Growing up in rural Whatcom County, Ryan Pemberton knew what it was to be hungry. His father, who lived out of state, saw Ryan once or twice a year.
So young Ryan dreamed of a future in which his own children would have two parents under one roof and enough food on the table. After graduating from Nooksack Valley High School, he majored in psychology at Western Washington University, thinking he might become a counselor, and minoring in business, to boost the odds he would find a good job.
Pemberton did, working for a public relations and marketing firm in Bellingham. He and his wife, Jennifer, also a Nooksack Valley grad, were busy at work and active in the community. They began looking for a home of their own to settle down.
But Pemberton wasn’t quite settled. While at Western he had read “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis and was struck by the famous English writer’s “logical, creative approach to consider Christian beliefs,” as Pemberton later put it.
Lewis is famous for his nonfiction Christian works and for his novels, including “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Pemberton found himself working days on public relations and marketing, and spending his nights reading and writing about theology.
“This itch wouldn’t go away,” he said.
Finally, with his wife’s OK, he quit his job to study theology at Oxford University in England, where Lewis had lived, taught and wrote. Their experience overseas is the subject of Pemberton’s engaging first book, “Called: My Journey to C. S. Lewis’s House and Back Again.”
Ups and downs overseas
Pemberton won admission to Harris Manchester College, one of the many colleges under Oxford’s umbrella, to study for a bachelor’s degree in theological studies. Shortly before they left for England, Jennifer’s sister died. His wife had to leave her grieving family behind.
“There I am feeling completely guilty,” Pemberton recalled. “I think, ‘What in the world have I done to my wife?’”
Matters brightened when Pemberton and his wife both got jobs at Lewis’ former house, known as “The Kilns.” It’s now a center for people researching Lewis’ life and works, with tours by appointment. Pemberton led tours and his wife scheduled them.
Pemberton also became president of Oxford’s C. S. Lewis Society, and co-founded Oxford Open Forum, an inter-religious dialog group. On his last night of school that year, he was allowed to sleep in Lewis’ former bedroom.
“For a kid from Everson, Washington, it was beyond a dream come true,” he said.
The Pembertons soon realized they didn’t have enough money for his second year at Oxford. They returned home for the summer but kept their financial straits private, Pemberton said. So it was all the more surprising when a local resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, offered to pay for Pemberton’s second year. Pemberton’s eyes still grow moist when he tells the story.
Because of their uncertain finances, they hadn’t reserved a place to live that second year. With time tight and the Oxford housing market even tighter, Pemberton received an unexpected offer from overseas: He could pay rent and live in one of the bedrooms at The Kilns.
Jennifer was pregnant and at home with her folks for much of her husband’s second year overseas. Pemberton graduated from Oxford in 2012 and returned home in time for the birth of their daughter, Emma. Soon after, they moved again so he could earn a master’s degree at Duke Divinity School, in Durham, N.C.
While in North Carolina, Pemberton had an experience that he highlights in his book. He was a student with little money and his wife worked part time. Without public aid, they couldn’t pay for braces their daughter needed to correct her displaced hips.
Haunting recollections of poverty resurfaced. But rather than break down or give up, Pemberton suddenly felt at peace.
“It was the kind of peace that’s only properly described as surpassing all understanding,” he writes in his book. “It’s the kind of peace that puts a smile on our face when you might otherwise feel like crying.”
Pemberton said he realized their situation in North Carolina was part of his “calling” from God, not to pursue a particular career goal, but to follow the calling wherever it led.
Pemberton, now 30, graduated from Duke last year and he and his family are back home in Whatcom County. He’s promoting his book, lecturing about Lewis, and writing a curriculum guide to Lewis’ works. He’s also doing some marketing and promotion work.
He wants to be a writer but isn’t sure if that will become a full-time job or an adjunct to other work. Whatever happens, he plans to write.
It’s part of his calling.