IRVINGTON, N.J. (AP) — A former heroin addict who turned to religion and became a prominent pastor after he was released from prison was found dead Friday in the church where he preached and ministered to those who walked in his shoes.

A family member found the Rev. Ron Christian inside the Christian Love Baptist Church, the Essex County Prosecutor's office said. Foul play was not suspected, but officials were awaiting autopsy results to determine the cause and manner of death.

Christian, 51, was a prison guard who battled heroin addiction before he lost his job and was sentenced to prison in 1996 for theft. Upon his release in 1997, he joined a church in Newark where his father, a retired pastor, was working.

He decided to follow in his father's footsteps and became a minister, which led him to this community where drugs and violence are daily problems. He became pastor of Christian Love Baptist Church in 2000. The church, which had just a dozen members, has since grown to a congregation of 6,000.

One of those congregants was Shalga Hightower, who met Christian after her daughter, Iofemi, was killed along with two other college-bound friends in a Newark schoolyard in 2007 in a crime that made national headlines.

Hightower called Christian "an awesome man of God" who helped her through the difficult times after her daughter's death, which included a period of homelessness.

"He was there for me through my ups and downs," she said. "He was my best friend, my confidant, my mentor. Just a giving, loving person."

He was known for being a pastor to whom wanted murderers, drug dealers and other criminals could turn: Christian would encourage them to do what was right and turn themselves in.

"Regardless of how incorrect or how bad the circumstance was, there needs to be a place where you are honest with God," he told The Star-Ledger in 2008.

In a statement, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. said Christian's energetic sermons, dynamic personality and kind words inspired everyone he met. "It didn't matter who you were because Rev. Ron welcomed people from all walks of life into his church and into his own life," he said.

Christian is survived by his wife and five children.