For years SANDI PATTI has been the epitome of the squeaky clean, 'Mom's apple pie' entertainer. But a messy divorce has challenged that image. Tony Cummings reports.
Sandi Patti is keen to talk about her brand new allegorical concept album 'Le Voyage'. "Bob (Farrell) and Greg (Nelson) said they really wanted me to hear this project that they were working on. They played me the song 'Little Narrow Gate' and a song called 'No Place To Lay My Head'. I just loved them immediately, probably because I'm a real lover of allegories like some of C S Lewis' books... My hope is when people listen to it, that they'll be able to plug in to it wherever they are and relate it to there."
Sandi's mention of C S Lewis, author of allegorical tale The Great Divorce', is not without irony in the light of the unexpected controversy that is now sweeping over the ministry of Sandi Patti Helvering. After Amy Grant, Sandi is the most successful female singer in the history of contemporary Christian music. Since her first smash album in 1981, she has seemingly become a household name in every American Christian home. Every album she records sells a minimum of 250,000 copies, she's been seen regularly on national television doing things like singing the national anthem at the commencement of ball games, while she wins the Grammys and Dove Awards so often that seemingly Sandi has only to turn up to collect another award. There have been problems and disappointments in the past. She's regularly struggled with her figure, ballooning stones overweight, while her huge US success has not been repeated to the same degree in Europe, probably due to the fact that the singer tours with a full orchestra and no European concert promoter could hope to meet Sandi's substantial fees for doing concerts. But in America, Sandi Patti has for years remained an admired icon of the flourishing Christian music industry. Her Streisand-ish, four-octave, middle-of-the-road style may not be to youthful rockers' tastes. But for hundreds of thousands of Christians, Sandi's sweet-toned voice has been the perfect one to sing songs of devotion to Jesus and living the Christian life. By 1992 Sandi Patti had won a total of 29 Dove Awards (not to mention five Grammys) and alongside her stream of dizzyingly successful albums and tours, had in addition successfully diversified to record huge selling children's albums.
Sandi's love of children and her commitment to family life and values had been a continuing theme in her interviews and on-stage pronouncements. Since her marriage to John Helvering and the first of Sandi and John's four children, Sandi has been keen to extol the importance of family life. Her interview with journalist Davin Seay in 1984 was typical. "Nothing is more stabilising than family, having them close around you. Both John's parents and mine live in Anderson. So do all our brothers and sisters. Sometimes, out on the road, you have a tendency to think that it's reality - that everyone is supposed to wait on you and come to your beck and call. When I get home, the first thing Mom asks is how my concerts went. Then she tells me to get in the kitchen and help with the dishes."
Sandi came to be recognised as a bastion of family values, sometimes to be marketed and exploited. An advert for World Vision in 1988 began, "As a parent I am deeply distressed by a child's pain." Sandi's husband and children frequently featured in adverts and sponsorships, and were regularly brought on stage during her concert performances. But in an interview in 1992 she told a journalist about a determination to be more in control of her own affairs. "More than ever what people are seeing and sensing in me is a more confident person and you know, that will invade every facet of my life - relationships, the kids, John, my voice, the business."
This confidence was to find expression in ways few could have predicted. For in 1993 Sandi Patti, American Christendom's public bastion of family values, announced she was getting a divorce from her husband John Helvering. Apparently behind the public face there had been a different reality. There was no adultery, simply two people who could no longer communicate. The couple had met with a Christian counsellor for a year but still couldn't sort things out. They felt it was an empty marriage and they "decided to end it because they weren't happy." This claim of a mutual agreement for divorce was not subsequently borne out by John Helvering. In a statement to USA Today magazine Helvering agreed that there had been no adultery or abuse but claimed he did not want a divorce but rather had persuaded Patti to consider reconciliation. This was subsequently refuted in an interview Sandi gave with CCM magazine.
Reconfirming her intention to go through with the divorce Sandi commented that "the decision to seek a divorce" was not an overnight decision; this was a decision that was not made alone; that it was truly the last regrettable option."
Sandi's divorce announcement stunned America's Christian music world. Sadly, a growing number of Christian musicians have in the past divorced husbands and wives. The marriages of such diverse musical figures as Larry Norman, Tramaine Hawkins, Peter Case, Mark Williamson, Benny Hester, Randy Stonehill, Chris Eaton and others had all ended in the divorce courts. But Sandi Patti was a figure who had publicly paraded her "happy" family life, often pulling husband and children onto stage. Questioned about this, Sandi told CCM, "I guess I just kept hoping that one day that picture would become true... kind of living in a hopeful future." In the past American Christian music would had turned a blind eye to its performers getting divorced. But in Sandi's case there was a reaction. A few US Christian radio stations have put a veto on playing Sandi's golden oldies, her new concept album 'Le Voyage' or her contribution on 'Our Family', a various artists album ironically focusing on children, parenthood and family. Commented Sandi about the broadcasters' reaction, "Some radio stations have pulled my music from their playlists unless I can provide them with something specific that would put their minds at ease, but I just tell them I appreciate their concern and they just need to go ahead and do what they feel they need to do, but that they will not be hearing any additional specifics from me - mostly because I have four kids who do not need to be in the middle of all that."
The most comprehensive criticism to Sandi's divorce announcement came from respected American media commentator Al Menconi. In his 'Media Update' magazine Menconi wrote, "They felt it was an empty marriage and they decided to end it because they weren't happy. That really bothers me. The Bible doesn't say be married and become happy. The Bible says to be married and be faithful unto death. Period. If you are faithful to God's word you are more likely to be happy in marriage. But happiness in marriage is not guaranteed. I know that a number of people will disagree with me but I'll take my chance. I am very concerned when anyone gets divorced because I see the results on a daily basis. I am presently doing research with a Christian counsellor for an upcoming book. We have found that nearly every "problem child" in the study comes from a broken home. The visible signs are anger, rebellion, an addiction to immoral rock music, as well as a poor self-image. The one constant has been an absent parent! Too often, the children are only an after thought in the quest for careers, financial and personal 'fulfilment' and 'happiness'. Instead of blaming the evil influences of drugs, alcohol and/or rock music for the chaos and rebellion in their children's lives, more parents should start taking a good, hard look at their marriage relationships.
Al Menconi continued: "I hate divorce. God hates divorce. Children hate divorce. Sandi and John hate divorce. Then why get one? Because it is an option. If it wasn't an option, something would have to be worked out. Divorce should never be an option for a Christian. Research has shown that Christians divorce as often as the non-Christian community. Just because it takes place doesn't mean that it's okay. Think of the hypocrisy! We sit in the church singing, 'A Mighty Fortress Is Our God', but that's not enough to hold our marriage together. If you can't see the hypocrisy of that, ask your children to help you understand what's going on. They understand perfectly.
"Because I feel so strongly about divorce I cannot recommend any Christian artist who divorces while they are in ministry. For that reason, I will not be able to recommend Sandi Patti in the near future. She is coming out with more albums and will probably tour in the future, but I can't support her. I believe a Christian in public ministry should remove themselves from a position of responsibility while they are going through a divorce. After a time of grieving, counselling and submitting to their elders they might be restored to a position of responsible public ministry at a future date. Until this happens, they should not minister as one of God's leaders in the church, as Sandi has been."
Some in the church, always willing to misapply the Bible text "do not judge" will feel that Al Menconi is guilty of Pharisaic judgmentalism. Menconi thinks otherwise. "I don't believe this is too harsh. If Sandi can't stay married this is her choice. But she should not be in a position of high responsibility to teach and encourage the church right now. I take Scripture seriously when it says, 'Not many of you should presume to be teachers (musicians), because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.' (James 3:1)"
Sandi has been hurt by the criticism she has received. "Most of the negative mail has basically stated that there is no reason good enough to do this - that statistics show that my kids will do this and this because of my divorce, etc. I think bottom line they really are concerned, but I'm not gonna sit here and tell you it doesn't hurt me... it does a great deal. But there's not a question anyone is asking me in those letters that I haven't asked myself. All I can say is that I feel for a lot of reasons that I hope nobody knows, ever, that I feel a release, that I truly believe is of God."