Ode: Former Disney child star follows path to the pulpit
When I was 20 years old, I came out to my parents. It was in a small Häagen-Dazs shop in Madrid, where they had come to visit me during a semester abroad.
“Mom, Dad… I’m… Christian.” They smiled awkwardly, struggling desperately to wrap their heads around this alien lifestyle while still attempting to look marginally supportive.
“Oh, Ryan,” Mom choked out. “Why do you have to call yourself a Christian?”
“Because I am one.”
“Well, yeah, but why do you have to use that word? Can’t you just…do your own thing? What did you used to call it—being a Ryanist? Or what about Buddhism? You really liked Buddhism.”
“I still like Buddhism. I’m not rejecting Buddhism. And I’m not sacrificing my own path. But I’ve…fallen in love with Jesus, and I think it’s for good.”
She cringed and looked over at my father. “This is your fault,” she said. “When I was pregnant with him you said he could be anything he wanted as long as he wasn’t a Yankees fan. Now look what he is. A Christian."
Even with a staunchly atheist Jewish father and a wounded ex-Catholic mother who never really talked to their kids about faith, I had always been a strangely curious child when it came to religion.
I would pepper my Orthodox Jewish cousins with questions about Sabbath observance, pour over an illustrated book of Hebrew Bible stories my grandmother gave me, and engage Mormon, Muslim and Evangelical elementary schoolmates in lunch conversations about their religious traditions.
When I discovered Eastern religions, I devoured everything I could get my hands on about Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism.
One day in eighth grade, my dad and I were eating lunch after he’d picked me up from a two-hour meditation session at the local Buddhist temple. I was grinning from ear to ear, glowing with joy. He stared at me and shook his head.
“What?” I asked. “You’re telling me you have no spiritual life whatsoever?”
“Nope,” he said.
“That is so strange to me.”
“Well, Ryan,” he said, “you’re pretty damn strange to me too.”
Everyone assumed that I’d end up in the entertainment industry. I’d been acting in commercials and amateur and professional stage productions around Albany, New York, since I was 7, and I’d become a bit of a local celebrity in my hometown.
When I was 13, I was playing the lead in a professional production when I was “discovered” by a New York City agent in the audience. A couple weeks later, he called to tell me about a new Disney Channel series. He thought I’d be perfect for one of the roles.
I decided to audition, just for fun, not thinking I had a snowball’s chance in hell of landing it. In a few weeks, I was on set in Hollywood, filming the pilot. It became the most popular series on the network. We shot three seasons and a TV movie. The showpretty muchconsumed my high school career.
I decided to major in drama in college, but there was still something nagging at me, some part of me that felt unsatisfied, unexpressed, at the prospect of a lifetime in show biz. As a freshman at New York University, I fell in with a group of fellow acting students who happened to be practicing Christians. I found that these were people who, mysteriously, seemed to be compassionate, intelligent, open-minded people despite their Christianity. I was intrigued.
I spent several months beleaguering them with questions, expecting, perhaps even daring them to tell me, as other Christians had, that my disbelief would send me to eternal hellfire or forever separate me from God, but instead they were warm and inviting of my questions, honest about their own uncertainties and doubts, never taking my agnostic challenges to their principles and convictions personally.
One day at lunch, after a particularly intense barrage of questions, one of them—the young woman who would, six years later, become my wife—asked, “Have you ever read a gospel?”
“Well, maybe you should let Jesus speak for himself.”
That afternoon, I stopped in the NYU bookstore and bought my first Bible. I walked back to my dorm, climbed to my bunk, and flipped it open to a random gospel.
I was captured by the beauty of the story, seized by a strange and irresistible attraction to this Jesus, utterly compelled by his fearless insistence on calling out the violence and injustice of the world, facing it squarely, suffering its horrors, and emerging unconquered, suggesting that maybe, just maybe, it’s love that’s the strongest power in the cosmos, that love will have the last word.
My heart pounded, a knot formed in my stomach and a lump in my throat. I was terrified. I was not prepared to be a Christian. I wasn’t willing to reject science. I wasn’t willing to abandon my advocacy for the rights of my lesbian, gay, bi and trans friends and family. I certainly wasn’t willing to hand out religious tracts or carry a “REPENT” sign in Times Square or the Fourth Street subway station.
Turns out, I didn’t have to. With the help of my friends, I discovered a faith that embraced science, found beauty and wisdom in Scripture without taking it literally, affirmed the lives and loves of all God’s children, and made room for my own questions and doubts. I discovered a spirituality centered on experience of the Divinerather than opinions about it, that enjoyed exploring theological and metaphysical questions but didn’t get hung up on them.
I learned that I wasn’t alone on the path. I had spiritual ancestors—a centuries-long tradition of mystics, activists, artists, poets and revolutionaries—people who found in faith a call to personal and social transformation rather than a staid and oppressive status quo.
And I found out that there were places I could go to become a leader in this tradition of bold, open, and inclusive Christian faith.
When I told my mother that I thought I was being called to the ministry, she grimaced. “How will you ever make any money?” she asked.
“Mom,” I said, “I’m an actor. I’ll never be rich as a minister, but I’ll probably never starve either.” She reluctantly conceded that I was probably right.
I haven’t starved—but I have befriended gang bangers in East Oakland and corporate lawyers in Manhattan; taught and studied theology with prison inmates on two continents; preached in an illegal church in Communist Vietnam; marched for peace and justice in New York and LA; been jailed twice for civil disobedience; grieved and prayed with families as we buried their loved ones, married dozens of happy couples, several of them same-gender; and learned the quotidian rhythms of being a local church pastor in a small Midwestern city.
In some ways, it’s a strange time to be joining—to say nothing of becoming a leader—in the mainline church. The religious landscape of our culture is shifting faster than traditional religious institutions can keep up, and sometimes it feels like I’ve found my place in the household of faith just as everyone else is moving out.
But I’m immensely grateful to be doing what I do: exploring the heights and depths of religious experience, asking hard questions, building community, accompanying friends in the quest for meaning and purpose, being present to people in great joy and deep sorrow, bearing witness to the beauty and complexity of human life.
It’s not always easy or romantic, and there are days when I think I must have been crazy to sign up for this gig—but the work is profoundly rewarding, often moving, sometimes even exciting. And somehow, improbably, I’ve found myself exactly where I need to be.
Ryan Dowell Baum is the pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ and the host of Beer & Theology, a forum for the exploration of spiritual and theological themes on Sunday afternoons at Jackson Street Brewing in Sioux City. He is married with two kids.
Hear the stories of Siouxland immigrants from around the world, listen to live music and get a taste of authentic East African cuisine at 7 p.m. Friday, November 18 at the Sioux City Art Center. The theme is "Stories without Borders." This special evening of entertainment is only $10 at the door.
Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It is produced by Siouxland Public Media.