In 1991 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Richard Rossi started his radio show, “Richard Rossi Live,” where he quickly caused a stir by accusing many evangelical churches of being “‘whores’ who sold the Gospel of Christ for money and popularity” (Pittsburgh Press). Raised a Roman Catholic, Rossi became “an active Christian” through the charismatic movement and in those early days he compared himself “to David challenging Goliath denominations and mega-churches.”
Richard Rossi is a complicated man, full of contradictions, hard to pin down.
His page on the International Movie Data Base (IMDb) describes him as an “entertainer, actor, novelist, filmmaker, musician, singer-songwriter, comic, painter, and poet.” As a child he followed in his father’s footsteps as a jazz guitarist and was playing his own jazz guitar on stage at age seven.
His early years were marked by his father’s manic depression and alcoholism. As the oldest of five children, Richard often found himself out looking for his father in the local bars, never knowing what to expect when he found him. And once he succeeded in getting him into the next mental institution, there were those long absences.
At fourteen, Rossi “walked the church’s aisle during the altar call” and when he nearly died of a drug overdose at sixteen, he was “baptized in the Holy Spirit” (Charisma Magazine). The fundamentalists promised him just what he wanted–help for his father. He believed, because he needed to believe, that there was a “magic wand” that could restore him to health, that if he accepted Jesus in just the right way then Jesus would save his father. Today he says, “It just isn’t that easy.”
In the evangelical movement which he embraced early in his life, Richard Rossi is what is known as a “church planter,” and he started his first church, “The Fellowship,” when he was a senior in college.
He is a faith healer in the process of making a film, “Canaan Land,” that confronts what he calls “counterfeit” healers.
In an interview with Katie Andraski, he says,
“This film is my coming out as a former fundamentalist who can no longer subscribe to the beliefs and practices I did before. My story is my repentance and the character I play repents. I’m going to publicly challenge the biggest names in religion to repent and give back the money they’ve ripped off from the poor. . .”
And he is quick to explain,
“The film is not an attack on religion. It is my intention in exposing the counterfeit to show the search for that which is pure, lovely, true. Defensive believers may say we shouldn’t expose the counterfeit, but a counterfeit testifies that there is a truth sets us free.”
A charismatic church Rossi started in Pittsburgh held healing services, called ‘Healing Clinics,’ which at one point grew to over 2000. He filmed some of the more dramatic healings which later were included in Quest for Truth, a documentary he co-produced on exorcism and faith healing.
He is married to his college sweetheart and is the father of two grown children.
There is a story that has followed Richard and his family for over twenty years. It is included in Wikipedia’s Richard Rossi page; it was widely reported in the Pittsburgh papers. At the center of the story is this:
In 1994 Richard’s wife accused him of trying to kill her, but she later changed her story.
The prosecutor pursued the case. On the charge of attempted murder, the jury was deadlocked at 9-3. Rossi entered a plea of ‘no contest’ to the lesser charge of aggravated assault. He spent ninety-six days in jail.
Soon after his release, he and Sherrie renewed their wedding vows.
Sherrie Rossi is passionate in her refutation of the story and in her defense of her husband, and in a statement she asked to have included here, she writes:
“In my book Assault of Justice: The Rev. Richard Rossi Story, I debunk some of the false claims on the Internet and press, one of the biggest whoppers is that I accused my husband of trying to kill me. The opposite is true, I testified under oath in court in May, 1995, that Richard has never been violent with me or anyone else. The false claims come from crooked cops who tried unsuccessfully to manipulate me at a time I was not well, recovering in a hospital. They put words in my mouth. They hated Richard because on Richard’s radio show, Richard Rossi Live, he exposed and confronted cops molesting women they pulled over that attended our church, and he was threatened repeatedly that if he didn’t shut up on the radio, they would destroy us and our reputation in our home town. One cop even came to our home and roughed him up and threatened him. As soon as I was better, I remembered the truth with clear flashbacks that Richard and I were attacked. I didn’t “recant” as the press claims, I “remembered” the truth and not only did I testify in court to Richards’ innocence, I wrote a book proving it. If any of these outrageous lies were true, I would not still be married to him for 32 years and sleeping beside him every night. They have false lies from over twenty years ago. We are still married and happy twenty years later which is the greatest refutation of their slander,” Sherrie Rossi.
Dismayed by the blasting he and his ministry took in the local press, Richard moved his family to California accompanied by headlines like “Maverick Minister Richard Rossi Goes Hollywood.”
In California, Rossi resumed his work as a minister and rekindled his love for performance. On stage, he played the role of Elmer Gantry. A large part of his current ministry reflects his belief that the arts, especially the performing arts, are a powerful vehicle for delivering God’s message. Before “Canaan Land,” he wrote and produced “Sister Aimee,” a film about Aimee Semple McPherson, the 1920’s evangelist, and “Baseball’s Last Hero,” the story of Robert Clemente, one of his personal heroes.
I first encountered Richard when he interviewed author Katie Andraski for his show “Richard Rossi Live” on Blog Talk Radio. I had reviewed Katie’s courageous novel, The River Caught Sunlight, the story of her years inside the evangelical movement and of her subsequent break from it, and I marked my calendar to listen to the interview that Rossi called
All I knew about Rossi was that he had been active in the evangelical movement. Like Katie, he had made his escape, and I found myself listening, not to an ordinary interview but to a conversation between two people who had survived the same war. I was familiar with Katie’s story. I knew almost none of Richard’s.
And so, of course, I was curious.
I discovered that Richard Rossi is a complicated man.
One place to find him online is at the most recent church he has planted, Eternal Grace Church, the ministry that he and Sherrie began “to support those making a journey towards grace.” The website’s Home Page continues,
“We have experienced salvation by grace. Grace is the face love wears when it meets imperfection. Eternal Grace is a place where imperfect people are perfectly welcome. We don’t care who you are, or what you’ve done, you are welcome.”
Eternal Grace Church is part of the larger house church movement and its particular ministry is to celebrities who are too famous to have any privacy attending mainstream churches or people who are too threatening, like AIDS patients, and are turned away from those same churches.
Anyone familiar with twelve-step recovery programs will recognize the language on Eternal Grace’s website where Richard and Sherrie share their own struggles out of the addiction to religion that often defines evangelism. Like the parent program of Alcoholics Anonymous, Eternal Grace Church is informed by the narrative of the wounded healer. We can touch those who are wounded because we are wounded. We can heal one another because we have been healed. In that cause, the couple have traveled the globe reaching out a hand to those who need it. They are remarkably generous in those efforts.
In his conversation with Andraski, he clarifies the difference between counterfeit and real faith healing,
“We wouldn’t report healings without medical confirmation. We told the truth that not everyone is healed. We tried to show both sides, our faith side and critical thinking side. My time in the church enabled me to see big names in Pentecostalism were doing fraudulent healings.”
On August 25 2010, Rossi uploaded a YouTube video called “Recovering Fundie on Sex, Souls, and Sarah Palin.” His voice, which he says earned him only a “C” at Liberty University’s training for evangelical preachers, is comfortable, inviting, laced with humor. He works the stage deftly, strutting through preaching techniques like “the one-legged chicken” (Rossi now tells me it’s “pure Chuck Berry”) then glancing at his notes in a bible he’s left open on a chair. He seems propelled by kinetic energy. He is an impressive performer.
When he makes a plea for his new film, “Canaan Land,” the comic edge is gone. The intervening six years show on an unshaven face that bears the marks, not so much of aging as of living and character.
His singing voice is raspy and appealing.
Actor, comic, novelist, filmmaker, musician, poet. Evangelical minister, faith healer, religious rebel. Performer and preacher. Husband and father.
The man who suggested that baseball player Robert Clemente be considered by the Catholic Church for sainthood.
Richard Rossi is a complicated man.