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On a screen above the crowd, a kitted-out military operator dodges a Latino guy’s fist, then slams him on the ground. Over the tinny echo of occasional hand-to-hand combat and gunfire, speakers muddle through a Christian rock anthem.
“Freedom! Freedom! Pharaoh hear the Lord’s command!” a Sunday School Eddie Vedder mumbles.
The camera pans down as an actor in full combat gear flagging the whole crowd with his hopefully fake rifle and squat-running across the bottom of the stage. He taps another operator on the back while a man with a camera rig strapped to his chest follows him closely. More Latino men wearing athletic tops or flannel shirts run around menacingly with pistols and tec-9s. Firefights ensue as the Christian rock crescendos. Smoke machines and stage lights turn everything into a blue and red haze.
“Perimeter is secured,” one of the actors says. Men huddled in the middle of the stage speak Spanish, confused and asking where the attack is coming from. Operators crawling on the stage’s scaffolding repel down and quickly take out the Latino men. The crowd, or at least the Pastor filming, hoots and hollars. As the red lights strobe, one of the operators picks up a child-shaped bundle.
“I’ve got you. You’re safe now,” he says.
Fireworks erupt from the stage. The singer walks out repeating the chorus:
“Pharoah let my people go! Let my people go!”
Welcome to the Emerge Men’s Conference.
Emerge Men’s ministry is an arm of the San Diego-based Awaken church organization. The Awaken franchise, formally C3 San Diego as of Jan 2020, has 6 locations—5 In San Diego County: Balboa, Bressi Ranch, El Cajon, Eastlake, San Marcos and one in Salt Lake City in Utah. Awaken, led by Jurgen Matthesuis, plans to open 3 more locations in the next six months: Bay Ho and Coronado in Southern California and Boise, Idaho which will be opening at Easter.
“Emerge” is one of the many sub-groups Awaken breaks their congregation into. The church’s groups typically host weekly meet-ups that help push their patriarchal ideas around gender roles and theology. Emerge Men’s conference is just a piece of that programming. It takes place once a year for a weekend on Awaken’s own “Emerge Ranch” in Campo, CA.
Emerge Camp has been around for some years, though LCRW doesn’t have an exact date. Their instagram account’s first post was dated as Sept 30th, 2015 with a “C3 Golf Tournament” to be held at Camp Pendleton. Awaken Church was originally part of the C3 evangelical megachurch brand, but in Jan 2020 it rebranded under its current name and split from them. In the lead up to the split, Awaken’s head pastor Jurgen Matthesius’s preaching became more radical. Matthesius began promoting Trump, COVID conspiracy theories and anti-trans hate speech, the rhetoric growing more intense as the 2020 election drew near.
Emerge Camp 2013 is the first conference event LCRW could find evidence of, making the event at least ten years old.
This year Awaken and Emerge called their conference “Valor.” Last year it was “Lionheart.” It took place this month from Thursday the 9th through Saturday the 11th, with guest speakers David Harris Jr, Tracey Armstrong, Rex Crain and Morgan Ervin as well as “The General,” Jurgen Mattesuis.
David Harris Jr is a regular at Awaken and notably speaks at Clay Clark and Michael Flynn’s Reawaken America Tour. Harris, a member of Black Voices for Trump is passionately anti-vaxx, believes the election was stolen and that the LGBTQI community are groomers. Harris was interviewed by the official CPAC team at the conference in Texas last year.
Morgan Ervin is a pastor at Awaken. He runs the “awaken recovery” arm of the organization and owns “Prophetic,” a branding and strategy organization that led the rebranding effort when Awaken split from C3. Tracey Armstrong is the lead pastor of Washington-based Citadel Church with locations in Auburn, Kent, Tacoma, and Sammamish.Rex Crain the former Boston Red Sox player, author & motivational speaker who makes the rounds on the evangelical circuit. He is a regular at Awaken.
Awaken hypes up their gatherings with trailers made from footage of the previous year’s event. The Valor “trailer” came straight after the closing of the 2022 “Lionheart” conference. They did the same in October right after their “Cherish” womens’ conference ended—complete with an “early bird’ discount to drive sales for this year’s event in October.
The Valor trailer starts with a bell chime, then breaks to a night combat scene including a military group engaging in a firefight. The video breaks to some of the group in distress, soldier calling out “shots fired” and “help.” Others in the group reach out to help their fallen brothers while bible verses flash across the screen.
By 10pm Saturday the trailer for next year’s 2024 event was up and their website updated. Early Bird prices start at at $239 and go up to $299 if purchased later in the year.
Since Awaken’s launch in 2020 the conference grew in scale and attendance. This year they claimed to sell over 3,000 tickets at $299 for adults, $189 for military and seniors and $169 for kids. This fee doesn’t cover accommodations— you need to bring an RV or tent and your own snacks. Only some meals are catered.
Awaken pitches “Emerge” as a men’s ministry and a team and relationship building retreat, but it’s begun to look more and more like a military training camp. The plot of the stage previously-described stage show imagined American operators taking down evil drug cartel members who’d kidnapped a child and put a bag over her head. The “bad guys” were played by nonwhite men in cartoonish gang outfits and speaking spanish. The battle played out as the crowd of 3,000+ men cheered on over the sound system in between the actors’ audio, faux gunfire and christian rock artist, Brandon Lake’s song “Pharaoh (let my people go).”
The actors that played the roles of the “bad guys” in the combat porn performance completed their look with face tattoos and a handgun. They posed for a selfie with Sterling Pyle, Youth Pastor of Awaken SD. https://twitter.com/Katerqburns/status/1634763612685500416?s=20
Emerge’s warlike turn may be in part to TPUSA’s Charlie Kirk, who will be speaking at Awaken’s San Marcos campus on March 29th. Kirk attended as a guest speaker at camp last year and mentored a select group after the conference via weekly zoom meetings. He also spoke at the ‘Awaken conference” in July 22 where the “Emerge Men” and “Cherish Women” groups came together for 3 days of programming. Kirk’s attendance signaled a shift in the programming. “Emerge” more combat- focused. Holy war and crusade imagery advertised the event.
The “Emerge” conference is based around team competitions. Each Awaken campus registers its own team, but groups can also create their teams and register through the website. The teams compete in strength-based competitions/games: truck towing, tug of war, combat training courses. A group is named the winner at the end of the weekend. The Balboa Archangels won the trophy this year.
Throughout the weekend groups celebrate victories, wins and masculinity. Apparent winners can be seen here celebrating with a bullet belt. The bullets in the belt had “valor” engraved on each one.
The military LARP stage show/performance was the opener to the conference. It included Matthesuis arriving via helicopter. The storyline: some bad hombres have kidnapped a child and god fearing military men save the day.
Once the opening performance was out of the way it was time for Matthesuis to hit the stage. Foreboding music unironically played over the speakers.
“C’mon somebody makes some noise for JESUS, we can do better than that, a great shout! Hallelujah” Matthesuis declared from the stage.. Who is now referred to as “The General” apparently.
“Heavenly father, tonight my Alpha roar is coming back. The devil is not the Alpha he is the Beta! This weekend the beta is going to get a beatdown ”, Matthesius preached. He had the crowd repeat it back to him before continuing, “I declare the alpha is about to rise!”
The crowd roared.
Emerge conference is not only attended by adult, “alpha” men but also their son’s from ages 12 or 13 up. There is an annual “right of passage run” that see’s the kids run through a combat training course.
The passage run itself takes place on the Saturday every year. This year the 2.5 mile obstacle course included jumping over a pit of fire. It ended in some participants throwing up and crying.
As it does every year, the camp finishes with group water baptisms—the chance to be born again and play in the pool with your besties.
In the hype cycle before the conference, there were some reels on instagram of vendors and organizers sharing their involvement and work. “MattyInks,”a tattoo artist, “had the absolute honor of putting my hands to work” spray painting a mural of a knight in armor pointing a sword next to a military operator in helmet and gear pointing his rifle. At the bottom was a website called “Jesus was a Badass.”
As is tradition, Awaken made a trailer for next year’s event with the fresh footage. 2024’s conference is called “Champion.” It is, obviously, going to be an election year.