A Testimony to God’s Faithfulness
One Man – Over 40 years of Music & World Missions
“Jon’s book chronicling the historic path of CELEBRANT SINGERS sweeps across four epic decades with a literal smorgasbord of spiritual feasting and iconic personalities. It’s a history book, a travelogue, a ministry manual, a devotional, and an adventure thriller all rolled into one. This anointed work will impact your life eternally.” – Randy Swanson
It was a very early morning…especially for a guy who always wanted to be, and occasionally got to be, a “morning person,” but most of the time lived life somewhat nocturnally.
The night before yielded precious little sleep as seemingly thousands of thoughts cycled through my mind. This was not my standard de rigueur. Normally I slept very well. When my body was tired, my brain virtually always cooperated by turning off the days’ events and sleep usually came quickly and easily. But not last night.
How could we possibly be here? What components lined up to lead to this extraordinary opportunity? It was, at least, tremendously surreal.
We showered, dressed, had our morning coffee, got our nearly-six-month old daughter, Chelsea, fed and clothed and made our way down to the lobby of the Hotel Argentina. Our bus was waiting. I’ve always loved the smell of diesel in the morning but today it was particularly exhilarating. Our Luxembourg driver, Clement (Clem), greeted us warmly and made over Chelsea giving her his customary morning hug and kiss, while the team finished last-minute packing. Did we have all the equipment – all the proper cords and connectors? Today there was no room for error. Thankfully, years of practice and a deep-seated philosophy of daily excellence paid off. We did have everything and we were ready to go.
With amazing skill and seeming ease Clem began to navigate the narrow streets of the ancient city, making our way to that morning’s venue. We were headed to the Vatican.
Speedily ushered through three levels of security, Rome police, Vatican police and the iconic Swiss Guard, I was taken by how quickly it all transpired. It was as though they were expecting us…and, of course, they were! Soon we stood at our assigned spot on the hallowed, revered steps of St. Peter’s Basilica, overlooking the massive expanse of St. Peter’s square. Was this really happening?
It was still early, only 6:00 a.m. or so. As we’d done thousands of times before, we went to work like a well-oiled machine setting up our equipment, laying cords straight, testing microphones…testing 1,2,3…testing 1,2,3….We hooked up to the main Vatican sound system hoping and praying it would all work. This was not a day to have something go wrong!
Hours passed unnoticed and before we knew it, the immense crowd had gathered, loudly buzzing… pressing tightly against the heavy white wooden barricades. The air was electric. Anticipation mounted as the most popular Pope in recent memory arrived to the adoring cheers of thousands. So many thousands! Rome police estimated one million people in the streets that day, with nearly 500,000 within earshot of what we were about to do.
In a seeming instant, the announcement came booming over that massive sound system…..”We welcome today, the CELEBRANT SINGERS, from…from…from ViZalia in California!” The young priest- announcer had bobbled the name of our beloved hometown! But no time to quibble…we were on! It was time to sing!
“We have come into His house,
and gathered in His Name to worship Him,
We have come into His house
and gathered in His Name to worship Him,
We have come into His house,
and gathered in His Name to worship
Christ the Lord,
Worship Him, Christ the Lord!
So forget about yourself and
concentrate on Him and worship Him,
So forget about yourself…”
It was an amazing morning. We sang and shared the gospel with half a million people on the steps of St. Peter’s in Rome. The entire event was broadcast worldwide via Radio Vaticana, reaching untold millions more. A Vatican official approached us and said, “We want to put a little wire into your sound system. And when we do, you’ll be on worldwide radio. What would you like to sing?” And then, with a wry smile he added, “Don’t be nervous.”
We had about two minutes before going live. My mind was racing through our repertoire. If I had to pick one song to be heard ‘round the world, what would it be? What message does North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the islands of the sea need to hear? Instantly it came to me. I informed the team and on the officials cue we began to sing…
“Above His Name there is no other Name,
The One who is eternally the same,
There is no other Name.
The first and last beginning and the end,
He was a king who made the
common man His friend,
There is no other Name.
Let every tongue proclaim
and praise the Name of Jesus!”
Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Confucionists, Shintoists, Jainists, Taoists, Zoroastrians, Bahais, Tribals, Atheists, Agnostics and multitudes who identify as “non-religious” all heard the gospel that day as through that song Jesus was proclaimed for who He is…the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
When it was all over, we found ourselves at a lovely Italian café, savoring pasta al dente and discussing the entire affair. Did we really just do that? Did we really sing to half a million people – the largest crowd at a Papal audience since 1951 – from the steps of St. Peter’s? Did Pope John Paul II really come by to greet us all personally, hold, kiss and bless my precious daughter, Chelsea, and stand right next to the team, listening admiringly, smiling and nodding approvingly to our songs? Did all that really happen? How many doors for sharing the gospel would this day open? None of us could possibly know. It was God’s secret, only to be revealed in His time.
But it also surfaced in our table conversation… How could that young priest have mispronounced Visalia?!? Why did he stumble and fumble over his introductory remarks finally coming up with ViZalia?!? After all I’d been nearly a lifetime Visalian and CELEBRANT SINGERS was birthed in and had always proudly hailed from the “jewel of the San Joaquin Valley”- Visalia, California! But bumble it he did, and his gaffe became merely a curious footnote to an otherwise nearly perfect, life-altering memorable morning.
For the record, though I’m proudly a native Californian, I wasn’t born in Visalia. That auspicious event took place nearly 200 miles south at the old Queen of Angels hospital in downtown Los Angeles, a fact I never knew until I was well into my forties.
My arrival on the scene was actually quite scandalous. I was the unexpected product of a workplace tryst. Apparently it was a one- time occurrence of “investigative journalism” which yielded a considerably complicated, long-lasting, and I’m quite sure, unintended result.
It seems my biological parents, both journalists at the Shreveport Times in the 50’s, were engaged to other people, but somehow in the mix of office chemistry always had “an eye” for each other. As life would have it, one fateful day they followed through on their desire. Interestingly, their moment of passion occurred sometime in the vicinity of Valentine’s Day – I’m sure much to the chagrin of their respective fiancée’s! Although I think those parties were blissfully ignorant of the events of the moment. Nonetheless these were the basic details and circumstances surrounding my conception.
My birth mother, Catherine, a petite wisp of a thing, was a “good Catholic girl” of German heritage, and a native of Arkansas. My birth father, by stark contrast, was a sizeable “roguish Irish Protestant” with reported considerable charm, a 160 IQ, and apparently an eye for the ladies. It was 1953, and considering her strict, conservative background, Catherine did what many girls of her age, condition and circumstances dictated…she went off to California to be near her married sister and have her baby in secret. Hence, Queen of Angels Hospital, Los Angeles, California.
Young Catherine was advised, on the day of delivery “don’t touch the baby…don’t even look at the baby, or you’ll want to keep the baby.” And, of course, since “the baby” was me, probably good advice! Who could possibly have resisted wanting to keep me once I arrived on the scene!
Since adoption had already been predetermined as the preferred option, Catherine followed her instructions to the letter…no contact, no touch, no looking. This was the accepted norm at the time and she dutifully walked that line. Labor, baby out, cut the cord, end of story. Of course it’s never quite so simple. Memories would always be part of her story, and my journey had only begun.
My birth father, equally culpable in my coming into being, upon hearing the news of Catherine’s unfortunate “condition” did what generations of mature, W responsible men have often done…he ran off and joined the military! He did, amazingly, whilst running to catch a train, express his thoughts and feelings about what his child should be named. Really? “Be sure to call him George (after his favorite uncle) Joseph” (after the earthly father of Jesus) who, by contrast, didn’t take off to join the Army upon hearing his own life-altering news of his virgin girlfriend, Mary, being “with child.”
Astonishingly enough, Catherine honored the wishes of an AWOL Michael, and arranged for the powers that be at the good Catholic hospital, to have me baptized George Joseph seven days hence. Subsequently, Catherine returned to Shreveport, married her very understanding fiancée, gave birth to three other children and lived out her life in relative normalcy.
I never met her. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I did discover and meet two amazing half-sisters in Atlanta and Houston, who along with their wonderful husbands were tremendously loving and accepting of their “big brother.” Both girls said, “we always knew you existed.” But to her real children as she called them, Catherine consistently denied my existence and lived with a fairly heavy load of guilt and denial for the balance of her life.
Had she responded to the gentle inquiries of my loving, supportive and helpful sisters to meet me in the 90’s, she may have received a beautiful reprieve from her considerable shame. At least we always dreamed it so. But it was not to be. And for me, that was very OK. I wasn’t looking for a relationship per se, and I didn’t need a “mother”…I already had an amazing one who raised me. I just wanted to thank her – for not aborting me!
I eventually got that chance. I “met” my birth mother for the first and only time, while she lay still and could no longer escape. I met her in her casket…