A Ragamuffin Music Man: Rich Mullins
Linda Selleck
Quaker Magazine
April 1998
"If my life is motivated by the power of God's spirit in me and the awareness of the indwelling Christ, if I allow His presence to guide my motives, that's the only time I think we really leave a great legacy."

-Rich Mullins
October 21, 1955 - September 19, 1997

The young wife of a Baptist pastor spoke of her faith in God. She read scriptures of inspiration and encouragement. Then, with hands fluently moving about in sign language, she drew us into a full experience of praise. To the driving hammered dulcimer and synthesized strings accompaniment, we sang:

O God, you are our God, and I will ever praise you. I will seek You in the morning, and I will learn to walk in Your ways. And step by step You'll lead me, and I will follow You all of my days.

It was Step by Step, by Rich Mullins - another of the many lovely praise songs recorded over the years on such albums as Brother's Keeper, A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band, and The World as Best as I Remember It, Vol. 1 and 2 (my personal favorites). On September 19, 1997, at the age of 41, Rich was killed in an accident involving a jeep and a tractor-trailer truck near Peoria, Illinois. Traveling with him was good friend Mitch McVicker, who continues to sustain serious brain injuries.

Richard Wayne Mullins was born on October 21, 1955, in Richmond, Indiana, one of five children of John and Neva Mullins. Arba Friends Meeting in Lynn, Indiana, was his early spiritual home. Around 300 family and friends gathered for Rich's memorial service held in Richmond, Indiana, on September 25. Those in Friends' circles who knew him and his music were surprised and saddened. Meanwhile, across the country:

Contemporary Christian Music Magazine (with a circulation of over 90,000 subscribers) devoted its front cover and 20 pages of memories, photographs, and industry memorials to honor Rich's contributions to the Christian music community. They sold out that issue.

More than 45 World Wide Web sites referred to Rich and his music. The "official fan page" site mourned his death, then noted unfortunately that no more e-mail condolences could be received, as the overseers had already downloaded over 2,500 messages for the family. Readers were encouraged to click onto the entire collection of lyrics to Rich's 90+ recorded songs and read the accompanying NIV Bible passages that inspired their writing.

My local Christian television station continues to play Rich's music videos Hold Me Jesus, Here in America, Creed, and The Color Green (shot in Celtic splendor in Ireland) over and over throughout their night-long contemporary music programming. During November and December, a local radio station broadcast several hour-long tributes of songs and personal interviews honoring Rich's diverse musical ministry.

Memorial services were held in various parts of the country. In Wichita, Kansas, over 5,000 people came together in Wichita State University's arena on September 27 to celebrate Rich's life and music. In Nashville, Tennessee, a two-hour service was held at Christ Presbyterian Church. Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Phil Keaggy, and Ashley Cleveland all participated in offering music ministry to the gathered.

Megastar Michael W. Smith said of Rich, "Nobody on this planet wrote songs like he did, and I feel we've lost one of the only true poets in our industry. I love Rich Mullins...and no one will ever know how much I'll miss him."

CCM Magazine noted that during the memorial, "Friends recalled a man who was equal parts sinner and saint, a man who had no children of his own yet was responsible for feeding thousands around the world" (through Rich's many years of work with Compassion, International).

Rich Mullins was noted for his syncopated, driving rhythms, and eclectic mixing of rock, folk, blues, gospel, and simple hymns. Buddy Poole, a local radio station manager in High Point, N.C., told me Rich's concert held in the Triad area some years ago was his favorite of all the big-time performers. Rich insisted on playing instruments during programs (other performers save time and energy by traveling with their accompaniment track tapes). Fans could hear and feel the catchy, thud-thump-ing, energizing rhythms of the guitars, piano, hammered dulcimer, and drums that enhanced but never overshadowed the sheer poetry of lyrics deeply rooted in scripture.

Carolyn Arends shared the stage with Rich in 1995 as his opening act for a 65-city concert tour. She remembers most how he loved reading the Bible. "He loved church. He adored the feeble, faltering praise and worship that made the rest of us [professional musicians] cringe. He said he loved to hear men sing out of tune. He was like that about the Bible too. While I read the Bible because of a desire for guidance and a sense of duty, Rich read it because he thought it contained the most entertaining stories in the world." Next to the Bible, Rich's favorite book was the spiritual classic Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton.

Who was Rich Mullins? Many Friends have no idea. However, we can claim him in part as one of our own, since Friends' teachings and testimonies for peace and social justice are consistently interwoven throughout his lyrics. Boy Like You, Man Like Me is a delightful musing of Rich's growing-up experiences. He wonders what Jesus did as a child ("Did you make angels in the winter snow? Did little girls giggle when you walked past?"); what Jesus thought about worship:

I was twelve years old in the Meetinghouse, listening to the old men pray.
I was trying hard to figure out what it was they was trying to say.
There You were in the temple, they said You weren't old enough to know the things You knew....
Did they tell You stories 'bout the saints of old, stories about their faith?
Stories like that make a boy grow bold.
Stories like that make a man walk straight.

Joyce Hill taught Rich in her first-ever Sunday School class at Arba Friends Meeting. She recalls Rich's participation with the rowdy group of seven-to- eight-year-olds. It was a stressful time, Joyce said, as she was only 19 and also just married. "I remember trying to keep around ten boys settled and focused," she says, "but Rich was a tremendous listener, very serious about the Bible lessons, a quiet and easy student. And he never gave me any trouble!" She used to get her Christmas trees from the Mullins' farm. "One winter Rich took us for a wild truck ride into the woods and cut down a tree for us. I remember worrying about his hands and the chain saw. What if he hurt himself? He was so fun-loving, and always different from the other kids around.

"He stayed so humble. We really didn't realize how famous he was until after his death. My youngest daughter, Diane, went through some tough times and we got her all of his recordings. They helped her tremendously. Rich understood how young people struggle and hurt. His music really helps."

The ballad We Are Not as Strong as We Think We Are, (written with long-time friend and song-writing pal "Beaker"), is a poignant accounting of the painful and separating consequences of sin. "It took the hand of God Almighty to part the waters in the sea. But it only took one little lie to separate you and me - Oh, we are not as strong as we think we are.

Songs like Jacob and 2 Women, and Elijah capture our imaginations with their fresh interpretations of Biblical characters. As I attended a family funeral in Texas with my younger sister-in-law recently, out of the blue she said that Mullins' song Elijah had really helped her think through the loss of our 22-year-old nephew, Benjamin. Elijah reminded her that one need not live a long life to have really lived a full life, and it was comforting. I was struck with the humbling knowledge of how Christian music ministers to people world-wide through broadcasting's far-reaching scope.

While the Nations Rage challenges the arrogance of war: "Why do the nations rage? Why do they plot and scheme? Their bullets can't stop the prayers we pray in the name of the Prince of Peace."

Rich moved easily from the serious and sublime to a humorous approach to faith in such songs as The Maker of Noses. His words to Screen Doors, based on the Book of James, include unusual metaphors and catchy rhythms to get the point across:

It's about as useless as a screen door on a submarine. Faith without works, baby, it just ain't happenin'. One is your left hand, one is your right. It'll take two strong arms to hold on tight. Some folks cut off their nose just to spite their face, I think you need some works to show for your alleged faith.

In Calling Out Your Name, his words draw upon the stark beauty of the mid-American landscape to instill wonder and awe for the Creator:

Well the moon moved past Nebraska and
Spilled laughter on them cold Dakota Hills,
And angels danced on Jacob's stairs.
There is this silence in the Badlands
And over Kansas the whole universe was stilled
By the whisper of a prayer...
And the single hawk bursts into flight
And in the east the whole horizon is in flames.
I feel the thunder in the sky-I see the sky about to rain,
And I hear the prairies calling out Your name.

Like the best of pop, rock and classical composers, Rich's songs were always changing and shifting, yet his signature sound was a musical thumbprint. Songs, Rich's last CD recorded for Reunion Records released in 1996, is a "best songs" collection. Lou Carlozo, reviewer and music critic for the Chicago Tribune, described it: "A smart blend of influences, everything from Celtic folk to charging rock, Rich Mullins' music moves across the fences like a movie and moves the soul like a trusted friend, gently guiding the listener to God."

Rich Mullins' songs received 11 Gospel Dove Award nominations. Awesome God won a variety of "best song of the year" awards and was voted one of the three best songs of the decade by the Christian Research project. Not content to rest on his rising fame and success, in 1988 Rich moved to Wichita, Kansas, where he began a degree in music education at Friends University. Graduating in 1995, he then moved to Window Rock, Arizona, living on the Navajo Reservation where he taught music to the children. Here, he lived the life of simplicity he longed for. During the burial service in Richmond, Indiana, children attended from the reservation, surrounded his grave site, and sang Jesus Loves Me, which he had taught them in their native language.

Rich's growing interest in Catholic worship and spirituality accompanied his adoration for the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Rich's foundation, "the Kid Brothers of St. Frank," benefits Native Americans and children, and continues to draw upon recording profits.

Rich's cousin, Glenna Wong of Richmond, Indiana, spoke to me about the family's bereavement since his death. "Rich had a keen intellect, a giant curiosity and restless mind, a gentle, generous and loving spirit. He was full of energy and enthusiasm for life."

Glenna remembers Rich's spiritual gift of discernment for those friends and soon-to-be friends who encountered him on the highways and byways of life. "He seemed to know when people really needed someone to listen to them, to really hear them." She and Rich talked often about his unhappiness with American culture's increasing need for self-esteem instead of humanity's need for conversion, confession, and salvation as followers and imitators of Jesus.

Glenna recounted her own gratitude for Rich's timely intervention in her son's early adult life. "Matthew dropped out of college a few years ago and was at loose ends with his life. A Christian, he simply didn't know what he wanted to do or what he should be about." Rich took him on tour as a band helper. Through the daily devotionals and rich spiritual experiences of life on the road with Rich's ministry, Matthew became more focused and deepened his faith commitment. He helped Rich build, with their own hands, the traditional Navajo hogan that was Rich's home on the reservation. Because of Rich's encouragement, Matthew returned to college and this spring plans to graduate from Friends University. Glenna said simply, "He saved Matthew's life."

Rich's songs continue to inspire me, move me to tears, and increase my love for the complexity of scripture. I marvel at the energy and intimacy of his work, at the privileged interior glances we are allowed of his spiritual journey.

Here are a few of Rich's thoughts:

"There are all kinds of things that are pushed on us and we have no say over. And they shape the way we see everything. Because I grew up in Indiana, in the Protestant tradition, in fact in the Quaker tradition-that had a lot to do with biasing me. That's going to have an effect on the way that I interpret the Scriptures; that's going to give me my perspective. And I need to be aware of what my perspective is, so I can both appreciate it and be a little distrustful of it."

"For me the greatest joy that I have is knowing that I do have a Father who loves me, and that He doesn't love me in a passive way. That He loves me so much that He sent Christ to take away the guilt of my sin, and that it is a real thing, that it really did happen. If I will experience joy in this life, it will be when I let other people know that there is a God who loves them, and He has taken away the sin that separates them. There is no greater joy than just that proclamation."

"The Christian faith is not about mere intellectual assent to a set of doctrines, but about a daily walk with this person Jesus. It's about living in awareness of Christ risen, resurrected, and living in my life. Even though doctrine is important, wisdom in the Bible has more to do with character, and the art of living Christianity is about living out the will of God, and living abundantly."

"If my life is motivated by an ambition to leave a legacy, what I would probably leave is a legacy of ambition. But, if my life is motivated by the power of God's spirit in me and the awareness of the indwelling Christ, if I allow His presence to guide my motives, that's the only time I think we really leave a great legacy."

The Mullins family has asked that in lieu of cards or gifts, please honor Rich's memory by sending donations to Compassion International. Contact 1 (800) 334-KIDS or Rich Mullins Memorial, Compassion International-USA Program, PO Box 7000, Colorado Springs CO 80933.

Linda Selleck is a member of the Ministry Team at High Point Friends Meeting in High Point, North Carolina. She has performed hundreds of Celtic Harp programs over the past 12 years.

Thanks to Reunion Records, Nashville, Tennessee, for permission to use Rich Mullins' song lyrics and for use of the quotation from Rich Mullins from their press release and to CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) Magazine for written permission to reprint quotations of Michael W. Smith, Carolyn Arends and Rich Mullins from their November, 1997, issue. Copyright (c) 1998 Friends United Meeting
Copyright 1998 by Friends United Meeting