Joshua Swanson: Justin Gambino is a Texas-based worship leader, recording artist, songwriter, and revivalist whose hope-filled anthems come from a place of incredible depth. We’re really excited to share his testimony on this episode of The Walk.
Here we go.
Justin Gambino: Hey y’all, my name is Justin Gambino and I live in a little town south of Houston. That town is Angleton, Texas. We’re about 38 miles south of Houston and I am a worship leader. songwriter, recording artist out of Texas. I am so happy to be here with you guys and telling you guys just a little bit about what God has done in my life over the last, really the last few years, but we’re going to back it up just a little bit.
We’re going to back it up all the way into my childhood and just kind of give you guys some context of what God has been doing in my life. You know, I was, I was raised in church my whole life. There was no sleeping in, in the Gambino household. Okay. There’s no sleeping in, especially on Sundays because Sunday mornings were, were days that we went to church every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday evening.
If there was something going on at the church, whether a service or youth group, or even youth camp, there was something going on at the church. You better believe it. The Gambino kiddos. were showing up and they were on time. And so my mom would tell you that at the age of five, I would show up to church with my Bible and I would strum on it like a guitar, play my Bible like an air guitar.
And I don’t, I can’t tell you why my parents thought it was a good idea to put me in piano lessons after they saw me strumming away on my Bible, but they decided to put me in piano lessons at the age of nine. And no offense to the piano players out there, but I did not like the piano one bit about two weeks into it.
I wanted to quit. I told my parents that I wanted to quit playing piano. And I think a really cool part of this story, something that my parents shared with me years later was the piano teacher pulled them aside and he, he said this to them, he said, he doesn’t know it. You may not know it. But the kid is gonna be a musician and whenever he finds his instrument I want you to nurture that and that was just at the age of nine fast forward to the age of 15 One of my best friends gets his first guitar And every time we did homeschooling together, and so every time I got to go over to his house, I would pick up his guitar and I had him teach me a new chord or a new strum pattern.
But there was a time whenever I only knew two chords and one strum pattern and drove my friend insane to the point to where he finally said, Listen, man, you’re going to have to learn something new because you’re driving me crazy. I said, well, teach me something new. And I think at one point… My friend complained to his mom.
This is kind of how I imagine it in my head. My friend complained to his mom. His mom came to my mom and said, maybe, maybe you should think about getting Justin a guitar. So at the age of 15, that Christmas. I got my first guitar ever, and I could not put it down, uh, made my fingers bleed I was playing the guitar.
Just any kind of free time that I got in my teenage years, I was practicing my guitar and getting plugged into the church youth group, the worship team at the youth group, and helping out lead worship for the fifth and sixth graders. I remember that very well. Also, at the same time, so that was at the age of 15, I noticed, you know, looking back now as I’ve been sharing this story more and more, I notice and I realized just how much the enemy was paying attention because here in this journey, this, this 15 year old kid gets his first guitar.
And the Lord is starting to mold this kid, leading worship and, and be on stage. And it’s right at the same time that the enemy steps in and starts introducing me to things that, you know, that really tripped me up at a young age. At the same age that I got my first guitar, I got my first job, because little Justin, 15 years old, wanted his driver’s permit.
And my parents said, hey, if you’re going to drive one of the cars, then you need to get a job. And that’s whenever I started getting introduced to, uh, introduced to the world, and got a little taste of the world, and realized that I liked it more than hanging out with my church friends. And at the early age of…
17, I started drinking before I was of age, uh, started partying with my friends, started getting addicted to alcohol, smoking, pornography, all those things, and just really tripped me up, started to trip me up at an early age. And before I knew it, I was hanging out with this group of friends so much. And now not only am I drinking, uh, smoking, having, having sex before marriage, all these things, partying on the weekends and put on a different mask on Sunday mornings, just still try to fit in with the church crowd too.
Whenever I’m living two separate lives, I was 18, hanging out with this group of friends so much that now we’re, we’re breaking the law and I find myself. For the first time ever, in a courtroom, getting judged for what I had done wrong, and that was theft.
Joshua Swanson: We’ll be right back with more from Justin. But first, we spent some time with Aaron Stewart, the co-founder of Planning Center, and we asked him, how does Planning Center continue to innovate and serve churches?
Aaron Stewart: So much of this, I think, comes down to the people that we hire. And so, when we’re hiring support agents, for instance, and people that are going to be helping customers, many of them… have been the planning center person at their church. So they come into the company with such knowledge and heart for how to help.
And so our product and support teams talk a lot together to sort of figure that kind of thing out. But from the actually planning the features that we’re going to do our product managers and even our development teams, we are looking for people that just Love technology and that are going to be looking at the new things and that are inspired.
So when we hire a product manager, one of our questions is like, what’s your favorite app that you’ve discovered recently? And why, like, I’m looking for people that are looking for like the most efficient way to be organized and that just like technology because so many of the people that we’re building products for, they don’t like technology.
They don’t understand it. They don’t want to get it, but they want to be organized and they want to be more efficient. Want it to work. They just want it to work. So, so our job is. Like I want people that are using other software. I want to be constantly inspired by the products that I use because when I’m using something that helps us manage our own stuff, it makes me want to make something beautiful for our people.
And it helps me see, Ooh, this technology is new. How can we do something like this? That’s going to empower our churches because I mean, as we saw, like in the pandemic, all of a sudden being digital was not an option that was already happening. Like the world is moving in that direction. And so if you aren’t connected online, eventually that’s going to be a big problem.
And it was in that pandemic and now it’s softened back again. But those are the kinds of things that like. We need to make sure that the church, like as people just have this expectation of, we can be connected in all these ways that we’re making that really easy for the church. And so making sure that we hire people that are thinking about that and us just always being on the lookout and making little changes and responding to what the customers say about those things is how we do
Joshua Swanson: that.
Planning centers, a set of software tools to help you organize information, coordinate events, communicate with your team and connect with your congregation. You can find out more about it at planningcenter. com.
Okay, back to Justin Gambino to close us out.
Justin Gambino: I’ll never forget the judge looking at me, looking for a record that didn’t exist. And he said, Justin, I’ve never seen you before. This is either your first offense, it’s definitely your first time getting caught, but what I would like for you to do is I’d like for you to tell me about yourself.
What is the home situation? So he started asking me these questions, this, this judge started asking me these questions like how many, how many siblings do you have? Are both your parents in the picture? Does mom and dad both work? What does that look like? So I started answering these questions and. I said, Judge, I’m one of six kids.
I’m right in the middle. My mom stays home and homeschools us all. And my dad works. He’s the one that brings in the income. And you could almost hear, you could almost see the gears turning in this judge’s head. He’s just quiet for a minute. And he says, Justin, this is what I’m going to do. You have a, you have a choice here today.
Leaving here today, out of this courtroom, you have a choice. One choice you have. is you can, you can go to jail today with a felony on your record that, that, that’ll be the end of today. You’ll go to the jail. You’ll probably serve a minimum of six months and you’ll, and you’ll be out and have a felony on your record.
But what I would like to offer you is I would like to offer you the opportunity to do a lot of community service. And when I say a lot, he said a lot. You’re going to do a lot of community service and I want you to get on the right path and I want you to join a branch of military service only if you’re willing to do this.
And I will, I will make this felony into a misdemeanor. If that sounds good to you, we can go that direction today. And I remember right off the bat, just thinking, man, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll take, I’ll take that opportunity. I’ll, I’ll join the military and I will do some community service because I know what, what, what I, what I did was wrong and it’s finally caught up with me.
And so just a couple months after I turned 18, here I am signing up for the military. I signed up. To be in the Navy for eight years, signed up as a U S Navy CB. And if any of you guys don’t know what a CB is, a CB is, um, we’re a construction battalion, a construction department of the Navy. And, uh, so I was actually in the Navy the whole eight years I was in, I never was on a ship, um, wherever the Navy SEALs or the Marines would be, we would always be on land, at least my battalion was, and we’d be, we’d be in support of those guys.
And so. 2005 was, was my, was my ship out date for bootcamp and did my bootcamp time and, and did the, uh, did my A school in California. And I came back to Texas to report to my battalion and it maybe was like two or three months into my, into my time with, with my battalion, my assignment about two or three months into that.
They say, Hey, we’re going to start getting ready to deploy to Iraq. Uh, they need our battalion a little bit south of Baghdad and, uh, we’re going to start preparing for that, start mobilizing. And so if you could imagine this, this guy now is 19, 20 years old. And just a couple of years before that, being in the military and shipping out to Iraq was not.
was not, uh, anywhere in my, you know, in my plans. Really did not plan for that. And, uh, but my choices and my decisions got me there. And so, here we are shipping out to Iraq in, in early 2007. And, you know, putting God on the back burner for a long time. And really walking away from the Lord, uh, put me in a really dark place because here I am shipping out to Iraq and I’m still dealing with all the things that I, all the addictions that I listed earlier.
And so about halfway through my deployment, I turned 21. This is where I look back now and I see this is where God really starts to get my attention. And so halfway through my deployment, it’s a Wednesday night. There was a USO tour, there was a country artist that was doing a concert for the troops, and all my buddies were gonna go to this concert, and I just feel, in my heart, I just feel like this nudge, this, this gentle hand guiding me to the church on base.
Like I said, it was on a Wednesday night, and so I show up at church, and I kid you not guys, there’s like… When I say the entire congregation was, you know, there, there was like 10 or maybe 12 of us in this little chapel in Iraq. And my first night there, the chaplain asks, does anybody here have experience playing guitar?
Or leading worship. And I’m looking around the room, no one’s raising their hand, including myself, because I’m thinking, no, I’m, my, my hopes and dreams of doing music is, that was out the window two years ago. I’m not going to raise my hand. You know, I still got another five years. Of, of, you know, six years, I think it was six years that I had left in my, in my contract with the Navy.
I’m thinking, no, I’m, I’m not, I’m not going to pick up the guitar and, you know, have this false hope enter into my mind, enter into my heart. Well, the next thing I know, the chaplain is looking at me because I’m raising my hand. I’m raising my hand. And the next thing I know, I’m calling my dad, I’m calling my father and asking him.
To ship me my only guitar all the way to Iraq. And the more and more I’ve been sharing this testimony, I’ve been wondering what the feelings were, what the emotions were. What the thoughts that were going through my dad’s head whenever he gets this call from his prodigal son that he’s been praying for.
Dad, there’s this, there’s this opportunity for me to lead worship in Iraq. Can you send me my guitar? And I’ve been sharing this testimony a lot. And about a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity. This, that question, you know, what were my, what were the thoughts going through? My father’s head, hearing his prodigal son’s voice over the phone.
And so I recently got to ask my dad this question and I asked him, I was just, I was just curious. I was wondering what, what were your thoughts? You know, now being on the other side of this, of this story. Um, and looking back, my dad said, well, I remember feeling as if I could finally exhale. Like I was just holding my breath, praying for you while you were over there.
Your mom and I both. That’s what he told me, and that was just such a beautiful moment how I got to, you know, ask my dad that I’m, I’m so thankful that that question didn’t pop up in my head and in my heart. Like, after my dad has gone to be with the Lord, I’m, I’m so thankful that I got the opportunity to ask him that.
But back to the story. So I’m leading worship in Iraq. And, you know, in our off time, I’m picking up the guitar and sharing it with my friends and a lot of my Navy buddies, they’re looking at me like, bro, why are you here? You’re not supposed to be here. You’re supposed to be doing music. You’re supposed to be, that’s obviously something that you’re passionate about.
Why don’t, why don’t you get out and just do that? And so. I came back from the tour in Iraq, uh, early 08, and I, I really thought that I could just leave all of the addictions, the, the issues that I, I brought with myself over there and they just followed me right back home. And not only that, but I started dealing with a lot of depression and anxiety, PTSD, a lot of really bad anger issues.
Around that time is whenever, uh, a mentor of mine invited me to a Bible study. On Friday nights, we called it Friday Night Live, and he almost asked me the same question that that chaplain asked me in Iraq. He said, Hey, can you get your guitar and can you help me lead worship on these Friday night Bible studies?
I think it would be really good for you. And I think it, I think it would really help you grow closer with God and, and have that fellowship with Him. So if you would do that, I would love for you to come and lead worship. And so every Friday night I would show up at this Bible study and I would lead worship.
And that’s whenever I really started writing songs for the Lord. And that was, um, 2009, 2010, um, got out of the Navy, finished my reserve time and a friend of mine that I was actually working with. Now this is a time whenever I’m still. I’m writing music, right, but I’m also working a full time job and I’m, I’m kind of exiting out of the military at this time, doing reserve time.
When I say reserve time, I mean, I was doing like one week in a month in active reserve and, uh, maybe like two weeks out of the year I would, I would, you know, report for duty and, and, uh, you know, just kind of finish out my contract that way. And so, it was another Wednesday night, I was at work. And a friend of mine invited me to a, a recording studio, him and his friends would, would hang out, uh, at every
Justin Gambino: Wednesday night.
And so that’s whenever I really heard from the Lord and the Lord said, Justin, I want you to do music. This is what I want you to do. I’ve been putting that guitar back in your hand time and time again. And now, now. I, I, I want you to do this full-time. And so fast forward to 2015, I quit my job and I start doing music full time. I’m married for two years at this point to my beautiful wife, Ashley. We got married in 2013. So 2015, the Lord tells me to quit my job. And I tell the Lord, I said, listen, Lord, if you want me to quit my job, you have to tell Ashley too, because what is it, what is it going to sound like whenever I say the Lord told me to quit my job and do music full time.
But thank the good Lord that he was speaking to her too. And so around the time that he was putting that on my heart to quit my job, she was telling me the same thing. She said, I think it’s time for you to quit your job and, and do this full-time.
So, in 2015, quit my job and I start diving into music full-time.
I, I use the term blowing and going. I just hit the ground running, released my first song, my first single and in, in 2015 and just started walking through any door that opened up, whether it was opened by my hand or the Lord’s hand. And so the snowball effect started happening. I’m just going through the motions, checking the boxes.
And day in day out just grinding in the music industry. And so 2020 comes around and we, we all know, we all know what happened in 2020. That is a year that I will never forget because I can honestly tell you that I needed that season in my life.
That the pandemic brought it really taught me how to be still because I did not know how to be still before then, even though I was raised in church and learned about Jesus and, you know, just this fellowship with God and, you know, and, and, and trusting him.
And I, I would, I would say that that was just like everything before 2020, it was just like, it was like a habit that I fell into. It was like a, a pit of complacency that I fell into just going through the motions and checking the boxes. So here I am in 2020 about to go on the the biggest tour that I’d ever been that I was ever gonna be on I was gonna go to like six different countries and and I was about to release this EP called anchored and really challenge people and ask people like what do you what anchors you and And and where do you find your hope?
And little did I know that in March, 2020, I was, I was about to find out just how much I did not know how to be still in the midst of chaos and I was not anchored in him. And so I’m, I’m finding myself sitting on my front porch more often than I’d like drinking coffee, sitting on my front porch. Don’t get me wrong y’all.
I love, I love sitting on my front porch at home and drinking coffee, but this was more often than I would have liked. And I was really frustrated at this time. I knew that God had called me to do music, but now I’m, I’m just sitting and, and just twiddling my thumbs and not knowing what was next. And just this real, this season of uncertainty and frustration. I remember asking the Lord, like, Lord, what’s going on? I know that you called me to do this music, but now I feel like I’m just stripped from these opportunities, you know, these opportunities to share, uh, share your love and your hope and, and, and share the gospel with people through this music. And one thing that I kept on seeing in my spirit, whenever I was sitting on my front porch, I saw my face.
In between these two lines, these two, I kind of saw them as like these walls, these barriers that were, that were just kind of surrounding my face. I would see this in my, in my spirit. And I’d tell the Lord, yeah, God, I just kind of feel like. That’s exactly how I feel. I feel like I just can’t go left. I can’t look left.
I can’t go right. I can’t look right. I feel like I’m just surrounded by these walls, these barriers that are preventing me from going anywhere. And he said, Justin, you’re, you’re looking at it all wrong, son. And it took me a few days. I just kept coming back to the front porch and meeting him there. And after a few days of seeing this image in my spirit, could see my face in between these two lines, these walls, these barriers.
I almost looked at it as like a pause symbol, if you can kind of imagine that. And whenever he told me to look again, the next thing I saw was these two lines transform into his hands that were just closing in on my face. And in that moment he said, son, I just, I just want to hold you. I just want to spend some time with you.
And you’re moving, you’re moving so fast. I’ve, I’ve, I’ve been right here in this place and I’ve been wanting to, to spend time with you and, and talk with you and I just want to hold you. I want to let you know that everything’s going to be okay. And I got you. And that, y’all, that just really, really moved my heart in that season.
Later on in 2020, I finally get back on the road. Thankfully, there were some churches and some pastors that said, Hey, we’re going to do an outdoor service. If you, if you can get here, get here. I didn’t write any songs. Most of 2020, just because I felt so discouraged. I remember sitting in someone’s backyard, I was on the road, it was September.
I was sitting in someone’s backyard, had the next two weeks cancel on me. The next two weeks of events canceled on me. So there’s loss of income, there’s, I’m 2,000 miles from home. I remember sitting in someone’s backyard, Northern California, and I said, Lord, all the things that are going on, I just, I don’t know, I, I, I, I want to just spend some time with you here in this moment.
Cause I don’t know what to do next. And I don’t know what’s coming next. And one thing that the Lord told me in that moment, he said, Justin, what I want to tell you is whenever you don’t spend time with me, it breaks my heart. And whenever he said that to me, y’all, I knew that there was something wrong because that did not affect me.
That didn’t, that did not, that did not break my heart. Whenever he said, when you don’t spend time with me, it breaks my heart. And I, I remember sitting there and I said, okay, I know that my heart is calloused. I know that there’s something off with me because that did not, it didn’t affect me at all. And I remember telling the Lord, I said, I’m, I got two weeks, God, I got two weeks.
These next two weeks of events are gone. So I’m gonna sit here and I’m gonna wait until I feel the full effect of your heart of your broken heart And in that moment is when I and I wrote the title track off my new record It’s called made new but fast forward a couple weeks later. I’m now in Salt Lake City.
I’m sitting in my van I just got done leading worship at this church in Salt Lake City Sitting in my van and the Lord speaks to me very clearly. He said, Justin, I want you to now go home and I want you to do a night of worship, a night of revival for your hometown. And I said, all right, Lord, I’m all game.
Let’s do this. Where is the venue? What’s the venue going to be? He said, the courthouse. I said, forget it. You’re gonna have to tell me more than once because I have bad memories at the courthouse. I don’t want to go back to that courthouse. You’re gonna have to pick a, a different venue, Lord. Whew. You didn’t want to be in my shoes, I felt like I was stomping my spiritual foot. I was like, Nope. You’re gonna have to pick a different spot, Lord. And the Lord said, Justin, it’s gonna have to be at the courthouse. And so I, I tried, I tried to, uh, I tried to argue with the Lord a little bit. Did not work out. I lost that. I lo I lost that argument.
And, uh, I had to go back to the same exact courthouse that I was judged at just 16 years prior and reconnect with the people that remembered me from my, my teenage years. And, the crazy thing is, is that the judge, The judge me, remembered me, his brother, who is now the acting county judge, he remembered me.
And so it was just like, I mean, if I can be totally honest with you, it felt, I felt like another, I felt like 18 years old again, going, going up and getting judged. Fast forward to 2020, that’s the night we did the revival on the grounds of the courthouse. It had to be a socially distanced event. Where people parked across the street and we would, me and my band, we would, we would lead worship, uh, from across the street on this stage.
I remember looking over my right shoulder, uh, the drummer of the band, his name’s Joshua, he lives in Philadelphia.
And I remember looking over my right shoulder at Joshua and…The guy is weeping while he is laughing while he’s not missing a beat. I remember seeing the joy, the, the vulnerability, the, the surrender in his eyes.
And for a second it, it was like I was looking through the lens of a camera where Joshua is in focus and what’s behind him is blurred out. And then, real quickly, Joshua becomes… All blurred out, and what comes into focus is the courthouse. And in that moment, the Lord said, Justin, the same plan I had for you then at 18 years old is the same plan that I have for you now.
The only difference is, is that I have your full attention now. And I’ve been tugging on your heart. I tugged on your heart in 07 when I put the guitar back in your hands. I tugged on your heart whenever, whenever you started leading worship at that Bible study. I started gently pulling you closer. In 2015, whenever you quit your job, I pulled you really close in 2020, whenever, whenever everything slowed down and I knew that I could get your attention.
But now, on this stage, December 12th, 2020, I have your undivided attention. December 9th of this year will be our fourth annual Brazoria County Revival, and I gotta tell you guys, it has been, the last three years, even though I was raised in church my whole life. I can honestly sit here talking to you through this microphone and say that December 12th, 2020 was a personal revival for Justin because of the loving God that relentlessly pursued.
He relentlessly pursued me. Until I had, I couldn’t run anymore. And I don’t, I don’t know where you’re at. I’m sitting over here getting choked up and I can’t even see an audience. I’m just talking to a microphone, but I know that I’m talking to some people out there that are, are a prodigal son or daughter, or you might have a prodigal son or daughter in your family and you’re praying for them.
Like my parents were praying for me. I want to encourage you. You see, the beautiful thing about the father’s house, I don’t know how familiar you guys are with, with the story of the prodigal son, but when that father saw his son from a long way off, he ran to him. There was no hesitation on the father’s end.
And what a beautiful, beautiful way that Jesus just paints this picture in this parable. Or the father’s love for his son and his daughter. I felt like whenever I was on that stage, that’s whenever I made that turn towards the father’s house. Oh, one scripture that comes to mind as we, as we close up this, this, this episode.
It’s Exodus 14, 14. I will, I will fight for you. I need you only to be still. And I think that’s one of the hardest things. Whenever I read that scripture, I hear the Lord telling me, Justin, I’m going to fight for you. I need you only to do the thing that is the hardest thing for you to do. I need you to be still.
If you’re a prodigal, the father’s calling, he’s calling you home. And if you’re home, stick around because the fellowship with the fathers, it’s, Just a beautiful thing. God bless you guys.
I love y’all.
Joshua Swanson: Thank you, Justin, for sharing your incredible testimony. What would it look like if everyone who listened to this episode decided to throw an annual revival in their hometown? Just a thought. We’re gonna close out this episode with a song Justin released in 2022 that felt appropriate for this episode. It’s called Courage.
Special thanks to Jacob Fairclough who produced our theme song The Walk is brought to you by worship leader I also want to thank the team at Life Audio for their partnership If you go to life audio. com, you’ll find a collection of faith-centered podcasts about health and wellness Parenting current cultural events bible teachings and more so check them out at life audio.com I’m Joshua Swanson. Here’s Courage.