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Kevin Ressler’s favorite Bible verse is Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” He likes that verse because it teaches that faith can’t be done alone; it requires others, and that faith can be practiced anywhere.
“One of the things people often ask me is if I’m disappointed that I spent tens of thousands of dollars to get a master’s of divinity and am not a pastor,” he says. Sure, he doesn’t lead a congregation, but he does have hundreds of volunteers and recipients at Meals on Wheels. The thirty-one year old executive director not only helps to lead, but he also helps to serve some of the most forgotten people in our community. Recipients of the nonprofit organization’s kindness come from all walks of life; meals are provided based on needs, not on income.
Ressler is a bi-racial Mennonite. He’s bold and hilarious; his humor is a brilliant way to meet people where they are and get them to pay attention. Ressler is talkative and opinionated, but he can also be serious about a variety of topics—everything from early Christianity and his dislike of the apostle Paul to Newtonian physics and African literature. He has breadth and depth. “I can navigate in most groups, but in those groups, I’m not always fully embraced. My white, missionary father, who speaks Swahili, always says you don’t know a language until you understand their jokes because you have to understand subtext and nuance.” He adds with panache, “I get Mennonite jokes.” Ressler’s family is tight-knit. “Growing up in the 80s, there were many who didn’t’ want to be my parents’ friends. People might want their kids to be friends with me and my brothers, but yet never invite my parents over for dinner,” he says. “Weird dynamic.” Ressler likes defining culture as not what you do, but how you do it. He says he’s driven by a historically Mennonite thought, one that embraces service and self-sacrifice and one that looks through life simply in many ways.
Ressler met his wife, Melissa, while they were both in San Francisco for a year with Mennonite Volunteer Services in 2007. They have a nearly two year old daughter named Acacia. “The thing that happens once you interact with a child is you realize how much you’ve forgotten about how to be,” he says. “What I mean by that is the ceiling fan is exciting. She picks up a piece of lint that I didn’t even see, which makes me want to vacuum, and looks at it. Her eyes are always wide open and her head is always turning and it encourages me… . I don’t need stuff in order to have. I can open my eyes, open my ears, and taste things. I love watching her grow,” he says.
In many ways, he says he always wanted to help people. Ressler is an encourager at heart. “Every single day of my life I can’t tell you how many times I fail at things. Maybe I trip up the stairs—that’s failing at walking. Maybe I burnt the eggs or pushed the toothbrush too far while brushing. If we take our big failures in the way we take our mundane, everyday failures—we would take more risks and live more authentic lives.” His oddly specific instances are humorous and put things into perspective. “We’re afraid of being different; we’re afraid of being ostracized. But that’s where your greatness blossoms.”
Ressler actively guest preaches at any opportunity, including as far as an Anglican church in Homa Bay, Kenya; as small a community as Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church in the 1500-person town Harper, Kansas; and as large a gathering as the 7,000+ Mennonite World Conference in Harrisburg. Last year, he was the Mennonite history day speaker for Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, traveling to fifteen different Mennonite high schools to share lessons from his story and how his identity forms his values. His primary focus, influenced by his own understanding of identity, highlights issues of justice for groups of people who are often silenced or not given voice. Much of his recent focus has been issues of racial justice, Muslim refugees, women in leadership, and the LGBT community.
“To have a church or religious entity not welcome individuals fails at its most basic level. Those were the same people who were against interracial marriages—knowing that fifty years ago, my existence was illegal in forty states. These individuals today who are holding hostage God’s message of love and inclusion would have said my existence should be illegal. If I’m not able to recognize my opportunity to exist in the world and, in turn, look at who isn’t being allowed to exist as God created them, then I’m rejecting God and my responsibility to build God’s Kingdom.”
Ressler encourages others to volunteer and get involved in the community. “Meals on Wheels is an incredible team effort,” he says. “If my demographics make me rare, it makes me aware that everyone is uniquely powerful even when it isn’t easily seen, then I’m going to use every ounce of my power to make sure other individuals who would otherwise be silenced by the systems and structures are able to be spoken for so they may speak for themselves.”