By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
SWEDESBORO – Rev. Damon Dukes and his wife Shanna sat at an Italian restaurant in Haddonfield in 2014 to put on paper what God had placed on their heart months – even years – before.
The pastor and first lady of RockLife Church in Swedesboro filled a notebook of ideas and visions that would eventually become their ministry.
“We sat in that booth for 4 ½ hours,” Dukes told Front Runner New Jersey.com. “We had a yellow notepad and we filled it up from front to back. Actually the Lord did it all. I wish I could take credit for it, but I can’t.”
From those humble beginnings, RockLife celebrates its first anniversary this month at its new location in the Pureland Industrial Complex in Swedesboro. It’s a short drive from the Holiday Inn Swedesboro, where they started their church in 2014 with six people attending.
Now averaging about 150 per service and growing ministries that are reaching out into the Gloucester County and beyond, Dukes said the church continues to root itself into the community.
One of its largest events, the Grace Girls Closet, happens May 2 where those in the community and beyond can shop for free boutique-style through more than 2,500 donated items at the Holiday Inn Swedesboro. The event is just one of the ways the RockLife is giving back to the community.
“We’re still a small church,” Dukes said of RockLife. “It is a walk of faith. We knew the Lord was involved with it. The things I’m grateful for is that it started with just me and my wife. We knew we were called and the Lord took care of it from there.”
The church’s current location is its second at Pureland. It doubles the 6,000 square feet RockLife held services and its ministries in before. The ideas scrawled on the pages of that notepad the Dukes created in 2014 became their Vision 2020 plan, a handout every new member receives when they arrive at RockLife.
The hugs and greeting among members and newbies and free meals the first of the month at the church makes RockLife feel more like a family reunion than a church service. Dukes said that is all by design following the church’s motto: “A Culture of Love Through the Character of Christ.”
What led the Dukes to that faithful day inside that Haddonfield restaurant started with a teenage love story that evolved into the love for Christ. They were high school sweethearts, when he attended Howell H.S. and she attended Marlboro H.S., set up by a friend. Shana Dukes would go on to Boston University where she earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration and minor in finance.
Damon Dukes attended community college and then transferred to Northeastern University, a few miles from Boston University. He would go on to earn his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice there.
“From there, we maintained our relationship, except for probably a six-month stint because we were mad at each other,” Dukes said with a laugh. “But we got back together with each other and we’ve been together ever since. We’ve been married for 16 years now and I can’t tell you how thankful I am.”
Dukes calls his relationship with his wife – whether involving the church or personally – priceless.
“There is actually no other word,” Dukes said of his wife. “Whether it’s doing business, anticipate your needs, thoughts, being proactive, how you’re feeling, all little intricates, you wish you had someone who knew what was going on inside of you. I had that all of my adult life.”
That teamwork has continued in the ministries and helping lift up new leadership in the church. While Shana Dukes has led the growth of the Grace Girls women’s group and their signature event in May, Pastor Dukes has been tapped as chaplain of the Logan Township Police Department.
The church’s Two 4 Life marriage conference has grown quickly in the few years of its existence. Dukes said the first one consisted of he and his wife along with four other couples.
“The next seminar, we had 12 couples,” Dukes said. “The next one we had 28 couple and the last one we had 42. This upcoming Two 4 Life, we are going to probably have 60 couples.”
He said he was excited about the growth of its girls mentorship program, Daughters of the King, and boys mentorship group. Dukes said he was pleased with a financial youth seminar that attracted 42 young people on a Saturday.
“That was really awesome,” Dukes said, who added that growth could be seen throughout all of its ministries. “They were able to get specific material on how they can make money and what to do with it. We have regular leaders and workers meetings at the church. You’d be surprised how many people don’t get that type of training at work.”
Dukes said the church is now taking its Vision 2020 plan and they are now developing a vision for the next five years. He said he is already seeing new leaders emerge from the congregation to play a bigger role in the church.
“It touches my heart to see people come to the church and I can see more in them,” Dukes said. “From a pastoral standpoint, you can see a whole different person in them in months. You can see the faithfulness of God working in them, but it is also where the church is.”
Seeing The Future
Dukes said he would like to see the church save up enough money to purchase land to build its own church or purchase a building they can call their own.
Along with his bachelor’s degree, Dukes attended Living Faith Bible Training Center and became a licensed minister in 2012. It was a series of promotions while he worked in the mortgage industry that brought the Dukes to Maryland and then back to the South Jersey.
He now serves RockLife as its fulltime pastor. Shana Dukes, who started her professional career on Wall Street later earned a master’s degree in elementary education and now teaches fourth grade at a school in Delaware. She also sits on the board of Diaspora Women for Change, a nonprofit that addresses violence and abuse against women and children in the United States and Liberia.
The couples’ sons are part of the ministry as well. Damon Jr. is a freshman at Kingsway Regional High School and one of few first-year athletes participating on the varsity track team. Dillon is a Superintendent’s List honor student at Kingsway Regional Middle School in the eighth grade.
“Damon had such a great season last summer during AAU that me made the varsity track team,” Dukes, speaking as a proud father. “Dillon was just approved for a business leadership program at Kingsway. He said he wants to go to Harvard and is set on that.”
Dukes said when he and his wife left their old church, they were intent to cultivating a new congregation rather than poaching members from their old congregation.
“Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way”
“We didn’t want to be like other churches when [a minister left to start another church] he would take half the congregation with him,” Dukes said. “Every place I looked I felt that something wasn’t right. We needed up at the Holiday Inn Swedesboro because it was the most local place, most professional, clean and nice venue to accommodate a church.”
It didn’t take long for RockLife to outgrow that facility and make the first move to Pureland. Now as the church returns to the Holiday Inn for its May 2 Grace Girls Closet, Dukes was reflective over the past six years.
“This area is a tough nut to crack,” Dukes said. “You have a group of people who have been part of a local church for a long time and they will tell you that’s their church. There’s another group who has been un-churched if you have to get them acclimated to being part of a church. You know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way. The Lord has truly blessed all of us and we didn’t have to hurt anyone or any other ministry to do it. I can’t tell you how grateful to be where we are right now.”
The Dukes continue to share their love with the congregation and community to spread God’s message. Grace Girls Closet is just one more example.
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