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Randall Zimmerman was born in Minocqua, a small town in northern Wisconsin. The youngest of four kids -- he has one sister and two brothers -- he had a Leave it to Beaver childhood complete with homemaker mother. The family was close-knit, and they spent weekends fishing and boating on the lake their house faced. When Zimmerman was ten, his family moved to Sheboygan Falls, another quaint Wisconsin town. Just before his freshman year in high school the family moved again, this time to Madison, where his dad was transferred for his engineering job at the regional telephone company.
Although Zimmerman had a fairly secular upbringing -- he describes his family as "nominal Roman Catholic" -- he became intrigued by religion during college. While studying philosophy at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he took a course on early Christian writings and caught the Jesus bug. He went abroad to study for a year, but when he returned, he decided to transfer to the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and pursue a bachelor's degree in religious studies. To Zimmerman, Jesus's message was all about helping the downtrodden, and he did his best to do that. He was a big brother to a boy who lived in Cabrini Green, a housing project notorious for its gang violence and drug dealing, and he volunteered at various homeless shelters throughout the city. He also met Carol, his future wife, who participated in much of the community service with him.
But Zimmerman had no intention of going into the ministry. He planned to become a religious studies professor, and after he and Carol were married, in 1988, they moved to Colorado so he could attend Denver Seminary and earn a master's degree in religious philosophy. Before he could graduate, he had to complete a nine-month service internship. Fellow seminarian Robert Strauch encouraged Zimmerman to spend it at Grace Chapel, a non-denominational church in Englewood where he led a high school youth group.
Zimmerman quickly discovered that he had a talent for relating to kids. Adolescents were instantly comfortable with his easygoing demeanor and non-judgmental way. But he and Paul Barnes, senior pastor and founder of Grace Chapel, clashed over philosophy. "The church was very much about teaching people to take the Bible literally, but I don't believe there's a hell," Zimmerman says. "I never tried to teach kids what to think, but how to think."
Parents liked him, though, and when a full-time job opened up for a middle-school pastor, they embarked on a letter-writing campaign to get him hired. With no choice but to heed his flock, Barnes offered Zimmerman the job in 1991. Over the next couple of years, Zimmerman began reaching out to troubled kids. He encouraged those who attended church with their parents to bring their friends. Many of those who came had strained parental relations, and Zimmerman and Carol, a schoolteacher who volunteered a lot of her time with the youth group, became father and mother figures to them.
The Zimmerman household had an open-door policy: homeless kids could stay there, and Randy and Carol could be reached 24 hours a day. A teenage girl who had turned to prostitution after running away from an abusive home once called Zimmerman at midnight; a friend of hers had been mugged, and although she had escaped unscathed, she was alone and scared on Colfax. Zimmerman drove from his Littleton home to get her, and she stayed with him and Carol for two weeks. A sixteen-year-old boy who was estranged from his family lived with the Zimmermans for nine months.
"He did everything for me as a kid, and he saved my life a few times," says another youth group member, Courtney Henrich, now 22. "My grandfather died in 1992, and my dad moved to Michigan after that. I didn't have anyone, and a friend asked me to come to church, where I met Randy."
Henrich had had a rough childhood -- her mom was an alcoholic, and her dad was rarely around -- and she battled depression. Whenever she was on the verge of suicide, which was often, it was Zimmerman who talked her out of it. "Randy opened my eyes to accepting myself for who I was," she says. "I actually got to be a kid for once in youth group."
It was also Zimmerman to whom she turned when she needed someone to confide in about having been molested as a kid. She phoned him at home many times in the middle of the night, and her calls were always welcome. Like a lot of the youth group kids, Henrich stayed in touch with Zimmerman long after they both left Grace Chapel. "He was always looking out for us kids," says Henrich, who is now a substitute teacher at a Breckenridge daycare center.
One of those kids was Mary (not her real name). Zimmerman met her when he was an intern and she was in eighth grade. She attended Grace Chapel with her parents and quickly entrusted Zimmerman and other youth leaders with her personal problems. For example, Mary told him that a baseball coach had abused her when she was eight years old.