My name is Ryan, and I am an agnostic, despite the letters (Rev.) that precede my name. I am an outsider, despite my role as an inclusion affiliate for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I am diagnosed “disabled” (autistic) and “disordered” (anorexic), despite my disregard for labels. Finally, I am spiritually homeless, despite my sheltered living situation.
Or, I was—until Unity opened a door for me.
A Religious Roller Coaster Ride
My metaphysics-minded father first sowed the seed of spirituality that would eventually sprout into my Unity-corn horn. I still feel the awe of the ancient Aztec ruins and mystical Maya relics we saw on our travels during his five-year fight with cancer. That diagnosis, far from a death sentence, only implored him to embrace life, and I got to tag along on his quest for truth—until one day, when I was 12, he transitioned and I was left to travel alone. What a religious roller-coaster ride it’s been since!
In high school I tried to find my rhythm alongside the reggae-loving Rastafarians, hoping to stumble upon Jah truth via a smoke-induced epiphany and dreadlocks; however, my pale-skin and pot-provoked panic attacks precluded Bob Marley from my list of prophets, so I next stretched my faith toward Buddhism. This, too, proved misguided; after all, it hadn’t been Krishna who’d caught my third eye so much as the yoga-practicing blond from physics class who stole my other two.
I commenced college with a dispensational dive into Southern Baptist culture, thanks to an athletic scholarship. Although the evangelical ethic didn’t fit my fancy, I did find a lasting friendship in the water-walking rabbi who they worshipped. Thus, I set off for Boston four years later with Jesus at my side, a creative writing degree, and an internship that allowed me to spend a transcendental summer wading in Walden Pond alongside Thoreau and the Unitarians. This served as a powerfully philosophical prelude to my plunge into seminary alongside the Presbyterians the following fall, where I engrossed myself in the existentialism of Kant and Kierkegaard.
An Hour of Play
I was eventually ordained; however, given my professed agnostic-Christian-mystic pedigree, I might best be deemed a ministerial mutt, a rainbow-hued sheep that never fit in the fold. Theological twists and turns aside, one source of truth—introduced by Ernest Holmes, whose Science of Mind I first flipped open during a depressive dip in high school—has traveled with me along the way.
So why has Unity held fast while many of my other faith pursuits proved fleeting? Whereas most traditions discourage doubt and deliberation, Unity encouraged my exploration while offering unconditional acceptance along the way. Although I may don a mask of confidence, self-acceptance has never been my forte. Recreation, on the other hand? Well, that’s another story!
I remember peering into the weary eyes of aspiring spiritual leaders during a lackluster seminary lecture and thinking, Something’s wrong here. This was just before the instructor hit me with a life-changing line: “One grows more through an hour of play than a lifetime of conversation.”
That inspired me to create the Sweaty Sheep Ministries, whose motto, “re-creation through recreation,” was born out of my quest for acceptance and inclination toward amusement. A decade later, our inclusive ministry continues to tap into the power of play as a means of helping those on the fringes overcome divisive labels of disability, mental illness, sexual orientation, and faith affiliation by engaging them in intentional recreational activities.
Whether it’s our adventure retreats; our adaptive art offerings that allow the disabled to express their faith in nonverbal ways; our spirited sails aboard our 40-foot catamaran in Santa Cruz, California; or our philosophical surfing sessions where we swap sport coats for wet suits—we strive to promote inclusive and engaging opportunities that encourage our community to experience the Creator via playing alongside the diversity of creation.
Despite being rooted in the Christian tradition, the ministry empowers each individual’s journey by engaging in interfaith dialogue as a means of mutual evolution. Thus, for as long as we continue making and riding waves in Santa Cruz, our compass rose will always point us toward the safe harbor we’ve found in Unity!
You can learn more about Rev. Ryan’s unique journey of body, mind, and spirit in his recently released memoir, From Emaciated to Emancipated: The Story of a Skinny Mango, and dive in with his ministerial, personal, and artistic work by visiting thesurfingmango.com.
This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.