Hi, My Name Is Ryan

The clown prince of Phoenix's downtown art scene is sacrificing madcap antics for a Mormon mission

"It sounds weird to say, but I get this overall feeling of, 'I'm proud of you,'" Avery says. "Like He's saying, 'You're making yourself happy and you're not hurting anyone, so this is good.'"

Normally, steadfast religious convictions such as these might grate against the fast and loose atmosphere of Grand Avenue, but Avery's buddies respect his beliefs. He believes his twin passions can co-exist and provide the best of both worlds.

"Though if my art scene friends fought with church members or my family, it would be brutal," he quips. "And hilarious."

Ryan Avery
Luke Holwerda
Ryan Avery
Ryan Avery
Luke Holwerda
Ryan Avery

JRC and Carrico, both avowed agnostics, say their friend has never proselytized or been judgmental.

"It's implied a lot of times if you're Christian that you're not supposed to walk among the lepers," JRC says. "But he realizes that's crap and doesn't separate himself from what he wants to do and who he wants to hang with."

Besides, he adds, they're far more worried he'll return from his mission a completely different person.

Avery is gung-ho about going on his mission. So much so that in 2005 he got into a confrontation with Todd Farnworth, the bishop of his old ward in Ahwatukee.

The spat stemmed from the church leader's unwillingness to approve Avery's mission since he wasn't living with his parents and didn't have his GED. (Neither is required, but the candidacy decisions are at the discretion of the bishop.) Farnworth declined to comment on the issue.

"That wasn't my smartest move ever," says Avery. "I remember thinking to myself, 'Ryan, you're yelling at a bishop. Stop it or you'll never get to go.'"

Eventually, Avery relocated to his current ward in central Phoenix where he says his new bishop, Zach Robertson, enthusiastically endorsed his missionary intentions.

Surprisingly enough, Avery says his extracurricular activities factored very little, if at all, into the decision. He claims Robertson and other ward members are aware of his performances, but it doesn't seem to faze them. (Robertson declined an interview request.)

"I've gotten a few bad vibes from people," Avery says. "But most people just say, 'Oh, that's interesting,' which really means, 'We don't care.' Mormons are very polite."

The only opinion Avery's really interested in is the Lord's. In fact, he believes "without a doubt" that sending him on a mission to Portland is the Heavenly Father's way of testing his faith.

It's easy to see why.

Given the Rose City's ultra-hip art and music scenes, Avery will undoubtedly be tempted to stray from his restrictive two-year task of intensely focusing on his beliefs, studying Mormon doctrine, and preaching the word of Joseph Smith for upward of 14 hours a day.

"Sending Ryan to Portland is like sending a gambling addict on an all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas," says Carrico. "You'd think Jesus himself told the church to put him there."

Turns out, Jesus did just that, if you believe that sorta thing.

The location where each missionary serves is decided on by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a cadre of the Mormon Church's hierarchy in Salt Lake City. Each week the council gathers to look over missionary applications and uses a combination of prayer, discussion, and divine revelation to make its choices.

It's not a burning bush or anything, but it's enough for Avery, who's certain he'll be able to stay on the straight and narrow instead of turning up at such infamous Portland performance spaces as the Clown House or at the city's First Thursday art walk.

"That's something I've been thinking about lately, what it would take for me to be a bad missionary over," Avery says. "But I know I'll be a good boy."

He probably won't have much time for shenanigans anyway. After reporting to the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, on August 23, Avery's in for three packed weeks of classes, where the subjects include proselytizing methods and materials, proper etiquette, and code of conduct.

The latter might give him the most trouble. As a member of "God's Army," he'll be expected to follow more than a hundred different rules set out by the Missionary Handbook governing when he sleeps, with whom he associates, what he wears, and practically everything else.

Avery will be forbidden from any number of activities that might distract him from his duties or his faith, such as watching television, phoning friends or family, or even swimming. Avery says the president of each mission will occasionally allow some rules to be bent, though it isn't commonplace.

He can only listen to music that's "uplifting and heightens spiritual activity," such as hymns or choir music, but plans to mail home any off-limits CDs he comes across so he can listen to them two years from now.

If the mission president permits it, Avery's also hoping to use his one free day a week — where he's expected to handle personal business like laundry and writing letters — to borrow a video camera and create performance videos to send to the Trunk Space. It's bending the rules, he admits, but his brother Matt learned to play the guitar on his mission, so he should be fine.

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