Reverend Russ Kerr, from Davidson, N.C., graduated from Emory & Henry in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre. He currently serves as Associate Pastor at Rumple Memorial Presbyterian Church in Blowing Rock, N.C.
My theatre department experience has been a rock and a guide in my call to ministry and in my current role. Reading, researching, and understanding scripts help us to better understand the depth and range of the human experience. So from facing grief to joyful celebration, from understanding the importance of ritual, from learning to articulate clearly, to singing in groups (or virtual choir), to coordinating the nativity service, it is all woven together by foundational classes I took at Emory & Henry in theatre. I am thankful for the tools I learned during my time at Emory that prepared me for seminary and for ministry. It taught me to be a better coach to people in the art of liturgy and public scripture reading. It taught me to organize my thoughts speaking loudly and clearly. I especially think of the importance of these tools for theology in the public square speaking out against injustice and preaching boldly about loving kindness. When I read the Bible I ask some of those same questions I ask when reading a play–who is this person in front of me? What is their motivation? And, what does the text say about them either here or in other stories? Then apply it to ministry–what is this text saying about God, world, and self? This calling has carried me far across the east coast serving different communities I never dreamed I would spend time in. I served as an intern at North Carolina Stage Company in Asheville, N.C. for one summer during my time at E&H. I interned for a semester at Barter Theatre in Directing my senior year. When I graduated I interned then was on full-time staff as Company Manager at Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota, F.L. All three taught me about embracing a non-traditional (9-5) work schedule. They taught me to ask direct guiding questions in order to better acclimate myself to an office culture. It was not as easy a transition out of the classroom and into the field as I would have thought. There will be deadlines to meet, emails to send, and connections to be made. I am thankful for those internship experiences where I was able to learn those necessary skills in order to make a smooth and seamless transition.
After leaving Florida Studio Theatre, I spent one year in Miami working with the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program before attending Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond. During my time at Union I served as an intern at Ginter Park Presbyterian Church, REX Hospital in Raleigh, and First Presbyterian Church in Annapolis, M.D. I spent one summer as a college chaplain at Montreat Conference Center before moving to Chattanooga to serve as the Director of Children’s Ministry at Rivermont Presbyterian Church for two years before being called as Associate Pastor (first ordained call) to Rumple just a few short months ago. I carried with me to each place the skills I learned in both college and seminary. My hope is that I was able to teach the people I met along the way a little something about art, faith, and theatre. I remember introducing my hospital chaplain cohort (called an Interpersonal Relationship Group) to the play “Wit” by Margaret Edson and being profoundly moved re-reading that beloved play in a clinical setting. I am so thankful for the professors who taught me at Emory & Henry: Dr. Biliana Stoytcheva-Horissian (Acting), Dr. Christianne Roll (Voice), and Prof. Dan Wheeler (Technical). Dr. Kelly Bremner who served as my advisor and who later encouraged me to chase this calling to serve the church. I am also grateful for Dr. Kathleen Chamberlain (English & Lit) who instilled in me a love of reading, a firm foundation in women’s studies, and the tools to better understand intersectionality. All of these professors are such champions for their students in whatever careers we ended up in. It warms my heart to see their posts or comments on Facebook and/or Instagram encouraging us alum to continue following our dreams cheerleading us all along the way.
I haven’t totally given up on theatre and singing. I hope none of us theatre alum ever will. In 2019 I sang in the chorus of the opera, “Cavalleria Rusticana” with Opera Tennessee in Chattanooga. I responded to an email from my neighborhood listserv that literally was titled, “want to sing in an opera?” And I thought, yes. Yes, I really do! So I did and it was one of the most amazing experiences. I got to meet artists from across the city who, like me, were working in various professions but felt an immense dedication to art and to being in community with one another. I sang as part of a community chorus to benefit a local church mission. And finally, I was part of the ensemble for the Ensemble Theatre Company production of “Billy Elliot” in December 2019.
My advice to current students is, I know that this pandemic has been so tough on performers and artists! I encourage you to keep thinking creatively not just in your studies but as an artist. If we have learned anything from this pandemic it is that we need and belong to one another. Human connection is so important. Theatre brings that connection and community to life. So keep going! I appreciate you. I see you. You are each a blessing!