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Intersection of Life and Faith

Still Telling Stories

  • Andrew Greer Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2009 1 Sep
Still Telling Stories

Mark Schultz is Christian music's master storyteller. Known for weaving real life scenes from friends and fans into commercially appealing, four-minute pop songs, the Dove Award-winning singer/songwriter is famous for his heart-wrenching balladry. Though his knack for writing tearjerkers has brought him success, Schultz is beginning to think there might be more to music than just capacity crowds and No. 1 hits.

Prompted by a personal encounter with Mexico's orphans, Schultz, who was adopted, cycled cross-country a couple years ago to raise awareness and money for orphan care for The James Fund, a non-profit orphan advocacy organization. And with his fifth studio recording, Come Alive (Word), Schultz combs the story vault to serve up a fresh batch of prose inspired by his wife Kate's experiences as a doctor and the people he met pedaling across America.

Come Alive is being called your "most personal disc to date." That's a pretty common tag line these days!

Mark Schultz: [Laughs] All my records are personal because I'm the songwriter. It was the people I met on my bike ride across the country coupled with my wife's stories—she's an OBGYN going through her residency—that [inspired] this record. I usually write about real life, so I would say it's just as personal as all my other records.

Tell me more about what inspired that bike ride.

Schultz: I was adopted when I was two weeks old. I tell people it was the hardest two weeks of my life with the paperwork and everything. [laughs]

Family Christian Stores called me and said, "We know you're adopted, and we think we might have an opportunity for you." They took my wife and me to the orphanages in Mexico they help sponsor. I met and fell in love with the kids and thought, We can get these kids in a better situation. So I became a spokesman for The James Fund, which started from the Bible verse [James 1:27] that says, "True religion is taking care of widows and orphans."

A missionary in Mexico said, "You have the opportunity to be more than just a Christian artist whose face is on a poster that says, 'I support The James Fund.' Please don't be that guy." I thought, I'm gonna ride my bike across the country and do 14 shows. All the money that comes in from those shows is going to go to these kids. So I pedaled my way to 14 shows and we raised a quarter of a million dollars.

What does The James Fund actually do?

Schultz: Let me give you an example. When we went to Mexico, a sweet, well-educated, Mexican named Rudolpho gave us a tour of orphanages. He was probably 24 years old. He had grown up in an orphanage, and a group in Mexico called Back2Back came to Rudolpho and said, "You're a smart kid. We want to give you an opportunity to go to high school and college." So through the help of The James Fund, Back2Back was able to give Rudolpho a scholarship to go to high school and to college.?

Today, Rudolpho speaks five different languages and has a master's degree. We're standing there and this little girl jumps in his arms and says, "When I grow up I want to be just like you." Rudolpho said, "As long as I'm here you're going to go a lot further than I did."

So The James Fund equips organizations like Back2Back to take a kid from the orphanages, who will likely end up as a drug addict, selling drugs, or a prostitute, gives them an education, and gets them a solid job. They become the heroes of that orphanage, they go back and the kids say, "This guy's made something of his life." That's the only way you're going to influence the situation, one generation helping pull the next generation out of poverty.

They also help couples in the United States who don't have enough money to adopt kids from overseas, but want to, with matching funds.

Adoption is becoming more common in America. You were adopted. Do you and your wife also hope to adopt one day?

Schultz: If it's up to my wife [Kate], we will have a kid from every continent.? [Laughs]? She wants a multi-cultural family. Every time she goes overseas and does medical mission work, she calls me in tears and sends me a picture of some little kid she wants to stuff in her bag and bring back.?

On the new record, "What It Means to Be Loved" is a classic Mark Schultz heart-tugger about parents' love for their children. What's the story?

Schultz: One day Kate said, "I think we should think about adopting some kids with special needs who are pretty bad off and may not even live to be a couple years old." I said, "Honey, what have you been reading and why do we need to do that?" She said, "If they are on the sidelines of life and nobody's paying attention to them, I want to make sure they know what a great birthday and Christmas is. So before they get to heaven they know they were loved here on earth."

[The other part of the song came from] my wife telling me about a family, where the doctor said, "You're halfway through your pregnancy, but the tests are showing your baby may not even make it to its first birthday." There are doctors that do abortions. They don't even think about it; they just do it. So when a doctor said, "I'm ready to do that right now," the woman said, I want to give her the world. I want to hold her hand. I want to be her mom as long as I can. I want to show her what it means to be loved. (Lyrics from "What It Means to Be Loved.")

Earlier in your career you were reluctant to marry because of your rigorous travel schedule. Is that still a concern?

Schultz: It's a pretty awful situation. With her residency, she works 100 hours a week. She has a worse schedule than I do. If I had married somebody who, every time I was on the road, would call and say, "I'm so sad you're not here," and would break down and cry, it would kill me. We probably dated for eight years and never lived in the same town. So we practiced how to be married without seeing each other very well.

When you do have children, who will be the housewife?

Schultz: You're probably talking to him right now.

With the time you spend dwelling on these stories to fully express them in song, do you ever find yourself emotionally exhausted?

Schultz: When I hear the stories behind [songs] and then listen to [the songs], I feel the opposite of drained. I start thinking about the story behind "He Is" and go, "I want to live like a Payton Cram—an 11-year-old that has cancer and says, 'I'm moving on to the next thing, but I don't blame God.'" I want to live like somebody who says, "We had a baby on Friday, I find out I have cancer on Sunday, but we can't praise God on Friday and curse him on Sunday."

There's something so against the grain about that. Normally your first instinct is to be mad, to be scared, and to doubt. To see people do the opposite in the face of their trials gives me so much energy and hope. It makes me want to be a better person.

So, what is the story behind "He Is"?

Schultz: My wife had delivered a missionary family's baby on a Friday. Sunday came along and the mom wasn't recovering well from the delivery. They did a test and found out she had cancer. My wife had to tell them. They said, "We can't praise God on Friday and curse him on Sunday. Our circumstances may change but God doesn't." That started me thinking about this idea that "He Is. He Was. He Always Will Be."

Then on my bike tour, I met an 11-year-old girl [Payton Cram] who had cancer. I fell in love with her. Later, I flew back to Michigan to be with her during the last week she was alive. I asked her how she was feeling. She said, "At no point have I been mad at God. I'm not sure why, but I don't blame him. It feels lonely sometimes, but I never gave into the thought that he's turned his back on me." When I feel like there's no one holding me, be still my soul, He is. [Lyric from "He Is."]

I put those two stories together and made one song.

After ten years of recording and touring, how do you keep music fresh for yourself and your listeners??

Schultz: Honestly, I think telling the stories behind the songs is what people love. This lady and her mom were at a concert. The mom wrote me a note that said, "Tonight, I was really struggling with my faith because my daughter has cancer. Then you told the story behind 'He's My Son.' I was about as hopeless with my daughter's cancer as I could be. After you sang the song, my daughter grabbed my hand and said, 'There's your hope, Mom.'"?

I sent [the note] to the dad whose son had cancer that I wrote the song about. I love that he could be a part of that story as well, to be a part of the victory. That is really living well.

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