When David & I got married in the spring of 2005, he said we needed to get back into a church.
I’d been hurt–really hurt–and had taken a year off before our wedding to focus on building our relationship and planning a wedding…or at least, that’s what I told myself. Really, I just took a year off to be a giant slug that spent weekends visiting my fiancée. 🙂 I didn’t want to go to church; I wanted to sleep in and go on adventures.
So, we did.
And then we got married. 🙂 He said, “We need to go to church.” I drug my feet (I really, really like to sleep). He said, “No, really–we’re going to church.”
So, we did.
He took me to a church at the corner of Lindbergh & Sappington. I don’t think I’ll ever forget my first day there. I met Felina Stevens and Lynn Renaud, and thought to myself, “there’s no way those people are really that nice.” Like I said, I’d been REALLY hurt. So, I lifted one eyebrow in skepticism, and I watched for WEEKS. Finally, I was convinced–all of these people REALLY WERE that nice. Crazy.
Pastors Joe and Sherry LoRusso welcomed us into their church like extra family members. Sherry & I had some similar parenting adventures, and she began to open up to me about how she processed, forgave, and moved forward through her hurts. She counseled me through so much healing, and she may not know this, but she’s probably the most influential reason as to why my relationship with my mother is so much better today than it was at that time. Pastor Joe–well, Pastor Joe brought me more joy and love than I probably ever expressed to him.
Pastor Joe went home to the Lord yesterday, and I’m still processing. A dear friend called me and told me directly, and protected me from discovering his passing over social media. I don’t think I will ever forget that gesture–what an amazing thing for a friend to do. Social media is not how anyone should discover that someone has passed away, so I am grateful for the personal discussion.
Pastor Joe had been through a great many physical challenges over the past year, but in my heart of hearts, I truly thought we’d see him back in the pulpit at some point. The pulpit was where he belonged.
I look back over my time at Rivers of Life church in those tender years….We started going in the spring of 2005, and just over a year later, in the fall of 2006, our daughter passed away. That congregation not only celebrated my pregnancy and Hannah’s birth with us; they carried us through her death and her funeral. Pastors Joe & Sherry were by our side for hours on end at the hospital; one of the most impactful images in my life is seeing Joe literally on the floor of the waiting room, crying out to God and interceding for our daughter. Having pastors that will get on the floor and fight your battles with you, is one of the most amazing experiences a Christian could ever hope to have. I know that sounds weird–who wants to go through those parts of life?!?!? Going through Hell, verses going through Hell side-by-side with warriors–there’s a huge difference. I will never, ever forget the way they interceded for us. I’d never seen prayers like that, or dedication like that, and it changed my life.
People don’t know this, but Joe & Sherry jumped in and planned Hannah’s funeral for us, because we simply couldn’t. They utilized church funds to help us cover expenses (David was out of work at the time), and they rallied our community to cover meals during and after Hannah’s hospital stay. They created a network of support; they brought together other women who had been in my shoes to help me navigate the years after losing my daughter. They literally kept David & I breathing after we lost our child, and not once did they EVER make us feel like we weren’t healing or processing or grieving inappropriately. They gave us the gift of a safe place to grieve.
In the years that followed, when every doctor in every state that I visited said I couldn’t have anymore children, Joe believed. He believed when everyone around me told me to give up and said I should get over it. I believed, and Joe believed.
JOE LORUSSO BELIEVED IN THE HEALING POWER OF A LOVING GOD, and no matter where he went, who he lost, or what illness he went through, that belief didn’t waiver.
I know that Joe & Sherry are tremendously influential in the spiritual DNA of St. Louis. Coming out of New Covenant (I think?) and then Hill Fellowship, Joe’s leadership in the church has had international influence. He is…was…a great, great man….a great family man, and an amazing father.
But to me, he is…was…my pastor.
Joe LoRusso showed me what it meant to put feet to my faith. He showed me how to be strong but also, to be true. When Rivers of Life merged with Victory Church to become Southgate, and I began to meet people and to make new friends, I’d occasionally hear that someone was “offended” at something Joe said. In fact, he misread a confidential e-mail I’d sent him and the other pastors one time (I was in a pretty dark place about the whole “can’t have kids” thing), and he had me come to the front of the church with my husband. He shared what I’d put in the letter–about my discouragement and my heartbreak–and he asked the church to pray for me. I can’t remember the details, but it got out that I’d wanted that information kept confidential. More than one person approached me in anger and said, “Aren’t you upset?!?!” Never. Not once. Anyone that was offended by anything Joe LoRusso said didn’t know or appreciate his heart. Period.
I’ve never met another person with less pride or less self-promotion, than Joe LoRusso. I honestly do not believe he would ever/could ever intentionally insult or harm another person when it comes to wanting the best for them, or for wanting to see Jesus work in their lives. Maybe it didn’t come across in the fluffiest of ways–whatever. He loved people. He loved his church family. He loved his family with his whole heart, and I know he loved his wife.
My mother had a pastor and his wife that were like adopted parents to her. Milo & Edna were retired Baptist preachers who were married over 70 years, and passed away within months of each other. I watched them pour into my mother’s life for decades, and always appreciated the sheltering relationship they had with her. They told her the truth, in love, and they invested into her to make her love Jesus more. That’s what pastors do. That’s what shepherds do.
That’s what Joe & Sherry LoRusso have done for David & I, and for so many people, for decades.
I am so privileged to have known Joe, and to have been a part of the Rivers of Life congregation. Joe & Sherry have invested into David & I, even though it’s been 6 years since we’ve been in their congregation. They’ve made a lasting impact that has made us love Jesus more. They’ve given us truth in love, and they’ve shown us examples of being in the trenches with practical faith.
The LoRussos educated me on the beauty of the Italian family in a way that I had never really been exposed to (even though my dad is Italian). The sense of community that runs through their home extends to how they treat people in their church. Going to the LoRusso’s home was always full of laughter, hugs, amazing food, and lessons about everything from cooking, to spiritual growth, to parenting advice. Family is family, at church or at home—it’s consistent, because it’s genuine. That’s a beautiful thing to have, and to get to be a part of: Real, genuine people that genuinely love Jesus and want His will….that love people because He says to love them, and that care enough about you to give you the truth.
Joe LoRusso was a man of truth and of faith, and he lived it, 24/7. He proved that it can be done, all the way, in the valleys and on the mountains.
I know that it’s the “Christian-thing” to say—“to be absent from the body is to be home with the Lord.” I get it. And as a Christian, I know that Joe is with Jesus, and wouldn’t want it any other way. He’s a Good and Faithful Servant, and he’s in his reward–that’s amazing.
Joe’s a husband and a father. He’s a brother, an uncle, and a grandfather. He has an amazing family that is extremely, beautifully close, and his passing will leave a tremendous hole, so my heart hurts for all of them. The LoRusso legacy is strong in St. Louis, and he will be missed by so many.
Personally, I will miss seeing Joe peek into my church–which meets in that same building where everything, for The Cooleys, started–and sitting in his chair during worship. I’ll miss seeing him take over the pulpit when something would hit him just right (my former pastor would always give him due respect when he would visit, and would hand over the microphone if Joe would raise his hand. 🙂 I think anyone in our community would do the same). I’ll miss hearing his passion for Israel and for the Jewish community, and I’ll miss his jokes about soccer, red-cards, and old Westerns or military movies.
I don’t know how to conclude this…my heart hurts, and I feel like I’ve done a poor job of writing out just how much I appreciate this man. I’m so, so thankful for Joe & Sherry…I’m thankful for that day in 2005 where my bratty little feet shuffled their way into a small congregation on Lindbergh, and my life was forever changed.
Thank you, Joe LoRusso, for not being satisfied with simply becoming a Christian and then resting on your laurels. Thank you for your passionate, relentless pursuit of learning about this Jesus Who changes lives and mends hearts. Thank you for trusting Him to shape you into the man you became–the husband, father, pastor, intercessor, leader, and friend. Thank you for getting in the trenches with me and so many others over the years who were lost and embattled. Thank you for being that shepherd who isn’t just a pastor in title, but who actually lived the life and the sacrifice. Thank you for setting the example, and for giving the truth in love, even when it didn’t win you any fans. Thank you for not giving up, and for continuing to have faith and passion, even in the hardest of times. Thank you for having the strength to apologize when you made mistakes, and for being a humble leader, even when you had every reason to get prideful. Thank you for opening up your house to us (and our dog!), and for giving us a second home when we were lost in grief. Thank you for always, always taking the time to talk to me, even though I have the worst sense of timing. Thank you for never making me feel stupid, and for always treating me like I mattered.
Thank you for seeing David & I for who we really were, and for loving us as we were. We are grateful….You are so very loved.