The Crossing: Celtic folk rock from the Chicago-based Jesus People USA group

Thursday 1st December 1994

Celtic folk band from inner city Chicago? THE CROSSING are an unlikely group of musicians who, from their base at Jesus People USA, are leading the US in jig and reel revival. Jonathan Bellamy caught up with them whilst in Nashville.

Being firmly rooted in the traditional end of acoustic music with pipes, whistles, fiddle and harp among their many instruments, Celtic music aficionados (will find) The Crossing are a new and very exciting find." So quoted the music magazine Rock 'N' Reels in their review of The Crossing's first major release 'Dancing At The Crossroads'. Sammy Horner of the Electrics was equally emphatic: "The Crossing sound like they just arrived off the Lame Ferry instead of the Windy City. Beautifully played traditional instruments, well crafted songs and intelligent lyrics... authentic toe-tappin' Irish/Scottish jigs and reels, and some fine atmospheric ballads that will melt every ol' folkie's heart."

With such high praise already established I found my way to one of Nashville's downtown bars to check out the group who along with Rez, Cauzin Efekt and Crashdog are the musical voice of Jesus People USA's community church in Chicago. I wasn't disappointed by my trip to downtown Nashville. The bar's acoustics could have been better but despite the setbacks the life, energy, rhythm and style were not to be denied. What also struck me was The Crossing's sincerity. The following day, amid the clinks and chatter of the Stouffer Hotel bar, I decided what I'd really like to hear was their individual backgrounds. So, after a brief chat and a reassuring prayer we began.

There are six members to The Crossing. Five are from the States and one, Hilde Bialach, is from Norway. On this trip Hilde was absent but the remaining five were evidence enough to the loving power of God that transforms lives.

Tony is the group's founder and his interest in Celtic music all began when a visitor to JPUSA gave him a spare pennywhistle. "It was my background into bluegrass, and the roots of bluegrass is actually Irish/Scottish traditional music."

It was grass of a different colour that made up Tony's earlier life however. "I'm a product of the 60s. I was one of the radicals that stayed home and caused trouble protesting the Vietnam war. I got into drugs pretty heavy, not the hard side, you know cocaine or heroin or that, but more the psychedelic side, a lot of marijuana, LSD, that sort of thing. I played a lot of rock music back then and my wife, who was not my wife at the time, started hanging out. I was living with a bunch of guys and she started coming over and she would come to our shows. But she had been a Christian since she was very young her father was a minister. She wasn't living a real Christian godly life at that time, she was kind of backslidden but she had that background and still believed in the Lord. A lot of her influence was on me. We would get stoned and she would read stories to us out of Revelation in the Bible and that was quite a trip for us because there's a lot of really strange stuff in Revelation. But it started to stick and I started thinking what if what she is saying really is true. I was raised in a Catholic home so I knew about Jesus and about Heaven and Hell and all that but it didn't really make much of an impression until Cathy started making the fact that we need a real relationship with Jesus. So through her I got saved, and she rededicated her life. This was in the early 70s in South Dakota and being hippies in South Dakota wasn't a very popular thing. There weren't a lot of born again hippies in South Dakota either! So, our fellowship with people we could actually relate to culturally was non-existent until the Resurrection Band came through Sioux Falls in 74 with the Holy Ghost Players, that's like a street theatre group. They showed up in my hometown and stayed for two to three weeks and we followed them around everywhere. It was a breath of fresh air for us to see people we could really relate to that really, really loved the Lord. It was good for us and that started a relationship with Jesus People. Over the next five years the Lord kind of worked on us and eventually in 79 we made the move to Chicago, and we have been there ever since, just ministering through Jesus People."

Mike plays acoustic piano, electric bass, sings a bit and picks the bazookie - a Greek cross between the mandolin and banjo.

"I was brought up in the Catholic Church and a couple of devastating things happened when I was young. My father left our family when I was about eight, and my sister committed suicide when I was 12, and those things left a lot of bitterness and cynical attitudes in the remainder of my family. It also left me in confusion over my identity; who I was, where I was going. But at the same time the Lord used that to soften my heart, to open me up to him. It was at that time I started to turn to drugs. I began to smoke dope and to take other kinds of chemicals and things. But all the while I was doing the drugs I thought about God. I remember a couple of times in school or in other situations where I would be with somebody and I would say, 'You know, I thought about God today.' I remember one particular time in the locker room at school in the gym and I said it to some guy and he said, 'I thought about God too.' It seemed like the Lord used these things and he heard my words and knew my thoughts and feelings and directed me to a situation where this girl, when I was 16 or 17, asked me to go to her church. At the time I didn't know what a cult was but it turned out to be an occult church where they played these different things that were irrelevant as far as God went. I had been brought up in the Catholic Church and even though they had never explained to me exactly who Jesus was and what he had done for me I knew that God and Jesus were what church was supposed to be about. After being there for about 40 minutes or so I just looked at everybody and said, This is great but what's it got to do with God?' They just looked at me shocked and said, 'We're our own gods, what are you talking about?' And I was just totally shocked and devastated. I took my first stand for God. I stood up in anger and I started pointing at everybody and saying, 'Do you believe in Jesus? Do you believe in God?' And everybody was just shocked. The girl that I'd come with started following me out as I ran out the door and she said, There is no God, what are you talking about? We are our own gods.' And I turned to her and said, There IS a God,' and as I was about to cross the street she looked up and said, 'Look, there's a shooting star.' I just said, 'That proves there's a God.' It was pretty timely. I went across into the park where I spent most of my weekend nights partying with my friends and they were all sitting on a bench and I started talking to them about God. They were in such a state they were more than willing to agree with me whatever I said. About five minutes later two fellas dressed in white walked up with a giant gold Bible and all of a sudden my friends sat up and sobered up, and I started talking about the church and the shooting star and the timing of it. It was all in a sequence of about 20 to 30 minutes. And they spoke to us about the Lord for about 15 minutes and just kind of disappeared and to this day I don't know who they were or what happened. But I knew that God in his divine time had used the situation to draw me to him and I proceeded to spend the next half hour parading around the park celebrating the Lord and what he'd done for my life and how he had helped me to come to know him. That was when I was 17 and a year after that I joined a heavy metal Christian band and we played at different Salvation Armies, churches and benefits. One night the Holy Ghost Players from Jesus People were opening for us and I watched their sequences and plays and it really attracted me. I enquired more about them and two or three years later I joined them. I've been with Jesus People now for about eight years and in the process I've been ministered to many times and have been given opportunities to minister to others too.

Jennifer plays fiddle. "That's all I play and I do a little vocals, but so does everybody. My testimony started when I was 18 and I was an exchange student in Brazil, just leaning over the edge from Catholicism to atheism, like there is no God. I ran into these Christian Baptists from Texas who were street witnessing in Brazil and because they were American I wanted to speak English with them. After half an hour they convinced me to pray a prayer of salvation and I stuck with that for a couple of months while I remained in Brazil. I went to a Baptist church that was really neat, full of really poor people that were in love with the Lord. But then when I went home to America, no offence to the Baptists, the church I stumbled on was really materialistic. So I went on to look into a lot of other denominations and I guess I looked in the wrong places and finally gave up. In the meantime I was working and the friends I met at work went out and got drunk every night and that is what I started doing. In my growing up years I had led a double life of this real achiever, smart in school, violinist, but at home I was trouble, had a terrible temper and gave my family a really hard time. I guess I was always looking for some kind of relief from myself. So that figured into the drinking, you know, looking for relief, kind of giving up on the Lord being my relief, but at the same time running around saying I was a Christian. After three years of getting morally worse and worse, and more and more unhappy I just wanted to die most of the time. I met a boyfriend who seemed like he had a lot of answers. He said he was a Christian, he did neat social work, he also drank and did drugs and that all fitted into my worldview really well. So I went off to live with him in Colorado at a ski resort. After a month he left me there to pursue another girlfriend. I didn't know what to do but my boyfriend had told me about Jesus People before he left. He had passed through at one point. It sounded cool, these hippies who were Christians. I decided I had to choose between Colorado and this hippie commune of Christians in this ugly city, Chicago. (One day) I was sitting on a mountain, kind of telling the whole story out loud, even though nobody was there, and I had a Bible that I had kind of brought and put down beside me, like to help me somehow. Suddenly this guy comes along and he's wearing a suit. He's climbing mountains in a suit! And he sits right down next to me and says, 'What's wrong?' So I told him the whole story; all my disappointments, I don't know what to do, I want to be in the country, I want to be on my own, but I'm unhappy, I'm miserable, and there's this place in the city I could go to. So, he's sitting there and, I can't go into all the details but he ends up finding the scripture 'Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.' So I thought, 'OK, I'll seek God,' and I hopped on a plane and went to Chicago. The Jesus People proved to be a real refuge for me, where I could grow as a Christian, where people would confront me if I was doing my old yelling around, giving people a hard time thing. And over the years with a lot of discipling I've grown to be able to live with myself. Jesus People is where I really learnt to follow the Lord, and that is where I really fell in love with the Lord and learnt that what he wants is commitment."

Of the five, Mark is the quietest, more reserved - at least he was when I met him! Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee he contributes flute, harp, whistle and dulcimer to the band.

"My testimony is pretty short. I was basically a church kid so I was saved at a really young age. I think I was about seven. It happened because my sister got saved and we were taught about Jesus from day one so I knew about the Lord. But it took my mother to sit me down and explain the whole salvation message to me so that I could understand it, and I went for it. When I was about 18 I started realising I really wanted to move to a place where I could serve the Lord full time. We'd been trying to start a community in Memphis and that lasted a couple of years. Some good things happened but I think the main thing was that it opened my eyes to what JPUSA was all about. We had hosted the Rez band when they came through and they had told us a lot about their community, and their burdens and my burdens just kind of clicked and I've been there about 11 years now. It is really what I needed."

Mark now lives at Jesus People with his wife and kids and when not playing in the band spends as much time as possible woodworking at JPUSA's custom cabinetry shop Creative Wood Design. It is an important aspect at JPUSA that people come into some form of work that will contribute to the welfare of the whole community. Other members of the band work for Belly Acres Designs T-shirt company, Cornerstone magazine, the Lakefront roofing supply business and the Tone Zone Booking Agency.

Pat plays the bodhran (Irish drum), whistles and bones. "Just like everyone else in the group I grew up a lapsed Catholic. I'd always believed in God, and two things happened. Once, one of the Catholic Sunday School teachers, who was the mother of one of my friends, just said one time that she talked to God and to Jesus. I had nothing to relate that too like, 'Ow, here's someone who actually talked to God, that's cool.' Then another time I just got off the bus (that was taking us to Sunday School), and went home. My mom was there and she sat me down in a chair and pulled out a children's old time picture Bible and said, 'Okay, you need to look at this until your sisters get home,' and it was great - Noah, the flood, and all those animals being drowned. All the cool things! At that point the Lord was there but then there seemed to be no more input.

When I was a freshman in high school I started working on plays, mostly because there was a fun group of people that worked on them. But after the Christmas break one of the guys, a sarcastic, loud-mouthed junior who was really irritating, came back totally changed. He was quiet, very kind and I had never seen anybody change like that in the space of two weeks. So I asked him one day, 'How can you be so happy?' and he just continued working and looked at me and said, 'Because Jesus loves me' and just continued working.

In our home town there was a small Christian coffee house and I didn't know anything about it but (when he asked me) I said, I'll check it out.' So I went. They brought in different Christian singers and they had a small Bible study, and they were reading it and talking about it. Then another fella who really irritated me a lot pulled me aside and said, 'Let me show you. Have you ever looked at the Bible?' He opened the front cover and told me, 'Right, turn to page 423,' and I did and highlighted was, 'All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.' 'Okay, now turn to page 416.' It said, 'There is none righteous, no not one.' I went home that night and picked up the old Bible in the house and started reading it. He had had the sense to tell me to start reading at Matthew so I read this story of all the things Jesus did and after half an hour I didn't have any more answers, just a lot more questions. The coffee house was happening again and I really needed to know and so I went. After, just as I was getting ready to go, one of the directors came up and said, 'I don't know if you've prayed or not but the Lord can really change your life and you have to make a decision, a choice.' So I went home that night and went to bed and thought I need to make this change, I've thought about it enough. My life changed at that point and I started reading the Bible. I'd read the verses about how 'all had fallen short' but it had never really sunk in because I was a nice, good kid and the idea of being a sinner didn't really sink in for about six months until when I was walking home one day the Lord just kinda slapped me upside the head and said, 'The truth is you're not a nice person. The truth is you are separated from me because of your sin and that's why I've forgiven you.' And I had to take a hard look at myself.

"Over the years at high school I heard about Jesus People and Rez and it was like, ' Wow, hippies!' So I decided to go there when I graduated. I hated cities but I had to go to school in central Minneapolis, in a pretty rough neighbourhood. I saw nice things but I also saw the crashes and the gunfights. You'd wake up in the middle of the night your car's wrecked out there, you hear gunshots, family disputes, everything. I wasn't used to it but it got me ready for Chicago. Finally Christmas break came and I knew the time had come for me to go to Jesus People. I quit school, quit work and called Jesus People and said, 'You don't know me but I'm coming down.' So I got there and it was fast paced, hectic, strange, messy, untidy, lots of people moving from room to room, doing work, dishes, moving jobs, and I loved it! I started working in the dark room. The guy that ran the dark room was leaving and this guy had been a frustrated sort of individual who would get angry at himself for making mistakes and would beat his head against the wall and get really upset. I thought, 'I'll never be like that.' Six months later I was seeing I was this angry, frustrated person. I would get mad at people, yell at them and hold things inside only to have to deal with them eventually. And I had to face the fact of what sort of person I was. That I couldn't just change the outside look or be kind and be bitter inside. It was like the Lord saying, 'I really want to change you,' and me saying, 'But I'm fine the way I am.' So I had to face that by going to somebody and saying, 'Look, I'm really irritated by this,' and mostly they would share the same struggles or irritations. And that is probably one of the main things the Lord has taught me at JPUSA."

So that's it. Five different people, five different backgrounds, five different stories. An unlikely bunch of people, playing an unlikely style of music in that most unlikely of places. Long may the continue. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Jonathan Bellamy
Jonathan BellamyJonathan Bellamy is the CEO of Cross Rhythms. He presents the daily City Drive radio programme and is married to Heather.


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