Progress, Not Perfection
Storyteller: John Emma
Writer: Sheila Holliday
John Emma used to think he was leading the perfect life. Based on worldly success, he was. By 24 years of age, he had graduated college with a B.S. in accounting and purchased his own home. When he was 25, he was married. By 27, John was the chief financial officer for a large company, and by the time he was in his mid-30s, he and his wife had two sons.
“I’d checked all the boxes. I wasn’t unhappy, and had positive affirmations, but I now realize my life was empty on the inside. My self-will was in full control, and money can mask a lot of things,” admits the Huntington Beach native. “But as time went on, the truth started to come out.”
After a very humbling season, John is truly a new man in Christ. One of the verses that has provided him with great encouragement is Jeremiah 29:11 – For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
Trapped by Alcohol
John was raised in a loving Italian/Irish Catholic family. “We believed in ‘work hard, play hard,’ he explains. “As part of Edison High School’s baseball community, my buddies would hang out at my house where we would shoot pool and have a few beers. It was a ‘controlled’ environment. My parents and many others thought if you stayed home and drank it was safer than being on the road. It was an accepted thing. In retrospect, I realize that alcoholism wasn’t something anyone ever talked about.”
By his mid-40s, John was well on his way to losing all the things that mattered most. He and his wife had grown apart. He turned to alcohol, and she turned away from him to others. In 2014, after 25 years, what had become a loveless marriage was over. Their home was sold, the family was separated, and he lost his 21-year job as a CFO.
In 2013, John was admitted to a hospital and subsequently a rehabilitation facility. “I was truly lost and empty,” he recalls. “Since I began working at a Del Taco at age 15, I’d never been unemployed. Now, I was out of a job and living alone in an apartment.”
From Control to Surrender
Some families who are members of CrossPoint invited John to church. Newly sober and unemployed, John asked Pastor Jim Gane how he could be of service. “Jim had me paint the red curbs in the parking lot. At that time, that was exactly what I needed.
“Next, Pastor Stephen Derrick (who was then at CrossPoint Church) showed me how to line up the chairs for Sunday services, and started talking to me about baptism. I didn’t want to seem disrespectful to my parents who’d had me baptized when I was 2, but he taught me baptism is a conscious decision. I was baptized again at the age of 48.”
John had also been attending a 12-step program by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). “It’s unusual, especially for men, to be able to talk about this. AA brought my alcoholism out of the closet – not for glorification but rather acceptance and a way forward to manage it as a human being. It helped me deal with mental health issues in my family. I discovered the ‘3 Cs’ – I no longer wanted to control, thought I caused, or felt the need to cure other people, places or things. At the same time, Jesus was showing me how to place the ‘3Ts’ of trials, tribulations and triumphs in His hands.”
John adds, “We’ve all heard the phrase ‘hitting bottom,’ which is a different experience for everyone. Sin is relative; it’s easy to look around and think you’re better than the person next to you. Media oftentimes even glorifies ‘the bottom,’ but until you are truly humbled before the Lord, it’s really hard to give up the things holding you back. If it involves self-pity or victimhood, you’re going to stay or return to the bottom. I replaced the word ‘bottom’ with ‘surrender.’”
Today, John’s sons are both fully back in his life, and they see the strong difference in the path he walks. He sponsors fellow engineers, accountants and other professionals who relate to his journey. He again owns a home in Huntington Beach.
John is now the co-owner and CFO of D’Amore Mental Health in Huntington Beach, one of Southern California’s leading residential mental health treatment facilities. In 2020, the lifelong baseball fan and D’Amore staff teamed up with Los Angeles Angels baseball great Mike Trout, who lost his brother-in-law to suicide. They’re championing a “Break the Stigma Now” campaign. The suicide prevention initiative encourages people to reach out and get help rather than suffer in silence.
“My life is full, but it is no longer filled by material things. Instead, I am so thankful to have my Lord, my family and extended family, my church, fellowship, and service to others to fill me from the inside out,” he shares.
Soon after joining CrossPoint, John connected with Pastor Gregory Pierce and realized they had the 12-step program in common. “God had placed a recovery ministry on his heart and in turn mine, to help people with whatever demons they’re dealing with,” says John.
Restoration Ministry has now been going strong for five years, led by Pastor Gregory. “We welcome anyone with hurts, habits or hang-ups. Our higher power is Jesus, and He helps us take our eyes off ourselves,” claims John. “I’m so grateful for how He has healed me and others.”
Each Thursday evening in the main sanctuary, a group of around 50 men and women meet. Whether it’s gambling, pornography, drugs, alcohol or other problems they’re battling, they focus on the 12 steps taught in AA, which complement Biblical principles. They sing worship songs, listen to a guest speaker, and celebrate those who received chips marking days or years of sobriety. They then break into small groups for a devotional in the Life Recovery Bible.
“One Sunday morning after the service I was at a table at the back of the church, inviting folks to join us on a Thursday night. A lady came up to me, read my shirt printed with ‘Restoration Ministry’ and asked, ‘You’re one of them?’ I answered, ‘As a matter of fact, I am. I’m an alcoholic.’ She started sharing that her son is a meth addict. Contrary to what many people may think, in church, we don’t have to be perfect. It’s okay not to be okay. My hope for others is they’re able to stand up and admit things I’ve heard, like ‘I’m bipolar and have tried to commit suicide.’ I believe that with acceptance, we have a chance.”
John adds, “I’ve come to realize I’m far from perfect. The Lord convicts me every day. I still have character defects, but I strive to be the best I can be. I now know that progress towards the Lord, and not a destination of perfection, is what brings peace.”
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