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A new worshiping community for people who have been hurt by the church

Emerge, an NCW in Florida, restarts in-person worship Saturday

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Jeremy and Charlie Russo, left to right, are co-leaders of Emerge, a new worshiping community in Port Richey, Florida. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Emerge, a new worshiping community in Port Richey, Florida, officially began right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020.

Co-leaders Jeremy and Charlie Russo had been musicians at a Presbyterian church at a satellite campus that was no longer sustainable. But a foundation had been laid for Emerge through relationships the Russos had formed in their larger community.

“It would take a book to share how God brought us together in so many different spaces and places,” said Jeremy. “But the thread of these relationship connection stories is spiritual trauma.”

Both Jeremy and Charlie have been deeply hurt by churches.  Growing up as a fundamentalist Baptist, Jeremy finally left a church they were serving after it sent them to “counseling,” which turned out to be conversion therapy.

While growing up in a megachurch, Charlie attended numerous counseling and prayer sessions to correct their “unnatural desires” — and was then outed in the church they’d grown up in.

Married, Jeremy and Charlie are relatively new to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). But as they’ve worked through leadership transitions at Emerge, they’ve become better connected.

One of the connections that the Rev. Nikki Collins, 1001 NWC national director, helped them make is with the Rev. Dr. David Shelor at First Presbyterian Church of Dunedin, Florida. Shelor planted a church 20 years ago in the Tampa Bay area and is now acting as presbytery liaison for Emerge.

The Rev. Dr. David Shelor (Contributed photo)

“We’re delighted they’ve found a home in the PC(USA),” Shelor said. “I’m excited to be an advocate for them.”

Wanting to know more about Emerge and the support they’re receiving from churches and local clergy, Presbyterian News Service asked the Russos to respond to a few questions (Charlie responded to the last question only).

PNS: What does it mean to you to have David Shelor as your Presbyterian liaison?

 Jeremy: David willingly held space for our leadership to ask questions about how we live true to our calling. He helped us brainstorm about creative ways of being “the church” in our local community that is devastated by homophobia, xenophobia, poverty, racism and substantial economic inequality and inequity. He shares with us knowledge from previous and current ministries, telling us how he was one of the last church planters in the PC(USA) to follow the “build the church, put a sign out and they will come” model. Because that model was no longer working, he has an open mind about the flexibility, adaptability and responsiveness needed to run a ministry like Emerge.  Also, the Rev. Lissa Bradford from Church on the Bayou [in Tarpon Springs, Florida] has helped our leaders by relentlessly encouraging us and pouring life into us in times of discouragement. [Jeremy also expressed thanks to 1001 NWC and presbytery leaders for their assistance.]

How did God bring together a new worshiping community for those who have been spiritually traumatized?

Emerge was organically born and we knew from the Spirit that we needed to keep nurturing this environment so that others could come, feel loved and heal. The common thread that brings us together is that we are trauma survivors seeking to love each other more than the day before and effect tangible and lasting change in our families and communities around us. Everyone is welcomed. Each of our experiences brings a unique and valuable perspective to our beliefs in God.

An Emerge baptism service was held in 2020. (Contributed photo)

We understand Emerge is working on a video series on spiritual trauma and religious abuse in the church. Tell us about that.

People from all walks of life, denominations, faiths and spiritual journeys will share their stories regarding religion and authority figures in the church, and structures that perpetuate spiritual trauma and religious abuse. Thomas Hanna, a former pastor and certified religious trauma counselor, will be a critical part of the series. We will also be interviewing chaplains in the Presbytery of Tampa Bay, along with leaders in open and affirming faith communities across the nation and others who have entirely walked away from any faith or spirituality.

How did your spiritual/faith background shape your sense of call to Emerge?

 Jeremy: The God I knew growing up was authoritarian, racist, homophobic and condemning.  Months after I left the church that had sent me to “counseling” for conversion therapy, I met Charlie at an open and affirming church in South Carolina. Both of us felt called into planting communities that accepted all without discrimination for any reason.

Charlie: It was at that small church that I began to feel free and loved. I wanted to do to everything I could to help others that faced similar hurt and rejection from the church to find our place of belonging. As I became involved in a local PFLAG chapter I found myself working to repair the damage done to others in the name of God and church. This is what brought me to Emerge. My desire is to help others know God’s love and learn how to be more like Jesus.

As an official NWC, Emerge is meeting in person together for the first time Saturday at their partner congregation, Church on the Bayou. The theme at the joint worship blended service, which will include hymns, choruses and contemporary worship songs, is “Worship Through the Ages.”

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