Photo Cred: www.danifresh.com
It’s not every day that you can assume responsibility for the well-being of a group of people in the name of ministry. You cannot always assume that what you believe won’t piss off those around you. The admittance of addiction to oneself is an almost impossible subject to overcome. Comedy and music are not always as unlikely of a pairing you’d expect to help someone conquer their demons. This last week I had the pleasure of talking with someone that made me consider all of these hypotheticals.
When I was done I realized that the hypothetical is not always just a proposed frame of mind, it can also be someone’s life. Jeremy Ritch is a writer, poet, comedian, unique theologist, and an ex-member of ministry and this is our conversation.
Sean Cohea – So, let’s just start by asking you to give an introduction of yourself.
Jeremy Ritch – Well I am a writer living in Harrisburg PA, which is kind of a wasteland with sprouts of life starting to break through it’s concrete desolation. I’ve worn many hats and still tend to do that. I fancy myself a poet and a comedic writer who is venturing into the world of stand up for the third time. I’m also working with a local guerilla theatre company called Bare Bones Theatre Ensemble as a writer, actor, director, and anything else they need. There was a point, for about 12 years, where I was a full time pastor too. I served along side my wife first in Philadelphia, then Jay Bakker in Atlanta before starting my own church here in 2006 which ran it’s course in 2011. I left the ministry all together in 2012. So now I am just the local poet/comedian trying to sell jokes and make people laugh.
SC – That’s quite the diverse background. Your followers on twitter occasionally get to know what you are listening to, and it is always on vinyl. Do you only buy vinyl?
JR – Now a days I pretty much only purchase vinyl. I have hundreds of CDs that I’ve collected over the years but I never even listen to them anymore. My iTunes hasn’t been opened in years really. I use Spotify a lot at home when I am not playing records. I started buying vinyl when I was a kid and never stopped. Over the past three years I’ve really become a more serious collector. It was something to do that helped with my sobriety and it gave me a hobby that was just fun. I have around 700 or so LPs and 100 or so 7″s. I have always loved the sound of vinyl but also there is something intimate about playing a LP. It’s a process. You have to pick it out, look at the cover, open it, handle it carefully and then flip it over after each side finishes. I find it relaxing, but there is also a connection there. I buy mostly used older records from the 50s-80s and I think about what it was like when these albums were new, how it blew the person’s mind the first time. I’m not the snobbish type either so I like the imperfection of old record sleeves, as long as the vinyl plays. You see the wear on the sleeve, little markings on the back next to certain tracks or even notes written on them. That stuff is beautiful, it’s history. Like a time capsule. I mean I would have loved to see a kid’s reaction to the very first time they heard “Exile On Main St” by the Stones or Otis Redding’s “Otis Blue” when it was brand new. That stuff makes it so much more than just an album to me.
SC – Considering music as an aesthetic, are there any specifics in your music library that you gravitate towards when you need a specific frame of mind to focus creatively?
JR – I have a very eclectic and varied taste. When I’m writing it all depends. I tend to like a lot of sad songs or songs about overcoming things. Singers who show their pain. I love old country music because it’s so real and simple. Guys like Hank Williams Sr., Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, and Roy Acuff have a huge influence on me due to their story telling and simplicity. Townes Van Zandt is probably my favorite song writer ever and his music is so beautifully tragic. His pain flows in it like a river and lyrically it’s so poetic. I also listen to a lot of old soul like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding because of the painful beauty in their voice. You can feel it. I have a love for old black gospel because of that same quality. Hearing old spiritual and religious songs sung by African Americans in the 50s and 60s that are filled with so much power and sadness, it gives me chills. I’ve begun diving deeper into jazz and blues as well, which is fun for me.
As far as rock goes, I love classic stuff like The Stones, Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, The Band, Dylan and others. I’m a huge Tom Petty fan as well as Springsteen. I get into more experimental stuff when I’m in the mood like Captain Beefheart, 60s-70s Psychodelic, New Wave, Punk and all that.
When it comes to modern stuff I’m a 90s alternative guy. Fugazi is always in rotation as is Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr, Bob Mould and Elvis Costello. I am a big 90s Hip Hop fan too so I have my Nas, Wu Tang, Public Enemy and so forth. My moods are often up and down so the choices are varied. I could be in a political mood to write and listen to Gil Scott-Heron then decide to write a country song and put on some Loretta Lynn. I love music more than anything so diversity is key. I often say I am not a big reader for a writer, but albums are my books.
SC – I’m curious, as a comedian, did the jokes come first? or did they develop as a result of your time in ministry? I mean, sometimes a cynic can be viewed as a comedian. And vice versa.
JR – Comedy has always been my go to. I come from a very sarcastic and hilarious family. We dealt with a lot of personal pain over the years so humor was a coping mechanism. In high school I was an insecure kid, so being funny kept me off of the bullies radar for the most part. I actually was always known as a class clown and often was asked to hang with people solely because I was funny. I wrote a lot funny poems and songs in my teens. The ministry stuff came later in my early 20’s.
SC – Who were some of your favorite comedians growing up in Harrisburg, PA?
JR – I actually grew up in Cleveland, OH. I must have left that out earlier.
My favorite comedians growing up were Eddie Murphy, John Belushi, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin. Later in my teens I discovered Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Hicks, and Steven Wright. As a writer though I loved shows like SNL, In Living Color, You Can’t Do That On Television, Kids In The Hall, and The State. I dreamed about writing for a show like that. Plus, I was into music and loved writing stupid songs and poems like Adam Sadler on SNL.
SC – We have a bit of an overlap in comedic taste. Richard Pryor is great! So is The State. I’m also a big fan of Mitch Hedberg. Not sure if you’re familiar with his work.
So you mentioned earlier that you struggled with insecurities growing up. How did you overcome those emotions as you transitioned yourself into ministry? Being in a position like that I’d imagine would require a great deal of confidence and purpose.
JR – How could I forget Hedberg?
Well I am coming up on three years sober, if that is any indication of how I managed. Haha. I masked a lot of my insecurities in order to help others get over the hump. In many cases I took on their burdens in order to alleviate the problems they were experiencing. I had purpose because I wanted to help people who couldn’t seem to help themselves. I wanted to fight for them and for justice. In hindsight it was noble but not so beneficial to my physical or mental health. I have always struggled with addiction, as well as depression, so the further I went into outreach work the deeper I sank into my vices and my darkness. I just didn’t really see it happening, and neither did anyone else, really, until much later. I am not sure I have overcome my insecurities yet to be honest. I do think I was a strong leader and a very hard worker, but my confidence in myself was always an issue.
SC – Interesting. I’d imagine that it is more common than expected that people in that position take on the role of a sponge, unintentionally, in order to help others. At what point in your 12 years as a minister did you become aware that this was the case?
I’m also interested in how you became acquianted with Jay Bakker and how that partnership began?
JR – I think I always knew I was taking on peoples struggles because I felt it was the “calling”, but around the year 2011 I felt that was kind of a bullshit idea and saw the damage it was doing to me and my family. I also started to see the addictions clearly, then in 2012 I quit drinking and then quit ministry.
Jay and I met in 2000, but my wife had met his co-pastor a year earlier after visiting there while she was in college. I had heard of him in various magazines and knew of his folks from TV in the 80’s. We went down to discuss things with them, see how they operated and find out if they had any advice. A friendship sparked with Jay and we connected on numerous levels with him beyond ministry. After running a chapter of Revolution for about 2 years in Philly, my wife and i were married and moved to Atlanta in 2002. By 2003 the whole thing with the church was falling apart and we moved back to Philly, spending a year or so outside of the church. Despite things not working out in Atlanta, Jay and I stayed good friends and are to this day. He officiated our wedding actually.
SC – So it is because of Jay that you found yourself in ministry? And why did you feel the need to quit both ministry and drinking simultaneously? Excuse my need to play the devil’s advocate, but couldn’t the overarching issue have been because of one and not the other?
JR – I had been involved with ministry before I ever met Jay. I began in the late 90’s in Philly with a group that did a lot of homeless outreach. From there I began doing a lot of work with subculture kids, booking hardcore shows, and doing Bible Studies in the Philly ‘burbs. My drinking had been an issue since early HS. I am a recovering alcoholic but in 2012 I hit bottom and it had nothing to with Jay. It had been 10 years since I worked alongside him. He was sober the whole time I’ve known him so he was an inspiration for me to get clean when I finally stopped. The drinking issue was really a wake up call that I was hopelessly depressed and burnt out. In 2011 one of my church members and close friends committed suicide. That was the beginning of the end for me and church. The other reasons were my liberal beliefs and having worked for so long with little or no support. I had lost all faith in the organized church by the time I left. I think it was one of the best choices I ever made.
SC – Having Jay during that period of your life looks to have helped your admittance and acceptance of your situation. I am very sorry to hear about your friend. I cannot imagine the emotional struggle that comes along with that.
You say that you have left the church and that it was the best choice that you have made. But based on some of your Twitter statements it seems that you have some lingering religious beliefs. What beliefs have you abandoned? What have you kept?
JR – Good question. My beliefs are still rooted in Christianity. I am a big fan of Jesus and the Gospels, honestly I love the Bible as a book though I have never been certain of it’s inerrancy. I have also always been okay with that. I have no interest in the institution of the church, or the organization. Denominations and sects of the religion, or all religions honestly, seem to trap people in neat little boxes that are very hard to get out of. I was always a free thinker, though raised in a church environment. My views have obviously changed since I was a teenager ’til now, but I have always believed in questioning things. I am a big fan of mystery when it comes to spirituality. So the idea of God is mysterious and I am really okay with that. Things like heaven or hell don’t really matter that much to me nor does the theological cluster fuck that is the Western church. I love learning about cultures and worldview beyond my own. I have studied all parts of Christendom as well as Eastern thought. I could never claim to have the answers but only to have an answer to my own personal journey which is ever evolving. It is still something I enjoy talking about and find that since I still prescribe to the basic Christian idea I often will speak about it in order to further the dialogue that I feel is important. For instance with issues like LGBTQ rights, I have been a long standing advocate for these kinds of issues and feel that it is an important subject to engage Christians and non-Christians alike in. I am not really looking for fights with people but also I am not afraid to say things that might be unorthodox or perceived as heresy.
SC – Very interesting perspectives. I have often toyed with the thought that being born an American increases the chances that you will be exposed to Christianity if not raised within it. On the same notion I believe that people in the Middle East have that same instantaneous association with Muhammad and the Quran, or Chinese and Buddha..etc etc. Aside from religious extremism, I have interpreted most religions to have similar messages but with different characters. These different characters are given traits that allow relatability to the geographic region in which that particular religion is accepted. Your perspective of questioning what you were raised on, theologically speaking, and seeking the mystery within the religion…do you feel that that helped or hindered your time in ministry? Obviously you have a desire to reach out to people less fortunate, and to the quote-un-quote outcasts of society. That is an admirable trait. Modern “mainstream” Christianity doesn’t seem to be openly accepting of a lot of things that America seems to be becoming more relaxed upon (gay marriagw, marijuana, etc). Where do you see this country and its most popular religion (Christianity) in the next decade or so?
JR – My outlook only hindered me within more traditional church circles. I pissed off some folks and was just looked at as a heretic by others. For me ministry wasn’t about saving souls or getting people to join churches. It was about meeting their needs, offering hope and learning to live together. In many ways I feel my worldview helped me meet and become friends with many people that normally would not feel safe associating with Christians, especially clergy. My way of seeing things was that the people I was drawn to were people like me. The honest ones who live life genuinely, but also recklessly at times. It is quite a beautiful thing. To me, Jesus represented a way of loving people beyond the conventional way. It wasn’t religious as much as it was common sense. Treat others well and they will do the same, thus creating a community of loving folks. Obviously it’s an idealistic approach, but it was the motivation.
I see America becoming much more open and the church will either accept change or it will revolt against it. I think it will do both. One side will open up to the new ways of thinking and the other side will become even more closed off then before while taking their defensive positions. In the end, the younger generations, whether Christian or not, want new things and do not think as the older generations did. Most young people are okay with LBGTQ rights because they have friends who identify with that community and honestly it is not a taboo. Marijuana reform is beginning to really encompass all sides of the spectrum because of it’s benefits to healthcare, economic stimulation and again the taboo of it is not as heavy anymore. In 20 years the American Christian landscape will be very different as will the American cultural and political landscapes. It will be a more diverse country in many ways. I think issues of race and gender will continue to be a focus but perhaps in new ways. I can see the demographics changing as far as how we as a country live together. More racially diverse areas, more interracial families, more gay parents, and more women and people of color rising into positions of power that were not open to them before. The old guard is slowly dying and a new day is coming, whether they like it or not.
SC – I agree with you that America is changing rapidly, becoming more and more accepting of things that are condemned in a traditional Christian sense. The “either-or” conversation as to which direction the church will go, to me, is exciting and I see the next several years a great opportunity for Christians to redeem themselves. And by that I mean by allowing young people within the religion to lead the change and be more open to these changes. I find it interesting to hear you say that diversity will increase as it improves our existence. My question to you is how do you view the current “cop vs black” conversation when you also reference racially diverse improvement in the near future?
JR – Situations like Ferguson MO are a flash point of a larger underlying issue in American history. African Americans have been victims of oppression, systematic racism, and blatant discrimination since they were brought here. The relationship between the black community and police is one of long suffering and brutality. What we are seeing now is something that has happened throughout the history of our country, but in a much more vivid and organized way. That is partially because of the many ways people can organize and connect, but also because the world is smarter now. The protests and the momentum we see is a result of smarter young people taking the torch from those who came before them. We live in an information age that allows young people to be better educated as to what the issues are and how to mobilize. The police are much more equipped to fight against anyone who they see as a threat. No longer are cops peace keepers, they are law enforcers.
I foresee a long and hard battle between not only people of color and police, but the youth of our country standing with minorities against the growing threat of police violence. There is a lot of momentum inside the #BlackLivesMatters movement. There is also many efforts, from the street to Washington, to fix the drug laws, correct the mass incarceration issues, and demilitarize police departments. I think more violence is ahead and more battles in and out of the court rooms, but eventually I have hope that things will level out again. These events have opened great conversations and dialogue. Asking questions like “What is Racism?” and “How can I combat it?” All of this, though it seems negative, is a positive move towards breaking through centuries of backwards thinking and policy.
SC – Very well said! Smarter young people is what keeps my hope alive. Earlier, when you mentioned that you are not certain of Bublical inerrancy, what specifically are you referring to?
JR – I think the Bible is great. It’s a beautifully poetic book and a terrific love story. The thing is, being a writer myself, I can’t believe that such a poetically written piece is also 100% accurate, or even true. Having studied it and researched history as well as language things just don’t add up to factual events. Plus, who really cares how long it took to create the Earth, or if Adam and Eve were real, or if the flood actually destroyed the world? It’s not the point. To me it’s a collection of verbal accounts, parables, life lessons and spiritual writings meant to guide someone along their journey. For me, whether everything is true in there or not is irrelevant because I get the overall message which is a love story between God and people.
SC – How do you feel being a leader in ministry affected your overall outlook towards organized religion?
JR – I feel I have aways been a bit if a skeptic and a questioner of things, but as a leader in the church I found myself not only looking for my own answers but also trying to help others find theirs. Doing that brought me to many places where I felt “I don’t know?” was the best answer, yet many others in leadership seemed to always give a concrete answer even if they were unsure. That obsession with certainty that goes in the leadership left a bad taste in my mouth. How can we be certain about anything having to do with feelings or spiritual matters?
I also found myself having to fight against the systematic and institutional powers that control the church. Whether it was standing up for LGBTQ folks or just saying “Hey perhaps we got this wrong about XY or Z?” It was a constant struggle. I began with a “fight the good fight from within and let’s fix this ship” mentality, then became a “let’s burn it down and walk away” kind of person. I feel that the organized structure of religion was not the intended use for faith and it should not have been built into such a thing.
SC – Before we bring this to a close, let’s funnel down a more uplifting path and have you talk about your current creative projects. I know that you’ve written two poetry books, and you mentioned earlier that you are submerging yourself back into stand-up comedy. Tell me what topics you tend to write about, and why? In both comedy and poetry.
JR – When it comes to comedy I tend to write a lot of self-depreciating humor, stories about my own life, social commentary and observational humor. I guess I would compare it to a Marc Maron or Louis CK kind of thing. As far as poetry I am all over the place. My first book Sidewalk Stories and Other Poems is about my experiences in various cities I lived in. It is very hip hop styled and about the reality of urban life. I tried to capture the good, the bad, and the ugly in a raw way. The book hits hard and contains strong language about the city life experience. Then my second book Rock N Roll Tiger is a lighter more fun read which is poems based on my life as an alternative music kid growing up in the 90’s. I have some humorous poems in the book as well as ones dealing with drinking, drugs, writing, playing music, touring, and a typical punk rock teen. I am actually working with my friend Caitlin who is a creative director of a local theater company to develop it into a play.
I wrote a bunch of poems for an original production that that said theater company put on last fall and I am currently working on a production of the play Dog Sees God, which we will be putting on this Spring. We take a unique approach and bring the theater into bars. It’s a blast. We are called The Bare Bones Theatre Ensemble.
As far as other poetry, I write a lot about life. The ups and downs of everything that is me. I am developing another two collections now. One is a country music lyric book and the other is poems about the South and American folklore. It should be cool.
Other than that I write for a local site here in Harrisburg called Todays The Day Harrisburg, which is an independent news and editorial site dealing with issues in our city. I recently finished a 6 part series on the War On Drugs which was a real cool project to work on. We are in talks about developing a podcast associated with the site that I would host. So there is a lot going on around here with me, even if none of it pays very well – if at all. That is how it goes sometimes.
SC – That all sounds very rewarding, creatively. I’ll be looking for that podcast for sure. Are there any other “hats” that you haven’t worn that you’d like to see yourself wear in the future? Any creative outlet or outreach organization that you see yourself participating in later in life?
JR – I really just want to own a record store.