My Story - Richard Rossi

Published on Tuesday, March 30, 2010 By recoverystories

I attended Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University where I earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in pastoral and biblical studies. On Facebook, I’ve reconnected with old friends from Falwell’s fundamentalist college. Some are still the same, Religious Right and Moral Majority to their core. The believe Obama’s the Antichrist or at the very least the precursor of 666 and satanic socialism. In my journey away from rigid religion, I realized my fundamentalis friends suffer from what I call the “white hat and black hat approach,” like an old B Western with the good guys in white hats and the bad guys in black hats. The Christians are seen as perfect people ready to be raptured and the non-Christians are evil, self-centered people and God is ready to judge them in fiery wrath. If we’re honest, we know the world isn’t like that. The dualistic framework of dividing humanity into a binary of two camps: the born again believers who are shining and shimmering being conformed to Christ, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit, and on the other side, the wicked liberal unbelievers who are nasty, immoral fleshly wicked people does not correspond to the reality of how things really are, that unbelievers are often nicer people. Whether their niceness stems from nature, nurture, or the light from Jesus that lights everyone who comes into the world created in God’s image, I don’t know. I value as a core principle everyone is made in the image of God and looking for the light and shadows in my characters I create as a write and filmmaker rather than discounting and dividing people anymore. I don’t believe in the simplistic dualism of guys in the white hats and in the black hats, and this is why I reject other tenets of fundamentalism, like their conspiratorial view of the world.


I’ve been recovering my creativity one day at a time. My concept of God and the world has changed quite a bit from the Falwellian fundamentalist indoctrination. I call it a fall to grace rather than a fall from grace because I landed in a safer place. I turned the fall into a dive into the waters of creativity and wholeness.


For many years, I suppressed my creative instincts and interests in filmmaking and acting and worked solely as a pastor and evangelist. The years I spent in the anti-art wilderness of Falwellian fundamentalism isolated me from a lot of the wonderful moviemaking out there. On the positive side, they did show some classic films on campus (edited though for conservative Christian consumption). Movie theatres were forbidden by Falwell’s ‘Liberty Way” a legalistic law-book we were commanded to obey. After I made my spiritual journey from fundamentalism to freedom, from guilt to grace, I played catch-up and educated myself on the history of film by borrowing movies from the public library and taking a film history class at Los Angeles Valley College. My second film school was the New Beverly Cinema, a revival theatre in Hollywood owned by Quentin Tarantino that shows two independent or classic films every night. European filmmakers inspired me, like Bergman and Fellini. Bergman’s Persona impacted me in its style of close-ups of the actor’s hands and faces. It influenced me and gave me the idea to shoot a lot of close-ups when I made my movie Sister Aimee: The Aimee Semple McPherson Story. This enabled me to me to create a sense of Sister Aimee’s claustrophobia and also make a 1920’s period piece on a low budget without the pressure to create an epic with thousands of extras and period cars and sets. Sister Aimee was the fabled female evangelist who built a temple of Hollywood proportions in the Roaring Twenties here in Los Angeles. Sister Aimee was front-page news, the most famous female faith-healer of her time, especially when she disappeared in 1927 at Venice Beach. She claimed to be kidnapped. Our film traces her story from her teen years through her life of preaching the gospel and praying for the sick, until her controversial death by overdose in 1944. I chose her story because I identified with her and used her story as an allegory for my life and some of the things I’ve gone through in my years as a healing evangelist who tried to heal the world without healing myself. For those interested in her life, my film Sister Aimee: The Aimee Semple McPherson Story is available through Amazon, Netflix, and Blockbuster.

One of the highlights of my moviemaking career was when the New Beverly showed Sister Aimee and the owner told me it set a theatrical attendance record for the best-attended digital film shown there.


I’ve always been drawn to expressing my faith in an edgy and creative way, so my moviemaking follows that same theme of recognizing the Creator is the Master Artist, and our creativity is a small part of God’s creativity, an expression of the image of God in us. Art is a ministry and ministry is an art. I believe our imaginations can soar when we choose to be innovators rather than imitators. I encourage people of faith to follow their interests and intuition, even if their religious circles try to discourage them. Our talents are a gift from God. What we do with our talents is our gift back.


My wife and I started Eternal Grace, a church community for those recovering from religion.

Anyone is welcome whether they consider themselves a Christian or not. We seek to grow by attraction, rather than promotion, so we do not seek to convert anyone by debate or manipulation. The only requirement for membership is a desire to receive grace, and to give grace to ourselves and to others. We believe God is the Creator, the Master Artist. The Holy Spirit is highly creative. Therefore, we support the creativity in each other.Our spiritual journeys have taken us through different groups, cross-pollinating various teachings, ideas, and experiences. Through it all, we’ve come to understand that the goal is love, that they will know we are His disciples by our love. Love fulfills the law. Love covers a multitude of sins and love never fails.


Many of us have moved here to Hollywood from somewhere else, and many of us came here for a creative career, a calling to express ourselves. We highly value and encourage artistic gifts and expression. We’re pioneers. The same leap of faith that enabled us to venture to L.A. enables us to pioneer spiritually and creatively.


We’re believers in God, the One the bible describes as unconditional love, and we have a passionate hunger for a true spiritual connection beyond religion and the established church. Eternal Grace is a church that welcomes artists, supporting their creative journey without judgment. As the Spirit hovered over the waters in God’s creation in the beginning, His Spirit hovers over us as we create today. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the Creator and creativity. Growing in relationship to one can open us to more of the other.


We come from diverse backgrounds, and sometimes we may disagree agreeably. What unifies us is our desire to do the works healing, restoring, and loving our neighbor, as we love ourselves.


Eternal Grace heals the hurting hearts of artists and actors, minstrels and mavericks, bohemians and burned out believers, with the embrace of radical grace.


I want a life of no regrets. I want to continue to grow and learn. I’m always reading books and taking classes. I want to keep getting better as a writer, actor, director, and musician. I want to keep growing spiritually and bring healing and recovery to others that have been through a lot in their lives as I have, particularly people like me from imperfect families with imperfect pasts. Eternal Grace is a Christian community where imperfect people are perfectly welcome. I want to be a good father, husband, friend, mentor and teacher. I want to stay at peace with God, myself and others.


My first novel, a coming-of-age story entitled Stick Man is slated to come out in 2010. It’s a coming of age story about a young man’s deconversion from fundamentalism. I have four films in various stages of development I want to make soon. My baseball bio-pic about Roberto Clemente, a film about the Azusa Street revival, a remeake of Elmer Gantry, and the film version of my novel Stick Man. I will continue to be a working actor in mainstream and independent film, television, and theatre. I have a second novel in the works, a historical novel about Sister Aimee. My wife and I also want to do some more cross-country trips. We like seeing America by land, all the different and diverse states, it’s such a beautiful country filled with great people.


I want to start a foundation that helps artists and does real compassionate work among the disadvantaged children, to do our part to make up for the travesty that here in America millions of children have no health insurance and are hungry. Sadly, the policies that support these injustices are too often supported by those who claim the name of Christ. Our foundation will meet the real needs of people with compassion, grace, and understanding.


I believe Jesus has been given bad P.R. by rigid, religious fundamentalists. I see contrasts between the Real Jesus and the Religious Jesus. II Corinthians 3:6 says, “The letter of the law kills, but the Spirit gives life.” These contrasts are a litany of deep spiritual understandings of the letter of the law versus the Jesus of love. I will elaborate on these truths in detail in a book I’m writing tentatively titled “Getting to Know the Real Jesus,” but I will share a few of them succinctly:


The Religious Jesus is Law. The Real Jesus is Love.

The Religious Jesus brings guilt. The Real Jesus brings grace.

The Religious Jesus brings condemnation. The Real Jesus brings compassion.

The Religious Jesus hurts people. The Real Jesus heals people.

The Religious Jesus uses people to build the church,

The Real Jesus uses the church to build people.


As a church planter, I’ve learned firsthand the differences between churches started on the foundation of the Religious Jesus versus churches started on the foundation of the Real Jesus. Eternal Grace, located here in Hollywood, has been the healthiest church community my wife and I have birthed, because we’ve become healthier in our understanding of grace.


I think it is essential to understand the creative potential in human beings is the image of God. Whether or not we think of ourselves as artists, we are. To be artistic is to create, an instinct we were all given. Within each of us is creativity, because we were made in God’s image. Letting go of rigid religious thinking enables our artistic spontaneous side to emerge. Find an outlet for creativity, whether its filmmaking, music, writing, refinishing furniture, cooking, puppetry, acting, dance, drawing, embroidering, gardening, the possibilities are endless.


Anything that lets us create something outside ourselves is good. The reward is a sense of self-expression, the joy that we made something and can see ourselves in it. Sometimes what we create reaches others as well. The more I let go of the legalistic ways of thinking from the toxic teachings of fundamentalism, the more I see my creativity soar. My creativity is more important to me than rigid ways of thinking from my past indoctrination under Jerry Falwell and other preachers of the letter of the law. Like I quoted before from the bible, “The letter of the law killeth, but the Spirit gives life.” I welcome the Spirit to bring life and creativity. One more thing, I wrote a prayer for artists I want to share in closing that other artists have told me they appreciate and some incorporate into their own prayer and meditation: “Thank you God for the talents You’ve entrusted to me and that my creativity is a small part of Your creativity. I glorify You with my art as an act of worship. Release me from the bondage of the extremes of grandiosity and inferiority, that I may affect others with my work and carry Your message forward. I surrender my talents to You, knowing You will flow through them in just the right way. I open myself to Your direction and abundance that I may know joy and peace in my work. Amen.”


Discussion

  1. Anne Beyer says:

    Thank you for being REAL and showing unconditional LOVE, Richard !
    Coming from a religious background I am very sensitive of gatherings where the law
    rules and it’s been preferred not to ask questions.
    With my first meeting at Eternal Grace I just felt, this one here is different!
    You accept every one the way he is! I felt very welcomed and secure.
    Sherry and you are so full of Love and encouragement!
    Today, almost 9months later, I can truly say I have found a new family!
    THANK YOU! <3 <3 <3

    Much love,
    Anne

    • Rob Pait says:

      I really enjoyed this piece, Richard. I think it speaks to many of us who are feeling the bite of our past or present churches.

      I wonder if it’s right to think of “them” in the same white-hat black-hat manner in which you describe “their” attitude toward “us.” I hate what happened in my former church in Colorado, but I also know they’re doing what they can with what they know. Grace is extended even to those in our past who have hurt us in Jesus’ name; God has used them in a sovereign way to engage us in the “race marked out for us” (Heb 12:1). What they did in my life– and yours– was part of our individual races, and as difficult as it is to say this, it was perfect. We can make the truth known without hate. Our liberation looks more like Dr. King than Malcolm X.

      That said, your message is brilliant. I thank God for the message of grace and for the all-surpassing supremacy of the Real Jesus.

  2. Dawn Fallon says:

    Thanks for sharing Riach – I love this bit:

    “The Religious Jesus is Law. The Real Jesus is Love.
    The Religious Jesus brings guilt. The Real Jesus brings grace.
    The Religious Jesus brings condemnation. The Real Jesus brings compassion.
    The Religious Jesus hurts people. The Real Jesus heals people.
    The Religious Jesus uses people to build the church,
    The Real Jesus uses the church to build people.”

    Keep us posted about the book and let us know when it is finished. Every blessing in Christ.

  3. Cindy Foster says:

    “And God created…” I believe that everything that is beautiful in this world is a gift of God’s creativity, and thus we have inherited the creative in ourselves from Him. I love this truth, and since leaving the Baptist Taliban, I am finally able to enjoy it, and to enjoy passing it on to my friends and loves ones.

    I am now going to check out those movies! We absolutely LOVE movies!

  4. Anne: Thanks awesome Anne for your encouragement. If more Christians were loving like you there wouldn’t be so many burned-out believers and walking wounded

    Dawn: I’m glad you like the contrasts and thanks for the interest in my writing. My novel “Stick Man” comes out later this year and will tell the coming of age story of a young boy’s deconversion from Falwellian fundamentalism.

    Cindy: I love your term “Baptist Taliban” because it cleverly points to a poignant reality that Islamic fundamentalism and Baptist fundamentalism have many similar components.

  5. Hey Richard. I remember singing with you and our friend John Walker at Liberty–you played the guitar, John played the harmonica, and I sang a song I wrote. You guys helped me create it. I remember being in musical plays at Liberty and being heavily involved in the drama department with costumes, make-up and singing and dancing–whoops. We weren’t allowed to call it dancing. It was “choreography.” Sigh. And NO dance classes. Dancing was evil. Hmmmmm. We were told to sing, but only do it their way. There was creativity, yes, but only within a certain perimeter, and that perimeter was very small. Now get this–I was actually cut out of singing a solo at a church I once attended, because I came from Liberty–they were afraid I might sing something unholy!!! I was going to sing Sandi Patty’s version of “How Great Thou Art”, the one with a high D# (or was it an E b? I don’t remember). Then I came back home after all that wonderful training at Liberty, and my home church didn’t want me because I was just “too too.” Too flashy. Too outgoing. Too outspoken. Too divorced. Yeah–I wound up divorced from my pastoral major husband from Liberty due to his addiction to pornography. I believe that any time we limit God, we limit ourselves, and one extreme is always accompanied by another. But God is faithful in all ways, and life can make you either better or bitter–and I have learned not to judge–not even my friends who are still legalistic! I still love them. And God has finally sent me a good man, and it has made all the difference. He only has eyes for me.

    I believe that you and I and our spouses and families have only begun to fight, and that we will help each other to ministry to many.

    Rich, thanks for your encouragement and caring towards me and still caring what happens to me and my kids. I love you and Sherry and pray God RICHLY blesses you–and YES you are APTLY NAMED—-RICH–RICH in LOVE–RICH IN TALENT–RICH IN ACCEPTANCE–And it is my prayer that you will be one day WEALTHY in money too, for all you do.

    Much Love, Lydia

  6. Dear Lydia, Thanks for taking time to read my story and share yours in your comment as well. You are one of the good people and my memories I cherish from my time of incarceration in the black and white universe of the Religous Right are the friends I met. I totally relate to what you wrote about creativity in fundamentalism confined “within a small perimeter.” As a songwriter, my music was only valued if it was used in a utilitatian was for soul-saving, so they forced me to add a lyric like “invite Jesus in your heart, so a new life can start…” but if I wrote a love song about a girl or another topic they told me to trash the song. Fundamentalism was the death of much creativity but thankfully we both have survived to dance:0)

  7. CK says:

    Thank You Richard for just being you-The real deal-And I sooo wouldnt mind dissapearing in Venice Beach!! Think I might follow in Aimees’s footsteps!! Maybe I’ll preach there at least in a cute little vintage white church!! ttys-

  8. Rob: Thanks, Rob. MLK is one of my heroes, in my opinion the greatest preacher of the 20th Century, followed by Billy Graham in second place. I tend to use dramatic language sometimes to get a reaction and sometimes my words are a bit strong. Although, a few years ago, I was much more of a flame-thrower when I spoke. I agree that everything in our past brings us to where we are today. I wouldn’t have my wife and children today had it not been for Sherrie and I meeting at Jerry Falwell’s college.

    CK: Your welcome. Remember, Cheryle, your grandson Deegan said the whole point of making money is to go to the beach and disappear.

    • CK says:

      You give the best advice sometiome I will have to tell you what my baby brother told me to do!! Or should we say Deagan gives the best advice-

  9. Cathi Curen says:

    Dear Richard,

    Thank you for sharing your story here and and your novel “Stick Man” on “Holistic Children Radio.” Your friendship throughout the years has helped me through many of life’s hurdles and I know so many others have been helped, and will continue to be nourished because of your courage to overcome your own challenges in an effort to do as God intended – “CREATE.” Your ministry reminds me of the Sam Keen quote, “We come to love not by finding a perfect person but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly.” Your interview was great regarding your upcoming novel “Stick Man,” so I thought I would post the link for others to hear. As always…thanks for the inspiration!

    http://www.blogtalkradio.com/holisticchildren/2010/05/29/nurturing-creativity

    Cathi Curen
    Holistic Children Radio

  10. Dear Cathi,
    I enjoyed our radio interview Saturday and many of the themes we discussed are relevant to recovering from fundamentalism so thank you for posting the link above so others can listen.

  11. Here’s a link to fifteen minutes of the funny side of fundamentalism. It’s my controversial comedy, a stand-up routine I did about being a Recovering Fundamentalist. Thanks to Drew Stedman for editing and posting. Click below:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NxnSfqcH1D8

  12. Richard, to have come so far, is a sign of your determination to do what you believe is what God truly meant for you to do in your life~ use your real talents. I am honoured to know you.

  13. Thanks Alison for encouraging me by seeing how far I’ve come. I lose sight of that sometimes. My healing process from the toxic teachings of fundamentalism feels like it’s taking a long time so I’m grateful for your words. I feel honored to be your new friend, too.

  14. Jeffrey Roop says:

    Thanks for this. It is in some ways a story similar to mine. I’m originally from TX and went to college at a small Southern Baptist university. Even while I was there God began a work of slowly stripping away the religion so I could catch a glimpse of the real Jesus. That process is ongoing and I am reminded often (usually by my wife) that I still have that baggage of religion. May we all live a grace-full life…

  15. Thanks Jeffrey for your comment. Sounds like your wife is a good teammate with you. I look forward to meeting you.

  16. mallory reveles says:

    Hello there!

    This is a good read. It’s funny cause while I was reading the part about catching up with movies and movie history. I found myself thinking “me toooo!” (im still working on it). Thanks for sharing and keep up the good work!

    Oh, I would like to read that book as well.

    Mallory

  17. Thank you for sharing so honestly and truthfully about your spiritual journey and how mercy triumphs over judgment. Many of God’s sensitive children have been wounded badly by fundamentalist’s teachings because they had an overactive conscience that was easily pricked by guilt. Thanks for doing all that you can through the written word to bring healing in this area.

  18. Your welcome, Susan. I appreciate you taking time to commment. I’m humbled and grateful that my new novel “Stick Man”, a controversial coming-of-age story about a boy’s journey from fundamentalism to freedom is selling so well on Amazon and assisting others in their journey of healing from the hurts of rigid religion.

  19. I watched Diane Sawyer’s interview with Jaycee Dugard, the 31 year-old woman who was kidnapped at age 11 and not recovered for 18 years. She lived in squalor under the control of her captor Phillip Garrido, a convicted rapist. Diane asked Jaycee why she didn’t leave when she was out in public at a local county fair and Jaycee said something profound that really turned a light on for me. She said that Garrido had her so convinced the world was an evil unsafe place and something terrible would happen if she left and that she was safer with him, even though he abused her. Some Falwellian fundamentalists who are still defenesive of the totalitarian environment we were in at Falwell’s school respond to my story the same way. “There were no bars on the windows at Liberty, Richard. You could have left.” But there were psychological bars, the fear that if you leave fundamentalism you will be damned and tortured forever in Hell. Thank God two women at UC Berkeley picked up on what parole officers couldn’t see and set Jaycee free.

  20. April G. says:

    Hi Rich, thanks for sharing your experiences. I hope that you heal & keep creating.

    As a creative person I was quite stifled while in the grips of abusive religion. (almost 2 decades as a member of a KJV-bible believing, independent, fundamentalist, primitive baptist, calvinist cult.)
    I’m finding myself again, finding my creativity again. It’s good. :) It’s good to be out of that abuse.

    You mentioned how others told you, “……Richard. You could have left.” It certainly isn’t that simple, is it?

    That reminds me of the abusive pastor who shouts from his pulpit that “anyone is free to leave this church!!! There’s the door!!….but if you DO leave, be prepared to deal with God’s wrath…!!” I heard that type of preaching & as you know, it really effects a person. Not only was ones salvation put into question if they wanted to leave the cult/church, but horrific stories were told of those who “left” & how they died or something horrible happened to their children, or how God would take away your talents, you would go crazy, on & on the list of threats went.
    I say “free to leave” is when the ‘leaver’ gets a hug & kiss & well wishes….not a threat of god’s wrath.
    Freedom to the abusers is freedom to obey…THEM & their interpretations of their holy book & THEIR ministry.
    To me, that is not freedom at all. It’s manipulation, it’s coercion.

    Abusive religion erects prisons in the minds of the people, as you mentioned the psychological prison bars, they are very real for the ‘believer, or as in the case of Jaycee Dugard, a prisoner.
    The followers (prisoners) are indoctrinated to believe that there are NO other options of ‘religion’ & pleasing God except through their brand of religion or through their ‘pastor’, who is the authority, man of god, who is beyond reproach in many cases.

    I am glad to see people who escape from that. I hope that others begin to walk away & see it for what it is. People have options, they don’t have to live imprisoned.

    All the best to you & your creative endeavors.
    April

  21. April, you capture so poignantly the mind manipulation and threats of fundamentalism. I, too, heard the stories of judgment on those who left. Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last! I’m so grateful you took time to read my story and comment. Keep creating!

  22. Peter L. Muniz says:

    Richard, thank you for sharing so transparently, honestly, respectfully and openly the Sister Aimee story and your story. I can’t say I blame anyone but myself for indoctrination. I tend to supress my own creativity for the sake of earning a living to support a family and have become self-deprecating as a result. Of course others wonder about this but by the same token, there is no one I’m my life that overtly supports creativity. I find myself an interesting enigma of supressed creativity that wants to move in the gifts of the Spirit and fundamentalism forged out of many witnesses throughout Christian history. I hold God’s Generals in high regard although I know just like me they aren’t perfect. I am underemployed right now. So if you are interested in some like me who is just a little like the late William Branham and has just a little of the musicianship of the late Johnny Green, please drop me a line on reply. Love On Christ, Peter

  23. Regina Hembree Breland says:

    I graduated from Liberty University in 1985. I knew you, John Walker & Sherrie. I always admired your dedication to John. Sherrie was always a quiet, sweet spirit. When I think back about my time at Liberty I have nothing but fond memories. The strict environment helped prepare me for the works to come. I found that it gave me a perspective from which to choose my own degree of of interpretations of the Christian walkwalk.

  24. Richard Rossi says:

    Thanks Peter for your feedback. I wrote a book to encourage those who tend to suppress their creativity for the sake of earning a living to support a family. Sometimes it’s hard to fins someone in your who overtly supports your creativity. My book is called “Create Your Life: Daily Meditations On Creativity” and connects the release of suppressed creativity to spiritual breakthrough. Here’s a link to see the book: http://www.amazon.com/CREATE-YOUR-LIFE-Meditations-Creativity/dp/1475227205

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Recovering From: Falwellian fundamentalism
Home Town: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Current Belief: God is universal, unconditional love

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