With his sometimes wicked sense of humor, mischievous eyes and devilish smile, Ian Wrisley seems an unlikely candidate for a man of the cloth. He swears he was a major dweeb throughout school, making him incredibly lucky to have landed such an awesome wife, and he’s downright humble about being a compelling actor and a compassionate thinker.
Born in Ashtabula, Ohio, on the east coast of Lake Erie, Ian grew up just south of there. He was a mere year and a half old when four students were shot down during a peaceful protest at Kent State by National Guardsmen, changing the political and activist landscape of America. After that, and after his parents divorced when he was three, his mother decided to attend Kent State University. They weren’t hippies, he claims, yet both parents were anti-racism and anti-classism and leaned toward more open-mindedness. Young Ian and his two brothers were moved into a predominately black neighbor of Kent, where he recalls, “Mom was very compassionate. My dad was very good at drinking. When I was a kid, my dad’s address was his license plate number but he still tried to be involved in our lives.”
Ian recalls his father’s homelessness due to alcoholism, which he eventually kicked through A.A. Ian’s mother remarried a photographer who had photographed the Kent State killings and aftermath.
“In Kent, we were dirt poor. We lived in a house where we had to bring in water in from a spring out in the country. But we didn’t realize we were poor,” Ian says. “There were hippies and bikers as neighbors. I thought all that long hair, mustaches and beards were normal. It made a big impact on me because I always thought that was the way the world should be,” Ian says.
He points out that as kids, they proudly wore a lot of fringe, which was the fashion of the era. “We had long hair and lots of beads.” Ian tells of the time he accidentally ran through a glass storm-door, severing his underarm and almost bleeding to death. But his main concern was when he arrived at the hospital—he was horrified when they had to cut off his favorite long-fringed leather vest. “That vest was so much better than my brother’s,” he laughs. “It was bad ass.”
Even though they were financially poor, Ian’s mom felt it was really important for her three sons to be involved in a multitude of activities so she signed them up for baseball, although Ian points out, “I was one of the worst baseball players in the world, except for my little brother who was even worse. He was so bad, he struck out of T-ball.
“We also took tennis lessons, bowling, swimming and I was in Cub Scouts,” he says, and later, he went on to become an Eagle Scout. “In high school, I wrestled. I did lots of camping. I spent as much time outside as I could. I got horrible grades through high school because I would rather be doing anything else. I hated school. My grades were horrible,” he laughs.
He somewhat reluctantly headed off to the University of Akron, admitting, “The only reason I went to college at all was because a high school buddy said if we go to the same school we could live together.” Meanwhile, his high school counselor was pushing for him to join the military, but Ian grimaces, “The murder part, that threw me. Although the camping sounded exciting, the heavy artillery didn’t appeal to me.”
Despite his lack of focus at the time, he enrolled in college but confesses that he almost flunked out. Luckily, he had met his wife-to-be, Kim, at a church youth group back when they were about 15.
“We didn’t go to the same high school, which was good because she didn’t know what a loser I was. It raised my credibility as a senior in high school when people found out I was dating an older woman who was in college,” he says of his wife’s one-year gain on him.
They married in 1990 while attending the same college. “She’d say, ‘I’m gonna do my homework,’ and I’d say ‘I’m gonna watch TV in my underwear.’ I learned from her how to have study habits. I didn’t know you had to be prepared for class, even though I was an Eagle Scout and that’s supposed to be our motto. If I were to go back in time, I’d advise Kim not to marry me but that would ruin my life,” he laughs.
Eventually, he finally pulled it together, thanks to his wife, and even made the dean’s list, graduating with a B.A. in anthropology in 1992.
“I had seen Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark and was inspired to become an archeologist but when I got there I found out they don’t pass out whips and hats and you can’t light artifacts on fire. Real archeologists hang around with shards of pottery and bone fragments. So I went with anthropology instead, which is more interesting because it’s about living cultures and human beings,” he says, decidedly happy with his choice.
He also notes that he’s never done anything with an eye toward the future, always doing what’s in front of him instead, which sort of explains why the young couple moved to Chicago so Ian could attend seminary.
As a result of a UCC church camp Ian attended in seventh grade, he became interested in religion. “The camp was run by charismatics and they were weird because they were liberal charismatics. We all got saved. My thing was that I was interested in Jesus,” he explains. “They would tell us in the evangelical world, it’s not about religion, it’s about a relationship. But then, they’d give us all these rules and I never liked that part. I wasn’t good at it. So I decided to go to seminary.”
They moved to Chicago after college so he could attend North Park Theological Seminary. Their daughter, Leah, was born in 1995 while there.
“Again, it wasn’t with any plan for the future, I just wanted to go learn some things,” Ian reflected. “I learned a lot of history, theology and how to read Greek and Hebrew, a lot about psychology and counseling and I learned about Gunnison Valley. One of the requirements of a master’s of divinity is an internship in a church. Shan Martin from the Gunnison Community Church wanted an intern, so I showed up and was a youth intern for a year. After I’d been there for about nine months, Shan told me he was moving and if I would get a haircut and iron my shirts they’d let me stay as an interim while they looked for a new senior pastor,” Ian laughs.
“So we stayed for another year and made another baby,” he says of their son, Zane, who was born in Gunnison. With another year to finish his degree, the family moved back to Chicago, where he graduated with a Master of Divinity degree.
The family of four moved to Lake Norden, S.D., population 350, because, Ian chuckles, “At the time I really did believe in God and I thought God wanted us to go there. I was a pastor at a small church, the Evangelical Convent Church. I was impressed with their openness to new experiences. It always inspired me.”
He also learned about lutefisk, the notorious gelatinous Scandinavian treat. “People left Norway and Demark to get away from that stuff and now they import it. It’s barely edible. It’s survival food. It’s soaked in lye. You have to soak it for days just to make it edible and then it’s not tasty.
“I decided we should start a food program but my friend told me that local people were proud and wouldn’t let you feed them if they thought it was charity but if you had a dinner then people will show up. It was total trailer park stoners that started this Bohemian meal service and you couldn’t tell who was the poor person and who was giving to charity. Some people would put money in the basket, some would take it out. It was just a community gathering to eat. It was a beautiful thing,” Ian says of their five years there.
Around this time, there were some people starting a church in Crested Butte South who contacted Ian to help with the startup. “We told them it wasn’t going to work with no support or funding but we moved here, bought a house, and the church failed to flourish. It was 2007 when it finally tanked,” Ian says. “I started working for Tony Veit as a carpenter and about a year later I started working for Kevin Donovan, who I still work for.”
After arriving in Crested Butte, Ian was accidentally dragged into theatre. “My kids were in A Christmas Story. When someone dropped out of that play, I dropped in as the father in the story and it was a lot of fun,” he says of his time in the limelight. Since then he’s been in many Mountain Theatre productions and has a box of Golden Marmot awards.
“What I love about theatre is that I can say and be things that I can’t do in person. I can look at people in ways that I could never look at them. I can kiss people, I can look at them intimately, I can look at them with anger, I can ask for the things that I wouldn’t normally do myself. I get to step outside myself, which is expansive. You learn things about the way your voice sounds, your posture, your mannerisms. You want to take your own personality out and build something else. For me, it’s a very positive experience,” says the now seasoned thespian.
“I don’t ever fit well into parameters, I don’t like boundaries and borders,” he says, noting a fact Ian knows about himself, which led him to organize a group discussion called Jesus Sanga. “Arvin [Ram, of Rumors Coffeehouse and Townie Books] asked if we could do a conversation about the Sermon on the Mount because it best expresses the heart of Jesus since it’s about behavior and attitude. Jesus says things like, an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, if someone strikes you on the left cheek, turn to him also the other cheek. Basically he’s talking about your attitudes and actions. Forgive your enemies.”
At the first Jesus Sanga, Ian was surprised at the diversity of participants. “Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics, and quasi-Christians like myself. There’s a need for open-ended spiritual conversation so we get together occasionally, have coffee and talk. It runs the gamut for discussion. Jesus is just the jumping off point because I’m still fascinated with Jesus. I just can’t get over that story,” he says. “With the Jesus Sanga, I can be a facilitator. In a pastoral sense, I still feel a lot of compassion toward people who are hurting and suffering. I think if actors could become preachers and preachers could become actors, we’d be in a better place because preachers are trying to convince you of something and actors are trying to hide.”
But the bottom line is, Ian strongly feels that it’s really all about love. “Love that gives itself away, love that’s self-giving. That’s what makes everything work. Everything we think that’s good in the world is about love that surrenders itself. It’s about weakness, not about power. That’s what parenting is, that’s what activism is, that’s how it all works. If you want to come with ‘power over’ you end up invading, colonizing and building empires even if it’s just in your personal life. ‘Power under’ means the hard work of figuring out what is best for the other person. That is my big take-away from the Jesus story. What really appeals to me is the compassion, love, generosity and giving.”
Of his community Ian says, “I like the way people can fight here. I love a good conflict. People here know how to fight and they know how to make up. There was so much love in my family. I would watch them love each other and watch them have these arguments. They believed in what they were saying but they loved each other more than they loved their opinions and I think this town, this whole valley, reminds me of that kind of a family. A bunch of insane people yelling at each other, then loving each other.”