The Common Good
April 2009

Nashville's New Groove

by Bob Smietana | April 2009

A growing number of Nashville-based Christian musicians are discovering that their faith compels them to play and work for social change.

Derek Webb wants to dig latrines for Jesus. And he’s looking for a few thousand friends to lend a hand. In a world where as many as 8,000 people die each day from waterborne diseases, he says, it’s the Christian thing to do. To get the word out about his latrine campaign, Webb, a Nashville-based Christian singer-songwriter who doesn’t mince words, is planning to launch a new Web site—www.giveashit.org. The name, he said, is meant to startle people into action.

“The twin towers fall every day in Africa for lack of clean drinking water—7,500 or 8,000 people dying every day and the church does not appear to give a shit,” said Webb, echoing evangelist Tony Campolo’s provocative challenge to churches.

That’s something Webb, who helped found the contemporary Christian band Caedmon’s Call before launching a solo career, is determined to change. And he doesn’t mind offending people in the process, if he can get their attention.

“Part of my job is to take language and redeem it and to use it for good,” says Webb. “This is a great opportunity for me to use language creatively to stir people to action.”

Webb is one of a growing number of Nashville-based Christian musicians who are combining their faith with a commitment to social justice. Rather than simply playing benefit concerts or becoming celebrity spokespeople for charity, they’re taking a hands-on role in serving some of the poorest people on the planet and advocating for social change.

“Rather than ‘I’ll play your benefit,’ which is the most natural thing for us to do, there is more of a desire to be involved,” said Grammy Award-winning artist Ashley Cleveland, a veteran of the Christian music scene in Nashville.

SITTING ON A COUCH on the second floor of Portland Brew, an East Nashville coffee shop, Webb has the typical hip worship leader/Christian musician outfit—black canvas high tops, jeans, a black shirt, shaven head, and a few days growth of beard. His bright blue eyes blaze as he tells his story.

Like many Christian musicians, Webb started out young, skipping college to form Caedmon’s Call with some friends in Houston. All were good Southern evangelical kids who didn’t drink or smoke or break any of the rules they learned in church, but Webb says their faith was immature. “We were all very young Christians who had not quite yet had our brains turned on,” he said. “We all grew up in the South, and were trying to figure it out. ... We never thought of ourselves as Christian musicians—we were just kids who liked the Indigo Girls and wanted to play folk music.” They spent 10 years on the road, playing churches and concert halls and recording CDs for Christian labels, including the now defunct Warner Alliance and Essential Records.

Webb said he became uncomfortable with the marketing categories of Christian vs. secular music. He began to read the challenge-the-status-quo parts of the Bible—especially the prophets, with their sometimes foul language and concern for the poor—and it began to seep into his music, making some retailers uncomfortable selling his work. As his faith grew, Webb also realized that his theology and morals, while important, weren’t translating into loving his neighbors.

“Theology for its own ends, just for the sake of having great knowledge about God, is not really going to do you very much good,” he said. “It probably will do more to cause division between you and the ones you are in the world to love and care for than anything, unless there is a point in which it connects and it tips over into ethics and informing the way we love people. If it doesn’t, then even the Bible would say that we’re clanging cymbals and disruptive instruments.”

Eventually, Webb’s theology and music began to focus on Jesus’ two commandments—to love God and to love one’s neighbors. That changed everything in his life. He and his wife, singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken, left their church in suburban Franklin, Tennessee, to join a small urban church plant in East Nashville called City Church East.

East Nashville, a racially diverse community, has a mix of housing projects, high-end gentrified properties, and older churches with aging congregations. Growing up, Webb said his parents talked about tolerance and diversity. “My mom and dad told me that [God loved poor people], but we didn’t live anywhere near black people or poor people,” he said.

In recent years, Webb’s solo albums—She Must and Shall Go Free, I See Things Upside Down, Mockingbird, and The Ringing Bell—have taken on issues such as poverty, war, and racism. He’s also helped raise money for Blood:Water Mission, an organization started by Grammy-winner Jars of Clay that digs wells in impoverished African communities. The group launched a 1,000-wells project in 2004—and so far has built more than 600 wells in 11 African countries, serving about 460,000 people.

Along the way, Webb’s entire understanding of the gospel has changed.

“It used to mean the four spiritual laws; it used to mean the thing you try to squeeze onto a bumper sticker or a tract you can stick in the pocket of a waiter or leave on the back of a toilet,” he said. Now, for Webb, the word “gospel” has both spiritual and worldly overtones: “The gospel is a kingdom coming when all things will be made right, where all the things that are broken will be made right,” he said. Following that gospel has led him to the latrine campaign, by asking the simple question, “Who is my neighbor?”

“That’s not a hard question to answer, in my opinion,” he said. “It’s in Africa, because that’s where the greatest concentration of the poorest people on the planet are, where you have 8,000 people dying every day from mosquito bites and lack of clean drinking water. This is the work of following Jesus. If you don’t follow him to places like Africa, India, and Asia—if you don’t follow Jesus to these places, you might want to check whether or not it is Jesus that you are following. These are the necessary, inevitable outworkings of believing the basics of Christ­ianity.”

CHRISTIAN MUSICIANS HAVE a history of concern about social justice and about serving the poor in the name of Jesus. The late Larry Norman, for example, took on racism, poverty, war, and political corruption in his 1972 protest song “The Great American Novel.”

The song sounds like it could have been written today: “You are far across the ocean/but the war is not your own./And while you’re winning theirs/you’re gonna lose the one at home./Do you really think the only way/to bring about the peace/is to sacrifice your children/and kill all your enemies?”

More recently, many Christian artists in Nashville have championed child sponsorship through groups such as Compassion International. Each year, according to Spence Smith, artist relations manager for Compassion, about 26,000 new child sponsorships are signed up at Christian concerts. About 40 or 50 artists in Nashville work with Compassion, Smith said.

Smith began supporting Compassion while he was a member of the Christian band Big Tent Revival. When the band stopped touring, he became a staff member for Compassion. In the next three months, he’s taking three groups of Nashville artists, along with some bloggers, to the Dominican Republic and India. (Nashville blogger Anne Jackson has raised more than $119,000 for Compassion—and about $155,000 for social justice missions in all—through her Web site www.flowerdust.net.)

Smith said that the overseas trips make poverty tangible to the artists. “Going overseas was the connection for me, and that’s really where it is for most people,” he said. “We all get the numbers and we see the poverty on TV, and we read about it and we watch it on movies. But you never really know what it’s like until you are there.” Those kinds of hands-on experiences with poverty have inspired artists to champion child sponsorship. Others, such as Jars of Clay or Natalie Grant—founder of The Home Foundation (www.thehomefoundation.net), which helps young girls escape sex trafficking—have wanted to do even more.

Guitarist Zeb Barron, who tours with Audio Adrenaline, plans to travel to Cambodia this year on behalf of Freedom’s Promise (www.freedomspromise.org), an organization founded by his wife to help prevent human trafficking. He said that he and his wife were looking for a way to work on this issue over the long term, rather than simply writing a check.

“It’s not just, ‘How do we solve this one problem?’” he said. “It’s, ‘How do we change the world we live in?’ People have realized that putting band-aids on things, while it helps, doesn’t make permanent change. It’s like plugging a hole in a leaking dam.”

David Palmer, a former music business executive who now works for Youth Specialties, said that bands are more likely to tackle issues such as sex trafficking or HIV/AIDS than they were in the past. In the 1990s, he worked with a band called The Prayer Chain, which raised $30,000 for a pediatrics AIDS clinic while on tour. Some audience members disapproved of the idea—because of the stigma of AIDS.

ARTISTS ALSO SOMETIMES shied away from social issues, seeing them as too “political.” That’s not the case today, Palmer said. “Serving the poor is not a political statement,” he said. Instead, like Webb, many Christian artists have discovered that serving the poor is an integral part of following Jesus. Last year, a group of contemporary Christian worship leaders recorded a CD called CompassionArt (compassionart.tv), which connects serving the poor to worship. All the proceeds go to charity.

“It’s like the worship leaders are saying, just singing together as a congregation is not enough,” he said. “There has to be some action, otherwise we are just singing songs to make each other happy.”

Todd Lake, vice president of spiritual development at Nash­ville’s Belmont University, a Christian college that hosted a presidential debate between Ba­rack Obama and John McCain, has brought a number of speakers and artists to campus to talk about the connection between justice and faith. When it comes to reaching young people, he said, rock stars trump preachers every time.

“Rock stars have influence in our society that pastors only dream of,” he said. “Young people will listen to what a rock star says.”

At the same time, says Ashley Cleveland, musicians aren’t content being entertainers anymore. Inspired by the example of Bono, they want to change the world. “They are inspired to be more than rock stars.” Cleveland says Nashville musicians are also finding ways to express justice and compassion closer to home. In recent years, she and her family have become friends with a young man from Sudan named Philip Garang, one of the so-called Lost Boys.

Now a student at a local college, Garang had arrived in the U.S. with little more than the clothes on his back. He’d also lost most of his teeth, which made looking for a job difficult, distracting would-be employers from Garang’s capabilities. Cleveland called her dentist and orthodontist—she’s had a teen­age kid in braces—and asked them to see Garang. They ended up doing major dental work on him for free.

“Now he has the most beautiful smile,” said Cleveland. “You forget how much good you can do, even with the small connections you have.”

Cleveland, a longtime veteran of Nashville’s music world, believes the interest in social justice will continue—in the music world and the evangelical church—despite the recent economic downturn. “It’s odd to me that when people are doing really well, they want to hang on to as much of their money as they can,” she said. “When things get tough, there is more of an awareness of the needs of others.”

Webb too is hopeful for the future. He said that being involved in compassionate ministry and social justice has become almost expected for Christian artists these days. Some may be tempted to get involved to get some good public relations, he said, but eventually, “the gospel gets a toehold on their lives.” When that happens, he said, everything changes.

“It’s not long before they ask, what does this mean for my life?”

Bob Smietana, co-author of G.P. Taylor: Sin, Salvation, and Shadowmancer (Zondervan), is a religion writer for The (Nashville) Tennessean.

From Farm Aid to Land Mines

Over the years, many prominent Nashville artists have been involved in social causes, often from the basis of their faith. Some of the biggest names in Nashville’s colorful history—from Emmylou Harris to Willie Nelson to Loretta Lynn—took part in the Farm Aid concerts beginning in the 1980s, and others supported USA for Africa (“We Are the World”), the 1979 Music for UNICEF concert, and other benefits and campaigns up to the Earth Hour 2009 initiative against climate change.

Emmylou Harris was part of the Lilith Fair tour (which donated a dollar per ticket to women’s shelters and other nonprofits), helped organize Concerts for a Landmine Free World, and supports the Vietnam Veterans of America, Second Harvest, and Freedom Sing. Steve Earle (and the Dixie Chicks) received wide notoriety for opposing the Iraq war, and Earle has been active in the campaign to abolish the death penalty. Earle, Willie Nelson, and Lucinda Williams have been among the artists involved in Harris’ work against landmines. Nashville artists, like their counterparts in other genres, have seen the power and the potential in getting their hands dirty in the world beyond the spotlight.

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