.”

Cameneti hoped to get married one day and that, of course, posed a dilemma.

“A priest was something I could never be, so I just pushed the whole idea away.”

When he was 18, Cameneti’s brother accidentally drowned. He said he blamed God for it and stopped going to church.

“God, why did you do it?” he cried in anguish and anger. “Why did you allow this to happen?”

He said that is when he walked away from God.

With his addictions running wild, Cameneti was also running a business in Boardman (he initially skipped college after graduating from Howland High School). It was called the Steel Valley Barbell Club. Bodybuilding was his passion. One night, he said, that all changed.

As he recalled it, “A guy named Lou paid me to train him. He kept telling me about Jesus. At first, I made fun of him. I ridiculed him. But he kept telling me about Jesus. He wouldn’t let up. One day, Lou called and told me to turn the TV on in my office. So, I did. It was a one-hour Christian show. At the end, the preacher gave an altar call. He said, ‘If you want to accept Jesus, pray with me.’ I kneeled right there in my office and prayed with him in front of that TV and at that moment the dark clouds departed and the light turned on.”

Cameneti said he tossed all his pornographic books and magazines in the trash, flushed his stash of marijuana down the toilet and broke the pipe he’d smoked it in. He said he turned his life around that night and never turned back.

For three years, Cameneti attended Warren Christian Assembly Church on Tod Avenue. One day he spotted an advertisement for a Bible school on the back of a book someone had given him. “I felt immediately that I should go,” he said. “So off I went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to attend Raymond Bible Training Center.”

Upon graduating, Cameneti received an offer from the church he had been attending in Tulsa to serve as its executive pastor. He felt like he wasn’t supposed to take that position. He had become engaged to another student at the school, a young lady from Chicago named Gina Cappiello.

“The more I prayed, the more I felt like I was supposed to come back to Trumbull County and start a church. God was dealing with my heart. So, in 1983 I came back to Warren with Gina. I was just 24 years old.”

With only $300 to his name and no marketing skills at all, Cameneti rented the old McGuffey School on Tod Avenue. He placed one small ad in the newspaper to advertise his new church. One hundred adults showed up for the first service.

Engaged to Gina and hoping to start a family one day, Cameneti took a leap of faith. “I was too young to worry about failing. It never crossed my mind. I had no kids. I was living with my parents and Gina was living with my grandma. I had nothing to lose.”

The monthly rent and utilities for McGuffey School totaled $8,000. Somehow — rather miraculously, he said — he made a go of it for more than four years.

The early 1980s saw the rise of a new kind of church with a new kind of music. Traditional Protestant services no longer appealed to young Christians born and raised in the 1960s. Cameneti’s vision for Believers Church was right in line with this new style of worship.

“I wanted the church to be culturally relevant,” he said, “I broke a lot of molds. We had outstanding modern music for that day, and I taught the Bible conversationally, just as I still do now. I did a hundred million things wrong, but God’s grace was upon us.”

A Believers Church service is the antithesis of traditional Protestant and Catholic church services. It is, in fact, non-denominational.

There are no formal rituals. No stained-glass windows. There is no pipe organ, no choir loft and no pulpit. There is, instead, a rock band performing contemporary Christian hits. Pastor Joe wears blue jeans instead of a robe. Sound and video engineers record every service on a state-of-the-art production suite.

Live-streaming technology has made it possible for Believers Church to expand its reach far beyond the confines of its Schenley Avenue home base. Again, Cameneti’s vision was in step with the times.

“Not only do we broadcast our services on television, we also live stream them right onto the internet. It’s amazing technology,” Cameneti said.

A year ago, the church established a “video campus” in Boardman with a direct video feed from the Warren campus. Pastor Graham Cathers conducts the service there, with Pastor Joe delivering his sermon on large screen monitors within the Boardman sanctuary on Western Reserve Road. Between the two campuses, Believers Church now has more than 2,500 members.

Cameneti explained that “Video campuses are happening all over nation and all over the world. There is a church in Alabama now with 20 video campuses and an average collective congregation of 40,000 every weekend. We definitely want to launch more Believers Church video campuses.”

Live streaming also allowed the church to establish a video campus at the Trumbull Correctional Institute a year ago.

“We have a group of guys go in to hold worship with the inmates, who then watch my sermon on video monitors. The prison allows that and that’s pretty awesome,” Cameneti said.

However far Believers Church may eventually extend its reach, Warren will always be its home. Cameneti is quite clear about that. “I’m here for the long haul. I’ve been here 36 years now, pastoring believers, and I have no intention of ever leaving until I retire. My kids feel a heart and a call for Warren, too. We love this community.”

Summing up the vision of Believers Church, Cameneti said, “We exist to see a city connected with God by helping people know God, find freedom, discover purpose, and make a difference.”