Names are important. My name is Ryan Jeffryes Russell. “Ryan,” I am told, means “little king” or “one of laughter.” My parents picked it with the intention that everyone would call me RJ, but Ryan stuck. “Russell” means “sly as a fox” or “red-haired one.” Only one person in my family has red hair, but we can be sly, I guess. “Jeffryes,” unique spelling and all, I get from an abusive great-uncle who died in a car crash while simultaneously high and drunk because he went too fast at an intersection sometime before I was born. I’m supposed to redeem the name, and if at all possible, not live up to it.
I am a pastor’s kid. In fact, both of my parents are ordained in the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. The Foursquare church, founded by a woman in the 1920s, recognizes that women should have equal standing in ministry.
It’s Thanksgiving Day, and home is uncharacteristically organized. My mom has a schedule with every food, who is bringing it, and what time it should be prepared. We typically aren’t planners, but food is a value in our family. My dad always says that eating is a deeply spiritual thing. Some of that may be from his time as a wrestler, always cutting weight. My dad’s brother, now an NCAA coach, even managed to eat a Big Mac and Shake while paralyzed on his whole left side. “I’m a wrestler. I’ll never forget how to eat,” he said.
My hometown is Battle Ground, Washington, even though I only lived there during high school. Those four years were a longer time than I spent in any house growing up.
Our first house is Gresham we called the Blue House, at first. We were moving from Colorado. At that time there were five of us, my parents, me, and my two younger sisters. I was five years old. If you count pregnant women twice, then there were six of us. My youngest sister was waiting to be born.
Both of my parents grew up and went to college in the Portland area, but my dad had been a pastor for middle schoolers and high schoolers in Colorado for the past five years. The pastor of a mega-church back home in Gresham called and asked if he felt like coming home. My dad was going to be the head of youth ministry at a church with thousands of attendees every Sunday.
When we made it to Gresham after the long road trip, we found a house for sale by owner just a few blocks from the church and across the street from the local high school. It was a big house built in 1921. The couple living there were only the second family to own it. They had lived there for around forty years, but now their kids had moved out and moved east. They were going to Tennessee to be closer to family. When they heard that we were the new youth pastor family, they were delighted. They had been praying that the new owners of the house would be able to use for ministry. We ended up moving in with them right then and there, and lived with them in their house for two months.
The first years in that house were quiet, as quiet as a house can be with four children under the age of six. I attended kindergarten at the church, and liked it so much that I did it again. (My parents were hoping to hold me back because of my summer birthday). The first time through kindergarten, I met my best friend, Brian. I was an insecure little five year old – I couldn’t swim, I couldn’t ride a bike, and had to wear Pull-ups to bed. All of the cool kids seemed to think that was baby stuff, so I didn’t bring it up. I just ran around the playground, avoiding all of the little cliques. It also didn’t help that the first thing my friend said to me was “I’m not your friend,” in a very deep and imposing voice (for a five year old). He was wrong. We were best friends by the end of the year, and have been ever since.
Luckily, my dilly-dallying in kindergarten didn’t get me off track, because the next year I was homeschooled and skipped first-grade altogether. Around that same time, my parents started the INTERNational Training Program at our church. Almost a dozen college-age students signed up to take classes at the church’s accredited school, volunteer in the youth ministry, and live together (in our house). Our bedrooms became make-shift dormitories for the interns, and my sisters and I slept on the floor in the living room. For me, it was a grand adventure. The carpet is plenty comfortable for a light and springy seven-year-old boy. I positioned myself above a huge cast-iron heating vent, probably original in the house, so that throughout the night my blanket would periodically inflate with warm, metallic air.
The training program was international because several interns were from Europe. My dad had ties with the national Foursquare leaders of several European countries. Even though we shared a denomination, the cultural differences were apparent. The pastors at our church were supposed to avoid alcohol. Not because it was sinful, but in recognition of those in the body who struggle with alcoholism. For the Europeans, youth group at home might consist of a barbecue and cracking open a few beers, or even “church goes clubbing,” which is exactly what it sounds. Everyone had to grow a little bit.
The intern program grew, and the house across the street from us went on sale, so we somehow convinced a bank to give us a loan for another house. We called the blue house the alpha house, and the new one the beta house. One house would be for the girls, the other for the guys. (The interns weren’t allowed to date, and as a result, at least half-a-dozen marriages came out of the program, most of them inter-continental.) The alpha house had a one-car detached garage that had been turned into a living space with a loft above. We fixed up the “little house,” and all 600 square feet became our family home. Upstairs was the kids’ bedroom. I still had to share with my sisters, but at least I had a bed now. Downstairs was the kitchen/dining room/master bedroom combo and the bathroom. My dad christened it the “Cottáge” – because it wasn’t quite a cottage, and not quite a garage.
Thankfully, our time in the Cottáge was only about a year. We went back to the bank, and they somehow handed us a loan for a third house. On paper, our mortgage payments were a thousand bucks a month above our income, but somehow it worked. An administrator at the church was convinced that we had a secret inheritance. Our next house was called the Country House. It was in the town of Boring, Oregon, more or less. To a kid, however, the two acres of fields and forest were a source of endless fun. My sister and I started filming a documentary. We interviewed the Boring Fire Department, filmed outside the Boring Middle School, and got Boring haircuts.
I started going to a private Christian school. Somehow, a lot of the other pastor’s kids at the church were in my class. As pastor’s kids, we often had to meet socially with these other families. Sometimes, it worked out, and we were friends. Mostly, it was awkward. A few cases were worse: as a fourth grader, girls were still strange creatures. There was one girl in particular who I didn’t get along with. She and I would make fun of each other across the aisles. When she started speaking Portuguese (she claimed) to her friend to talk behind my back, I made up a new language, so I could say things only I could understand. In this language, the word for dumb was inspired by her. I could quietly say to myself, “Emma se em.” Emma was dumb, but I caught myself staring at her during class, not thinking anything, just staring, and wondered if that meant I was falling in love. It was the process my middle school pastor would later call “cooties to cuties.” But I decided it wasn’t happening yet.
In 3rd and 4th grade at this school I was expected to write everything in cursive (because Real Life requires cursive, according to their curriculum). This required a lot of looking up to the cursive alphabet posted above the blackboard. My first report card had an F in penmanship. It was there that I decided that I hated school, especially math, because math meant long division, long multiplication, and long hours working on worksheets for the work we missed on Mondays and Fridays, when school didn’t meet.
I could have continued at the Phonics Phactory, moving down the assembly line through 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th, but I got out. I moved to public school. I was back in a class with Brian, my best friend. It was a welcome change from the private school where the teachers were only allowed to deviate from the official lesson plans a certain number of times per year. As a pastor’s kid, I’m obligated to acknowledge that transferring to public school was a culture shock. As a pastor’s kid, my exposure to dirty secular music was when a pastor played it to show that we should avoid it. When I had The Talk, the only thing I knew about sex is that it must be bad, because it was the reason I couldn’t watch so many movies. The crowd I fell in with were the wall-ball playing types with the type of dirty sense of humor that only 11 year-old boys have. I tried the swearing and joking, but the words didn’t sit right on my tongue, and fell out lamely, with no respect for proper comedic timing. Brian advised me to stop trying.
Three mortgages was too many. We sold the country house and moved into the beta house. I entered middle school. We shared the beta house with the guy interns, but they had a separate entrance into the basement where they were staying. Our house was mostly ours for a season, but there was always something going on in the basement or across the street.
I had never ridden the bus to school, because we were always outside the boundaries of the district. One of my parents drove me and my sisters to school every day. I got exceptions so that I could go to school with Brian. Again, we moved, this time to the town home, where I was still outside of the district. This was a row house, but it was the biggest row-house in the development. The chief builder of the project designed it for his own family, and they built another unit attached at one wall. The intern program started to change. The interns all moved out into other host families, though one of the former interns, more like a relative now, lived with us at the the town home. We sold the other two houses. We no longer lived in a dormitory, and the house was quiet. Even when we had parties, like the Super Bowl one year, I mostly stayed upstairs and sat at the computer, programming, playing games, and surfing the web. For parts of middle school, it felt like my closest friends were people I talked to in an online forum for a game that never really took off. I even created a topic to debate creationism vs evolution, stretching to dozens of pages. Up there, I was away from the hustle-and-bustle of pastoring.
There’s one more move we made. The town home was relatively quiet. We lived there during the time my dad took off from pastoring and the time he spent pastoring a church 40 minutes away. We didn’t hold church events there. When we moved to Battle Ground, that changed. The church in Battle Ground was tiny – not like the mega-church I was used to. We sent some friends to check it out, and they said there were twenty-six people there if you count pregnant women twice. It met in a middle school cafeteria – a church in a box, unpacked every Sunday morning and repacked in the afternoon. When we moved to Battle Ground, Brian’s family moved in with us. Ten people, five bedrooms, so Brian and I shared a bunk-bed. It really was a dormitory, then. After the church grew, we held an open house. Over a hundred people came and mingled in the house quite comfortably. Youth group every week was in our family room, worship practice during the week, and counseling sessions on-and-off. For a while, the church office was our garage. As before, most of the time I spent at home (I was at school at least ten hours a day, because I seem to enjoy busy schedules) was on the computer. I didn’t visit the forums anymore – we all had grown up and moved on. And the computer wasn’t upstairs away from the action. It was in the dining room, where all day I could see people come in and out for some event or another, and be a part of their conversations.
It’s time to pray before Thanksgiving dinner. We stand and grab a hand. I look around at who is here. Me and my sisters and parents, reunited for the first time in months by the two oldest returning from college, four of my eight grandparents, my mom’s brother, his wife, and my four little cousins, my best friend’s family – four of them, plus their grandmother, a family from the church, adding three more, my sister’s boyfriend, who seems a bit weirded out by the giant circle we’ve made around the food on the kitchen island, and a college-aged German guy who has been staying in Battle Ground for a few months. That makes twenty six. My dad starts the song. This time, it’s a simple song we learned from the Dutch group at a European summer camp years ago. By the time he has finished the first “We wanna…,” all of the guys join in with a low pitched “thank You.” Once more, the guys drone, “We wanna thank You,” and the women respond with “Thank You, thank You, Lord.” The song continues, eventually reaching a unison “We wanna thank You very kindly for this good (good) good (good) good, good food.” I can tell my sister’s boyfriend is a bit confused how everyone seemed to know the song, and I smile. Everyone here had their first time. The German student starts a prayer, “Vater, wir danken Sie für das Essen, und das Zeit…” We all grab food, and scatter throughout the house in little groups.
On Black Friday, my friends and I traditionally go down to Portland and go shopping, but almost never buying. It’s just something to do while we’re together during the short break. This time, we drive through Gresham on the way to better deals. We go through familiar streets, but they are alien to me. The amber streetlights illuminate storefronts I’ve never seen, and the houses of people I don’t know. Through a fence that wasn’t there before I see a house I used to live in. The tree that I played in fell down in a wind storm just after we left, as if dying in our absence. This isn’t my home, and I don’t think it ever was.
For all that I complained of the endless hustle-and-bustle of home growing up, I need it. Twenty-six people at the home doesn’t feel crowded, it feels right. In a few days, as I head out the door for Seattle, the worship team is practicing in the living room, which has a baby grand piano, drum kit, and amplifiers for both electric guitarists; my sister has a few friends from her cross country team over for a study party; I’ve just eaten lunch – still leftovers from Thanksgiving – there must have been 30 pounds of mashed potatoes; my grandparents are continuing their never-ending rummy tournament; and my parents have a meeting with a realtor about a new house – one that would have enough room for two more grandparents to move in. A typical day in the pastors’ home.