Kingdom Life Christian Church, which held services at the Stratford Ramada Inn before growing into a congregation several thousand people strong, will celebrate its 25-year anniversary next week.
The church is not small by any means, with about 2,000 parishioners and once as many as 3,000, plus 23 properties including a spacious cathedral on Naugatuck Avenue. But it did indeed start out small.

Church Founder Bishop Jay Ramirez, who wasn’t a bishop then, and his wife, Jeannine, came to Milford from Texas. He’d done marketing for Eastman Kodak and was a paramedic in New York; she was a respiratory therapist. He’d gotten involved in a church youth group in Texas, and it grew so large he realized he’d found his calling — ministry.

That calling led the young couple to Milford to work with an existing church, but things didn’t work out, and they found themselves on their own.

“A small group said, ‘We’ll follow you,” Ramirez recalled, explaining that he had a vision for a multi-cultural church that “never put down another religion, and brought older and younger people together” because that, in his mind, “is what heaven looks like.”

With about 20 followers, his new non-denominational church rented space at a small church in Stratford, and then moved to the Stratford Ramada Inn in 1991. Ramirez and Jeannine were living in a condominium in Devon with their two young daughters, and Ramirez recalled, “Those were tough days.”

Some people called him a visionary and others called him a fool as he led his fledgling church. “New England is considered a preacher’s graveyard, unless you’re Catholic,” Ramirez said.

Jeannine was “amazing,” he said. “Most wives would have panicked.”

In 1992 the church made its first big step into the public eye when it moved into an old Devon school building, renovated it and turned it into Kingdom Life Christian Church. Ramirez said he was walking down the street one day and saw a sign that had blown over. He picked it up and saw a notice that the old school property was available.

Money was tight but he worked out a deal, and it wasn’t long before he was telling his congregation, which had grown to about 50 people, that they needed to raise $60,000 to renovate the building.

“One person sold their second car; people did all kinds of things to raise the money,” Ramirez said.

With a building of its own and a pastor described by many as charismatic, the church grew. And it kept growing.

In 1994, the non-denominational church opened a bookstore in Devon, then a resource center; in 2000 the church bought the old Sante’s Manor, also on Naugatuck Avenue, and renovated the building into its new sanctuary; in 2003 the church joined a city fight against pornography shops and bought a building to rid it of a porn shop. The church opened Joseph’s Storehouse to house furniture to distribute to the needy. Ministries blossomed and expanded.

Ramirez said he had a solid plan for growing a church: Don’t live on credit, pay your bills, put money back into the church and run your church like a business, but with a  compassionate eye. Still he didn’t expect the church to grow so large and so fast. Church attendance peaked at 3,000 members: Ramirez said an exodus from the state of Connecticut has brought that down to about 2,000, still a healthy number.

“I was the most shocked person in the world,” Ramirez said. “I was an athlete, I did martial arts and worked as a paramedic.

“I’d like to say I was brilliant, but it just happened,” he added. “It is amazing. I give God so much credit.”

He also credits the people who worked with him in those beginning years to found the church, and the pastors and church members who support it today.

There were difficulties along the way. As the church grew and began buying properties — which Ramirez says now help sustain the church — people became suspicious. When the church sought to buy a large parcel of land where the old Jai Alai was located, the city stepped in and stopped the sale, buying the site and then reselling it for the Lowe’s development. Then-Mayor James Richetelli said it had nothing to do with Kingdom Life or Ramirez: The city just wanted to keep the property on the tax rolls.

Still, some people did point a finger at this burgeoning church. Ramirez, who holds a master’s degree in theology, said for a while he would respond, and even go out of his way to offer proof of the good work the church was doing, like cleaning graffiti at the beach, forming youth groups, visiting third world countries to help the impoverished — he made it a point to tell people that even though the church owned many properties, they paid taxes on a number of them. Recently that was up to $73,000 a year in taxes, and the church recently added another $5,500 in taxes when it turned a church-owned building into a dance school.

But after a while Ramirez said he decided to stop fighting an image war and let the church’s merits stand on its own.

Money helped the church grow, and Ramirez credits solid, transparent management and generous parishioners. Many parishioners give 10% of their earnings to the church, but Ramirez said the church doesn’t force the tithing on its members.

Good fortune also helped the church grow, he said.

“When we bought the cathedral, a person gave us a large gift of stocks and it doubled,” Ramirez said.

The church made a considerable amount of money with that donated stock.

The church used technology to get its message out, broadcasting services and now streaming them.

“I’m a moron where technology is concerned,” the bishop said jokingly, noting that the church employs about 30 people. “But there are smart people all around me.”

He realized that technology was one way to bring young people into the church and to keep them there. Some of the services are almost concert like, with theatrical lighting.

“We’re not here to entertain, but the young people love it,” he said.

At year 25, Ramirez looks to the next 25. He said he’s spending a little less time at the helm, preparing younger church members to lead so that he knows the church will survive even when he’s not there.

Official founding day is May 26, and the church will be celebrating May 25 through May 29. On Wednesday, May 25, at 7:30 p.m. there will be Praise and Worship, with video and testimonies from founding members and founding pastors.

On Friday at 7:30 p.m. there will be a free concert with Trent and Keisha Cory. Doors open at 7 p.m.

A celebration service will be held Sunday, May 29, at 10 a.m.

“Sort of low key,” Ramirez said, adding, “It’s been an honor to serve our community all these years.”