With the current Supreme Court nomination hearings underway, we seem to be eroding that line between church and state. There are a number of folks from the religious and evangelical community in politics who seem to be turning their back on their own beliefs to follow a leader who seems to flout every commandant written. Fortunately, there are still a number of people in the religious community who are on the right, not righteous, side of things. Or would that be on the left…
Folks like Crystal Cheatham, from Our Bible App, and this week’s portrait, Pax Ressler. Ressler is the Director of Music at Tabernacle United Church, a progressive Christian community at 37th and Chestnut in West Philadelphia. In addition to their work at the Tabernacle, Ressler is an accomplished theatre and music artist, working as a creator, composer, designer, educator, music director, and performer. In addition to working in choral and sacred music, Pax is a recording artist and singer-songwriter. In 2014, they released an album entitled Stand By Me: Hymns of Hope & Healing.
Tell me a little about yourself.
I grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I was raised Mennonite and went to a Mennonite church. I went to a Mennonite high school and college in Indiana where Mike Pence was one of our representatives. I was there when he was elected governor as well. I’ve lived in Philly for the past 6 years, I wanted to be in an urban setting where there was a theater scene and it was closer to home rather than the 10 hour drive to Indiana. It was the best place I could have ended up; there’s such a generous and vibrant theater community here.
Talk a little bit about the family.
Sure, my family was my mom and my dad, my older sister and a younger brother. I’m a middle child. But I have a large extended family, 20 aunts and uncles, and 50 cousins. Most of them still identify as Mennonite and still feel tied to that tradition. I often question how Mennonite I feel, but I’ve moved away from church spaces.
Did that make coming out difficult?
“Coming out” sounds a little scary sometimes, so I prefer to say I didn’t come out, I invited folks in. Brought them into my queer reality. My family has been so lovely and has followed me into those journeys coming out as queer, coming out as genderqueer and then coming out as transfeminine. I’m very close with my family and it’s been wonderful.
For us lay folks, what’s the main difference between Mennonite and Amish, because we tend to lump them together.
Well, they’re both in the same Annabaptist pie, which is a group of folks who baptize adults, the Amish are a much more conservative group and who actually broke off from the Mennonites. They didn’t like how progressive and worldly the Mennonites were becoming. Some things about Mennonites: we’re a peace church so we believe in pacifism…and frugalness. Mennonites have every yard sale neatly marked in the newspaper and second-hand clothes for all of their children. My dad saves so many coupons he can go to the store and have the cashier pay him back! And there are of course foods and farming and other things. It often feels like an ethnic identity as opposed to just a religious one.
And Mennonites drive cars where the Amish don’t, correct?
Yes, there are different factions within the Mennonite community, old order or conservative and some of them might not drive, or have as many electrical appliances, but most do, and I was in a very progressive church. We’re very much part of the world at large while still trying to preserve our own community.
What did your folks do?
My parents both worked at Philhaven which is a Mennonite mental health facility. My mom then became an ESL teacher which she loved. She just retired from it. My dad became the Executive Director of a counseling center in Lancaster. So I grew up with people who believed in open and direct communications which made for lively conversation at the dinner table.
Fun family memory?
On most weekends we’d go to garage sales with our mom, but if we stayed home, our dad would make pancakes and play music. Surprisingly, he was really into heavy metal, Black Sabbath and that kind of stuff. Once we were born, he kind of switched over to Christian Hard rock, so we’d be at home dancing to Christian heavy metal in the living room.
What’s a good church memory?
Mennonites sing in four-part harmony without the help of a piano or guitar. Which is pretty special and rare. As a kid, my mom taught me to sing soprano, alto, and tenor in church, then when my voice changed my dad taught me to sing bass. I studied music from Mennonite professors and I wrote my own Mennonite hymns.
What was your first inkling that you were on the queer spectrum?
I was a pretty private kid. I never had that a-ha moment; it was more porous and through osmosis than that, but by 12 I knew I was queer, which made middle school an awful time. Because I knew it and so did the other kids, so I really didn’t have any friends. It was a dark time for me, but then I was able to go to a different high school and redefine myself. I was able to make friends and slowly let them in. I liked musical theater. I guess that was a sign. Before I even knew I was queer, I knew that I was genderqueer and transfeminine though I didn’t have words for it yet. I just know that at 4 or 5 I knew I didn’t fit in with the boys or the girls.
What did you study at college?
Vocal music education and composition. A lot of what I did was learning how to write music and studying neoclassic form with some great professors. I did student teaching in a classroom and again went through the dilemma, how out can you be in the public school system? Another traumatic experience!
Do you teach now?
Not really in the classroom setting. I work mostly as a music director for theater productions.
What’s something you’re working on now?
I’m working on “POP.” It’s about Andy Warhol and it’s going to be super cool. It will be in a digital gallery and you’ll be able to choose your own adventure. We’ll give you pieces of the musical and you can put the story together in whatever order you choose.
And I’d love to tell you about a recent project. It’s called Genderfunk Philly. Me and a friend, Dezi Tibbs co-created an Instagram where we feature members of the non-binary and trans theater community. The artists talk about what they do and the intersections of their identities. The goal is to be like a Rolodex for the theater community, to say: don’t say ‘you couldn’t find any non-binary and trans artists.’ We’re here. Come learn about us and hire us. Let us tell our own stories and help put us in positions of power by doing that. It’s been a great opportunity to give visibility and representation to the community.
What were some of your favorite artists growing up?
The ones who shaped me the most were Alicia Keys, Ben Folds (I was really into piano rock in high school as I taught myself how to play), and Christina Aguilera!
Tell me about your music, I understand that you just released an album.
Yes, it’s called “Change” and it’s an album of non-binary love songs. It’s about all different types of love including romantic love, songs about old friends that I’ve lost, and love for yourself, which might be the most important love of all. [Laughing] So I wrote a love song for myself! But mostly it’s inspired by the person that I’m in love with right now and thinking about reframing love and what queering love can be. But as a musical director, I’ve written and conducted and performed all over the country.
What’s the most exciting part of hearing someone else perform your music?
When I was in college I had a chance to do a bunch of composition recitals, which is where a bunch of folks play your music. It was such an awesome gift that my community gave me, to take the time to learn and memorize music that I had written and then share it with an audience. It’s thrilling to make something out of nothing and see it fully realized in a performance. To have something that is so personal and intimate to me become personal and intimate to the performer, and in turn have it transferred to someone who is listening and have it become personal to them too. There are so many iterations as it travels its course. I think that’s why music seems like such a perfect avenue for advocacy. We feel it in our bodies, literally as we feel the vibrations of the music, and then emotionally as we feel it in a spiritual sense. So for me, the question of why music is important to me is that it has to do with identity and with advocacy for my communities, which is why an album like “Change” felt so important to me.
Often, the church bumps up against the queer community in not so good ways, have you experienced that?
Yeah, for about 6 years I was actively doing advocacy for queer and transfolk in the Mennonite community through an organization called Pink Menno. We’d show up at Mennonite conventions where there were thousands of people and we’d wear pink to call for queer and trans affirmation in the church. It was lovely to see a sea of pink shirts among the people walking around. I’d lead musical events and we’d do direct actions and try to influence the delegates who were voting on things that affected us or were about us. After 6 years I left because I felt that the larger Mennonite church was making decisions to keep the more conservative churches in the conference hindering the full affirmation of queer and transfolks. That was very painful; I was so angry. After the vote we stood in the hallway so that all those who voted against us would have to walk past us. We wanted to let them see that we were in pain. It was powerful and sad at the same time. But after that I realized that I had to step away from the Mennonite church.
But not completely from the church…
No, luckily there are a lot of churches, like the one where I am now where I am encouraged to share my lived reality as a non-binary transfeminine queer person.
As a working artist, how are you fairing during this pandemic?
I’ve been doing okay. In lieu of theater work, which is usually my main gig mostly as a performer or music director or writing music, I’ve been working with a lot of clients teaching voice lessons online. It’s helping me as more theatrical stuff opens up online, like the “POP” show, and I’ll be working with 1812 Productions this winter. And I have my job at the church as the music minister. We’ve been doing services on Zoom since the beginning of the pandemic.
So if I’m watching West Side Story, it’s all I can do not to be annoying and sing along with every song. What’s your musical addiction?
I think the one I probably know all the words to would be “Fun Home”, it’s brilliant.
Alison Bechdel. I interviewed her.
Fantastic, I was the associate musical director for the production at the Arden.
A favorite story about a relative?
I recently learned that my great-grandmother had an affair with the family farmhand and got pregnant. She was a Mennonite growing up in rural Ohio at the turn of the 20th Century. I didn’t know this story for the first 28 years of my life and now I’m trying to find out everything I can.
What Olympic sport would you want to compete in? And don’t say skating…
Aw really! That’s what I was going to pick! As a 9 year old kid, I was totally obsessed with skating. I wanted to be one, but I was told, you’re too late at 9, you’ve already missed your chance!
They lied to you. Olympic skater Johnny Weir was 11 when he started, and I think he’s from Lancaster too.
Oh, wow. I was also obsessed with gymnastics. The floor routines. I loved watching the dancing elements, I was like, “This could be my thing!” I think the Olympics are like the queerest of events. You don’t have to be rooting for a team, you can just enjoy amazing hot people doing the things they do so well. Which is why my partner and I enjoy watching shows like Beastmaster and American Warrior Ninja and seeing people do things we can’t!
My friend Angelou does the casting for them. I’ve been on the Ninja set; it’s pretty incredible. How did you and your partner meet?
We were in a show; I was playing a tree and they were playing a squirrel. It was a theater showmance that has continued for 3 years. My partner is John Jarboe, the artistic director of the Bearded Ladies Cabaret.
What’s something fun or quirky about John?
Just so you know, John uses she/her pronouns, but a quirky thing? Well, we’re both very competitive when we play board games. We play a lot of Dutch Blitz which is a Mennonite game and we get into silly fights over the games. John is from the midwest and I think we both have something about achieving and having to do well at everything. For me, I think it had to do with being queer in a faith community and always feeling that I had to do more just to be enough.
What does faith mean to you now?At its best, and I really feel this at Tabernacle United, I believe that religious communities are a place to do the work of social justice work in the world. They’re a place to affirm who we are and what our values are as a community. And I think that’s at the core of Mennonite beliefs as well. That community is a priesthood of all believers that care about each other. It’s at the top of the priority list and I think that’s one of the things that I retain and value from being a part of that community. I want to build community wherever I go and it’s wonderful to be a part of a church that I really feel embodies that. Our pastor at Tabernacle, Katie Aikins, talks about faith and Jesus and God in a way that makes it clear that Christianity should be about doing the work of justice.