Keeping Ethnic Diversity a Priority
When Scott Hagan planted Real Life Church in Sacramento in 2006, he intentionally sought out ethnically diverse congregants so that the church would “look like heaven.”
Dean C. Deguara became Real Life pastor in 2017 after Hagan became president of North Central University in Minneapolis. Deguara has carried on Hagan’s vision of a multiethnic church, and even built upon it.
Currently, the 750 people who regularly attend Real Life represent natives of 42 nations. Around half are Black, with contingents of Zambian, Ghanaian, Jamaican, Haitian, and African Americans a part of the congregation.
“Multiethnicity is a theological expression of the New Testament Church,” says the low-key Deguara, 52. “It is evident in the apostle Paul’s church planting strategy in Ephesus, where he targeted a major city knowing the gospel would be carried to the outer regions to different people groups.“
While thousands of Californians have fled the state in recent months for more economically friendly locales, that hasn’t stopped immigrants from moving to the nation’s most populous state. Dozens of adherents at Real Life are government employees. The church is located in the Natomas community 9 miles north of the state capitol.
The emphasis on diversity applies to the employees as well as the laypeople. A glance at Real Life’s staff webpage shows Deguara is one of only two white males on the 12-member team.
Damien Giacchino has been associate pastor for four years, after working bivocationally for a decade. He taught social and emotional skills to high school students as part of the nonprofit Sacramento Chinese Community Service Center.
He believes Real Life is the most diverse church in the city, ethnically and social-economically.
“The church is healthy because of its diversity,” says Giacchino, 38.
Giacchino, born to an African-American mother and Italian father, exemplifies the wide ethnic range found in the congregation. Just before Damien turned 1, his father was shot and killed in a never-solved robbery. Soon after Damien’s second birthday, his mother remarried a Hawaiian-Portuguese man.
Although his mother and stepfather raised him in a loving Christian environment, Damien felt disconnected in the blended family. Insecurities led to sexual promiscuity, dabbling in drugs and alcohol, and hanging out with unsavory types. He ended up serving 10 months in prison. At 19, he learned that he had a 2-year-old son.
Giacchino rededicated his life to Christ at 21, then obtained a bachelor’s degree in theology and a master’s in Christian counseling. He has been involved in ministry for 15 years.
He and his wife, Stacey, have been married for 12 years and have a 7-year-old daughter, Zoe, and 3-year-old son, Dominic. They also raised Damien’s now-adult son, Damien Jr., who is studying public health at Cal State Fullerton.
“My experiences, eclectic upbringing, and how God has restored my life allow me to relate to a wide range of people we have at the church,” Giacchino says. “Being able to communicate the mess I made with my life has turned into a message for others going through pain.”
Through their nonprofit Don’t Awaken Love Too Early, Giacchino and his wife now promote God’s redemptive plan for love, relationships, romance, and sexuality so young adults can experience freedom, healing, and transformation.
Jessie Armstrong has been on staff at Real Life since 2013, including the past four years as executive pastor. Armstrong, who formerly worked at Capital Christian Center, an AG megachurch in Sacramento, views the range of ethnicities as a chief strength of Real Life.
“Diversity attracts diversity, and the church is known for that,” says Armstrong, 43. “People who come to the church often say, ‘We knew you were diverse, but we didn’t know you were that diverse.’ We strongly reflect the makeup of the neighborhood.”
Meanwhile, Armstrong and Deguara says the government restrictions imposed in 2020 because of the pandemic helped Real Life clarify its mission. The church is strengthening relationships with civil leaders through community events. In a partnership with local schools and CityServe based in Bakersfield, Real Life distributed almost 3 million pounds of food over an 18-month stretch.
For more than a quarter century, Deguara has been involved in full-time ministry in the Golden State, launching congregations and serving on church staffs. He accepted Jesus at the age of 17 after a friend invited him to youth group at First Assembly of God in Fremont, a city in the Bay Area 105 miles southwest of Sacramento. Another 40 friends, including Deguara’s future wife, Amy, found salvation in Jesus in a revival that swept through their high school.
The Deguaras are the parents of Green Bay Packers tight end Josiah Deguara.
Real Life founder Hagan has continued to prioritize race relations as president of North Central University. Hagan also started Harvest Church in the Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove in 1989.
Lead Photo: The Real Life Church staff includes (from left) Dean Deguara, Jessie Armstrong, and Damien Giacchino.