Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Conversation With Jeremy Ritch

I meet a lot of interesting people on social media - among them Jeremy Ritch. I first encountered him online through a group called Outlaw Preachers, which came together largely through Twitter. He is a poet (in fact, he has been writing poetry since he was 15), writer, storyteller, and a former pastor - he's been described as a "modern day beatnik." He obviously has a heart for the poor and marginalized in his city, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His new book, Sidewalk Stories and Other Poems, will be released this spring via Autumn + Colour.

I recently interviewed Jeremy about his life, work and views. Here is a transcript of our conversation. Of course, being a pastor myself, I started by asking about his time in church leadership.

Dan: You were a pastor. Tell me about that experience, and why you're now a "former" pastor.

Jeremy: Ha ha, good place to start. I am a former pastor in the formal sense of the word. I was a vocational full-time Pastor for 12 years starting with a small outreach in Wayne PA with my wife, and then as an associate with Jay Bakker. Then I was an outreach pastor with a group called Hope For the Rejected, where I mainly worked with in the punk/hardcore subculture. Finally I started my own church called Hold Fast in Harrisburg, that met in a local pub, a concert venue and eventually a church basement. When that feel apart after four years I started a church service called The Exchange in a local AoG church that had helped me out after Hold Fast folded - I was there for about six months and I left because I was completely worn out from years of doing work with the marginalized, the counter-culture, and all that with out any support system. It just took its toll. I also was ordained through a group in Nashville but we drifted a part both relationally and theologically.

I decided to go into writing/speaking and leave the church pastoring behind. It has been a very freeing experience. I realized that I stayed in the role of pastor about two years too long, and I just crashed. In many ways I was never really cut out to pastor my own church or work with in that structure. I do much better as an outreach minister or motivational speaker. My views are not always in line with denominational churches and I see too many grey areas in life to hold a position within a church that expects absolutes out of me. I believe in being genuine and honest but also having integrity, which means I do not want to misrepresent a church that grants me the privilege of serving them under a certain theological or doctrinal ideology that I do not agree with. I do understand folks who say "Well you can still be a "pastor" without a church or a formal title." This is true and I agree, but I do not consider myself a pastor now, because I no longer have a "flock" so to speak. I am a brother, a neighbour and a friend who happens to be a Christian but more so just happens to give a crap about people.

Dan: Please tell me more about how your faith affects your writing.
Jeremy: My faith affects my writing because mystery is what makes life beautiful. To me faith is completely irrational and completely insane. It is mysterious and unsettling. That is beautiful!

My writing, especially poetry, is that. It is free, unhindered and genuine, but there is a unknown to it. The poet leaves the reader with a sense of mystery by presenting his verse in a way that allows for imagination to work. My faith is based in that mystery, but also in the love of God which is enormous. That love is what fills my poems and my writing in general. My love for people makes me want to write things that are not just creative, but inspiring or thought provoking. I want to write something that will make a person feel alive. It is my goal to encourage others to pick up a pen or run out into the world with a heart overflowing. I am not so much trying to win people to Jesus Christ as I am trying to show people they are made in the image of God, that they matter and are beautiful. My faith is full of magical grey areas and unknowns that I embrace, because while irrational to believe in a deity it is exciting to do that.

I like the idea of not knowing everything and being able to be wrong. That is really fun. We can be idiots and say crazy things because as a child, we have faith in something that is unseen. I love science and I love facts, but man, do I love mystery. It is the essence of love, of romance and of life. Being able to let myself embrace unknowns is the best thing I ever learned, and that comes out in my writing for sure.

Dan: Do you have an example from your new book of how you are trying to show people they are made in God's image?
Jeremy: The new book, which is poetry, is not so much going that direction. It is a collection of poems about the cities I have lived in, but it does have a message of love to it I think. I think I speak to being motivated to change the world around you, but also embrace the beauty that is already there. Of course, there are also some more - I guess I would say cynical - poems as well, because I feel I should be honest with myself and my readers. While I strive to be a positive force, I am also affected by things negatively and I express those things honestly. This first poetry book is really about the wonderful world of urban America that I have been lucky enough to be a part of. So I guess in a way it is pointing out the beauty that is there. Much of it is positive, and encouraging us all to be more pro-active in changing the world around us while embracing it.

Dan: Do you have a particularly favourite poem or poems in Sidewalk Stories and Other Poems that you would like to talk about?

Jeremy: My favourite poem in the book is called "Invisible Man" and Autumn+Colour released a track of me reading it on my artist page at their website.

The poem is about how the poor and the marginalized are pretty much invisible to the world. It ends with saying that those who stand for justice and hope are often just as invisible. It is actually a hopeful piece, but has a heavy message to it. It was actually one of the last poems I wrote for the book. I'm proud ot that one.

Dan: What impact does living in Harrisburg have on your work?
Jeremy: Harrisburg has had an effect on me as a person and as a writer. It is a very interesting city. It is a state capital, so there is a heavy political climate that often shows its ugly side. There is a very conservative base here that is steeped in tradition and Pennsylvania Dutch culture that is quite unique. In the city there is high crime, huge amount of debt and years of poor leadership. The residents, most of which are minority and poor, have suffered for years seemingly unnoticed as the suburbs have grown. There is a small but thriving art community here, and an even smaller and less thriving music culture. The bar and restaurant scene is pretty much the main draw to people who visit on weekends.There are some major racial and class issues amongst the residents that I have not seen in other cities I've lived because of the unique way they are presented. We have the Susquehanna River that separates East and West shores and it is a very polarizing divide. So all of this has an effect on my writing in one way or another.

Dan: Do you have any political aspirations in Harrisburg? (Jeremy comments on municipal issues in Harrisburg from time to time on Twitter)

Jeremy: No. I am not a fan of politics or politicians really. My theology is pretty heavy Anabaptist leaning when it comes to politics. I would rather work to change things in different ways, whether that is art, outreach, community work or something else. Politics for me is a dirty game, especially in Harrisburg.

Sidewalk Stories and Other Poems will be released this spring as an e-book - please check Autumn + Colour. Photos of Jeremy by Dani Fresh.

1 comment:

The Married Man said...

Have you received the Holy Ghost since you believed?