“Mockingbird Turns 10” Interviews: Ethan Richardson

This is the fifth installment in a series of monthly-ish interviews between myself and various […]

Charlotte Donlon / 7.26.17

This is the fifth installment in a series of monthly-ish interviews between myself and various writers and members of the Mockingbird community. These posts will explore some aspects of each individual’s personal story and some aspects of Mockingbird’s larger story and ministry as we celebrate its 10th Anniversary. Additional interviews in this series can be found here.

Charlotte Donlon: How did you connect with Mockingbird?

Ethan Richardson: I got connected pretty early on. I’ve been on staff for six years now. Before that I did a Teach for America placement in New Orleans after I graduated from college. I was having a tough time down there, and it was always a relief to read Mockingbird during my off-hours. I soon asked DZ if he would mind me sending some submissions in and it became something I found myself doing more and more often. Also, while I was living in New Orleans, I road tripped to the 2010 Mockingbird Pensacola Conference, where Grace in Addiction sort of got launched, and that small conference completely sold me on what the message is all about.

The message of grace wasn’t new to me, but it was new to hear about how grace connects to everything going on in my everyday life. I’ve always been a writer and reader. My work as a teacher was exhausting and writing for Mockingbird made me feel more alive. I moved back to Charlottesville after my two-year placement (I had gone to UVA in undergrad), and within months of moving back, I started working full-time here. We were the only two staff members. Things were pretty barebones back then.

CD: What are some of your favorite Mockingbird moments?

ER: Well, so many of my Mockingbird moments are spent answering emails, looking at a computer screen. My favorite moments are the ones at our conferences when we’re out on some random church patio, having too much wine with conference-goers but talking about life. I love our readership; getting to know their stories and how they came across this community and this message. Sadly the human-to-human interactions feel rare sometimes, but that’s really what this whole thing is about.

CD: Are there any Mockingbird moments you wish you could do over?

ER: The very first project I was tasked with was The Mockingbird Devotional. I wouldn’t necessarily want to do it over (it was such a massive project with so many moving pieces), but sometimes I think we could do it better. I was so new to editing and I’ve learned a lot since then. We’ve grown so much and gotten better at so many things on the publishing end (thanks mainly to CJ and Will McDavid). So, I sometimes wish we could go back and do that project again because we have so many great writers. And yet—this is the way things work—despite the difficulties of the project and the changes I’d make, it continues to be, by far, the most purchased book. People love The Mockingbird Devotional. It’s been a gift to a lot of people.

CD: Tell me a bit about how The Mockingbird magazine came to be. 

ER: Well, not everyone is a web person, myself included. Not everyone loves going online to read articles, especially longer articles, which Dave and I found ourselves writing more and more of. We found the format of the blog not always perfect for the things we had to say. Also, people come to Mockingbird for the message. We’ve always focused on looking for where the gospel exposes itself in everyday life—whether it’s through cultural criticism or personal testimony or social psychology. And one thing our magazines try to do is express that message in ways that are less ephemeral, more long-lasting. To some extent, we are trying to provide a “Mockingbird take” on various topics (identity or mental health or relationships or technology), and we wanted a way for people to read various distilled thoughts on a particular theme though essays, poems, and stories.

There is also, perhaps, something rebellious about the mag. We’re certainly not getting rich off the product, and everyone says the printed word is dying, but there is something so good and right about holding something beautiful in your hands to read. The hope was never to make a ton of money on the magazine. It’s just an extension of grace that we have something like this to send to people and provide for our readers.

CD: What has surprised you about the Mockingbird community?

ER: Just that we’re all a mess. I think it can be intimidating to go to a conference in New York City and see so many well-dressed people who seem like they have it all together. But the unifying factor about the Mockingbird community is not that people are well-heeled or intelligent, but that people are a mess and they need Jesus.

CD: What high culture, low culture and in-between culture have you consumed in the past few weeks?

ER: This question allows me to self-justify all of the cool stuff I’ve been consuming. I’ve been reading Earnest Becker’s The Denial of Death which is basically a anthropology book about the stories we tell ourselves to evade the truth of the d-word. I’m planning on doing a short Shakespeare project on the site—going back to some of my favorite plays. I’ve also just been reading The Reason You’re Alive by Matthew Quick, the guy who wrote Silver Linings Playbook. And, to top it off, I just listened to REM’s Automatic for the People on the way to work today.

CD: In the next month, what do you want more of and what do you want less of?

ER: Totally impossible, but I want less (angry) Trump coverage in the newspaper. Not that I am a fan, by any means. But I used to get so excited to get the Sunday New York Times; now I don’t even open it, because you already know what it’s going to say. Even the human interest stories tend to come back to it in some way.

I didn’t know I’d say this, but I want more Dave Zahl. Because he’s on sabbatical the office is pretty quiet right now. I think we all miss his nervous energy. My wife Hannah and I also just started a new British crime obsession, called Line of Duty. Holy moly. Need more.

CD: How does God have your attention right now?

ER: Well, I’m about to start taking classes to earn a masters in social work, with the hope of working towards counseling in some degree. I’ll take classes part-time and I’ll still work with Mockingbird. Much of the impetus behind it has to do with my experience as the jail minister here at Christ Church Charlottesville, but it’s also the pastoral heart of Mockingbird, too. God has turned my attention (and interests) toward the importance of counseling and caring professions, and I’ve also just noticed this is part of who I am, how I was wired. I’ve always been interested in psychology, and the fusion of psychology and theology. All of that has grabbed my attention right now and I feel like I’m waiting to see what the next steps God has for me.