Pastor Liz Emrey has striven to make her church inclusive and welcoming to all, especially those who might not feel at home in traditional churches.
Emrey founded New Beginnings Christian Community in 2002, after she felt a calling to start an interracial church open to all.
“My mother was an alcoholic and I had many gay and lesbian friends, and I’ve always felt that the church was a place for people who were on the outside to feel on the inside and to be welcomed as brothers and sisters,” Emrey said.
Emrey was raised Roman Catholic. She and her husband were conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War, and they joined the Peace Corps to avoid him being drafted, she said.
They were sent to Sierra Leone, where they worshiped with a Protestant church. Upon return to the United States, she was part of the Reba Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois.
When she and her family moved to Redlands, California, they went to the First Baptist Church, an American Baptist Church.
“They had all the things I was looking for — no baptism of children, biblically centered, mission minded, caring for the poor, no hierarchy and nothing but the Bible, they didn’t have a catechism or anything else, and democratically run,” Emrey said. “And so I became an American Baptist.”
She was encouraged by the pastor to take a scripture class at a seminary. After about two years of studies, she said she felt the coursework was draining their budget and that she needed to get back to work.
“I talked to God and I said, ‘I will apply for seminary with two conditions: You pay for everything and give me a full ride all the way, and provide me the energy to do it,’” Emrey said.
She said she ended up receiving a full-ride scholarship to the School of Theology at Claremont, and she attended as a part-time student, which gave her the energy she had prayed for.
“I felt the hand of God there,” she said.
Emrey served as the university chaplain at the University of Redlands and as a pastor at Baptist churches in New York and Connecticut before moving to Charlottesville in 1995.
She said she didn’t plan to start a church, but God told her he wanted her to start a church that welcomed addicts, alcoholics, ex-offenders and gays and lesbians and their families.
“So I said, ‘OK, God, I’ll do it again’ — and I always bargain with God — ‘if you’ll provide two things: Give me some money and give me a partner to work with,’” she said.
Emrey said she applied for and received a grant from the American Baptist headquarters.
That led to a Bible study group that eventually became New Beginnings Christian Community, which is located on East Market Street in Charlottesville.
Emrey, whose husband, John Arras, died in 2015, is involved with the Charlottesville Clergy Collective and IMPACT and volunteers at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.
At New Beginnings, they offer a Saturday food ministry, which is open to all, host Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and hold an annual Christmas Bazaar where presents for needy families are given out in exchange for canned goods, among other services.
One attendee of the food ministry said it helped her to feed her family.
“[Pastor Liz Emrey] has amazing grace and joy in her heart for everybody she comes in contact with, always,” the woman said.
Emrey said that she, Pastor Brenda Brown-Grooms and Associate Pastor the Rev. Gregory Moyer have been “led by the Holy Spirit one day at a time” in terms of the activities, services and ministries they host.
“Just whatever God comes up with, we respond to,” Emrey said.
Moyer said he was about to give up on organized religion before he first went to worship at New Beginnings. That first time, he almost got up and left, but stayed until the end. Afterwards, Emrey approached him and his group, and said “Promise me you’ll come back,” he said.
“It was soon after that that I had joined the church,” he said. “It was just something in her voice. It’s really a mystery. I know it’s God, stepping between her and me. To this day, it’s really a mystery because I was really determined to [leave].”
“I think it was the first time in all my years of going to different churches, synagogues, different things like that, it was the first time a minister who didn’t really know me came up and asked you to come back,” he said. “And that’s what we do here.”
Moyer said that every week they ask people to consider coming back or coming to one of the Bible studies, and it’s about inviting people and making them feel warm.
“Talking to a lot of the parishioners also opened my mind that these are people, including myself, who for the first time in our lives, actually feel comfortable in a church-like setting,” he said. “You didn’t have to worry about how you dress, what your socioeconomic background was and so forth. You just come and worship, and that’s what the main purpose was in the fellowship.”
Moyer said Emrey also helped him to learn how to listen.
“Before I had, I felt that I had all the answers to all the social problems of the world,” he said. “But when you come here and you listen, it’s a whole different ball game.”