A car is never a decent place to call home. Sometimes, though, you’re left with few other options.
USF St. Petersburg grad Emilio Marrero III, 27, now spends his days spreading the word about Alethia St. Pete, the local chapter of a national interdenominational church group that he opened with his wife shortly after they were married in May 2011.
But in his early 20s, says Marrero, his life was quite different. “Apart from Jesus,” he says, “I am a rotten, rotten man.”
Marrero soared high and landed low. Raised in a religious household (his father is a retired Navy chaplain), he abandoned his family’s values for alcohol, drugs, and sex. After six years of excess, he wound up with only a surfboard to ride and a car to sleep in, albeit one with a Bible flopping around in the trunk.
“I remember all of it,” says Marrero, 27, of that first cool, frosty crack of a Milwaukee’s Best can, and that first time he smoked marijuana off a piece of tin foil 12 years ago.
But with his family in Japan where his father was stationed, and nowhere to go but his bed/backseat, Marrero says he finally found time to reflect. He acknowledged the stagnancy of his life and felt that maybe there was more.
That’s when he grabbed that Bible from his trunk.
“It was God talking to me,” says Marrero. “He became real.”
Startled, he found that the text made sense to him. He was “secretly finding hope in this Jesus guy.”
His party lifestyle began to sicken him. He says he became physically ill after a one-night-stand with a co-worker, when “any other day I’d be stoked to tell my friends.” But he wasn’t. He felt he “threw up evil all over the court of the purest god in the world.”
It was time for a change. Marrero packed up and met his family in Japan, where his mother convinced him to join the relief effort for Hurricane Katrina in Gulfport, Miss. There he worked on a chainsaw crew and for the first time engaged openly in religious talks with older Christians who “taught him character.”
A trip to Morocco followed. Being immersed in Islamic culture allowed Marrero to explore another religion, but he found no comfort in it. He said he felt “spiritually oppressed” during that time, and for the first time began seeking out churches for refuge. But the churches there had all closed.
Still, Marrero wasn’t entirely sold on the idea of Christianity. So he challenged it, and challenged other scriptures as well. But the Bible, he says, “unified with logic.”
He returned to California and was finally able to gain access to the church he had begun to seek while in Morocco.
“It terrified me,” says Marrero, “I saw God was real and felt I had a responsibility.”
He started leading Bible studies and working with the Front Line Ministry. He says that no matter what he questioned, “it always led right back to Jesus.”
A period in Virginia followed, where he began working with the Alethia group, which establishes small community-based churches in new areas. Here he met Aaron Proffitt, a pastor and fellow “planter.” He followed Proffitt to Tampa to plant a local church, and once here, decided to enroll in USF St. Pete to study graphic design. He began leading Bible study groups in St. Petersburg, where he caught the eye of Billy Mitchell, a strategist with the Suncoast Baptist Association, who approached Marrero with the idea of starting an Alethia church locally.
Ever the skeptic, Marrero looked for every way out, even accepting graphic design positions in Texas and Nepal. But all roads led back to religion, Florida, and Alethia.
“He loves the city of St. Petersburg and feels that God specifically called him there to love the community and to share the love of Jesus with the community,” says Proffitt. “He is the type of guy that I want my sons to grow up to be like.”
A family man now, Marrero never forces his views on those opposed. During a recent gathering of clubs at USFSP, some students shouted through bullhorns to draw attention to their booth. Others passed out condoms or candy, or jumped out at potential customers like a Macy’s perfume lady.
Marrero just stood quietly behind his booth with a placid smile. He engaged a Muslim student in conversation, briefly discussing holy text before a handshake and a head nod sent them their separate ways. Another student with only a mild interest in religion wasn’t sure if he would take up Marrero’s invitation to worship, and that was perfectly all right with Marrero.
“It’s not religion,” he often says. “It’s reality.”