It was spring of 1983, and twenty-five-year-old Ray Cortese with his young wife, Diane, and one-year-old son by his side eagerly looked to pastor an urban church. But no one was hiring. He had put in countless applications and barraged his contacts to no avail -- until he was presented the name of a small, unknown town where a handful of people wanted to start a Presbyterian church. Born in Miami and determined to labor in a large, vibrant city, Ray was decidedly not interested. He was, however, willing to help fill in one weekend, and obligingly drove to the tiny Crystal River, Florida.
By the end of the weekend, the congregation of ten people, including Dr. Sam Miller, asked Ray to be their pastor, and he very reluctantly accepted.
This was never what Ray had envisioned. Ray had planned his course -- but the Lord determined his steps. Two months later, Seven Rivers Presbyterian Church began -- and still remains -- with Ray Cortese as head pastor.
Having benefitted from Christian education himself, Ray had a strong conviction and vision for a Christian school from the very beginning of his ministry. "Youth group and Sunday School weren't getting it done," said Ray. "I could see that families were less and less equipped to give their children Jesus on their own; they needed help."
On the weekend that Ray planned his first sermon on the importance of Christian education, he received the tragic word that his older brother had died. "I drove to Tallahassee, picked up my parents from the airport, made funeral arrangements and then drove back to Crystal River to preach the sermon on Christian education." Afterward, church member Bill Caldwell walked up to Ray and handed him a $100,000 check to start the school. Ray remembers, "This was affirmation from God at the weakest moment of my life. I didn't have what it takes, but God was saying, 'I'm doing this.'"
There was opposition to starting a Christian school -- was it "separatist?" Was it "anti-American?" But when Ray took a dozen people to tour a successful Christian school in a neighboring city, they rallied behind their pastor. As building began and congregants balked at finances, Ray pressed them to see the necessity for Christian education, and to be grateful for the generosity of donor Bill Caldwell; after all, it was actually the school constructing the church. By December of 1987, the first building on the Seven Rivers campus was completed in time for Christmas Eve services. The following August, the first day of school welcomed twenty-nine students in grades K-3. Additional grades were added each year, and the school had its first graduating class of seven students in 2000. Over the course of 30 years, the church built a three-story building with gym and offices, a 900-seat capacity modern gothic sanctuary, a student ministry building, a preschool, a fully equipped athletic complex, and a church administrative annex.
In just three decades, the dream of a passionate young pastor and a small, generous church congregation had become reality--a thriving, vibrant, academically rigorous PreK-12 school seeking to bring the joy and peace of the gospel to a broken world. Speaking about the school's mission, Ray points out, "Education is inescapably religious. Children are being discipled every day wherever they go to school. We teach children the truth -- there is a God, and there is no meaningful life without him." He recalls a recent graduation ceremony where he realized that half of the graduates seated on the stage were adopted, raised by grandparents, or in some other way saved from a struggling life situation, and he realized, "This is so beautiful. People think that because of the cost involved, Christian education is only educating the cream of the crop. That's not the case. This is a rescue. This is a mission."
Ray's dream for the future of SRCS is the same dream that founded the school long ago. "I hope we do things now that will establish this as a place, 40 years from now, that will be producing children who are in love with Jesus, are eager to give their lives for His service, and are equipped to do it."