A unique series of albums, recorded during concerts on top of a New Jersey prison, were recently released in the USA. At these concerts between 10,000 and 15,000 prisoners became Christians. The albums feature TONY LOEFFLER AND THE BLUE ANGELS. Tony Cummings spoke to the group's leader to learn of a powerful ministry committed to communicating the gospel to the prisoner and the homeless.
Tony Loeffler is an American Christian musician. He's got albums out, played all over America and I doubt whether there are more than three readers of this magazine who have heard of him. Inevitably the British consumer has come to rely on Nashville's CCM star making machine to provide him or her with Christian music albums. These albums are by artists who have been elevated to a major level of "success" by Word, Sparrow, Benson and the other CCM giants. In the CCM upper echelons "success" equals US record sales of at least 100,000 copies (often much more). Therefore, with only a handful of exceptions, no US origin album gets a UK release until it has achieved such sales or is expected to. Now avowed supporters of market-force capitalism will argue this system works well. Certainly, a Christian music scene based on national radio-play "hits" produces much excellent music by artists who deserve their huge record sales and subsequent distribution throughout Europe.
But both artistic excellence and ministry integrity exist in abundance outside the national Christian media mechanisms of Nashville. In fact, concerning the latter, there is often more of a Holy Spirit anointing and discernible spiritual fruit from the thousands of musicians for whom the Nashville Big Time has not yet, and probably never will, beckon. Free of the potential for compromise or mixed motives inherent in the big buck world of the CCM multinationals, legions of grassroots musicians conduct their ministry and create their art out of earshot of the siren voices of market shares and radio playlists. These musicianaries plough fallow ground and in due season reap a harvest. For such grassroots gospel artists the rewards are souls won rather than Dove Awards won while their meagre earnings from music often force them to stay in their day job. Their ministries speak of integrity and sacrifice. Tony Loeffler is such a minister. A singer, guitarist and evangelist; Tony has for almost two decades worked in America's most challenging mission fields - the prisons of America and the wastelands of urban homelessness. He has tirelessly served Christ, playing his gritty jazz-rock and R&B in a thousand unglamorous settings. Now a unique record of an astonishing God-breathed ministry has been issued. The 'Rooftop Series' by Tony Loeffler And The Blue Angels is a seven volume set of albums recorded live over a four year period during evangelistic concerts held on the rooftop of the Passiac County Jail, Paterson, New Jersey. The Blue Angels with a shifting personnel with Tony Loeffler (vocals, guitar) Karen Sibilia (guitar, backing vocals), Wayne Scott Farley (guitar), Audrey Russo (backing vocals), Bob 'Fuzzball' Ferraindo (drums), John Hess (bass), 'Lightning' Les Lefkin (guitar) and Jimmy 'Chicken Soup' Medina (percussion) being more-or- less constant, play jazz-rock, R&B, blues and Latin-rock in a sassy brew of rhythmic immediacy. But what makes the albums extraordinary is the Holy Spirit anointing they encapsulate. Between 10,000 and 15,000 prisoners became Christians during the concert series and this sovereign work of God is somehow conveyed onto recording tape.
In fact the 'Rooftop Series' recordings were never intended for public consumption. Tony explains how it came about. "The 'Rooftop' tapes really were a human accident but probably a sovereign work of God. What happened was that I intended critiquing the sound companies that I would rent when we did those prison performances. I wanted to critique what they did and see how well they would convey what we're all about, so we recorded the concerts. The other purpose of recording was because of the spontaneous approach of the music. I relied very heavily on non-verbal and sometimes verbal cues, inflections and a variety of dynamics in communicating to the players, because it was a totally no rehearsal situation. The Blue Angels were people that just came together to minister the word of God. There are a few regulars that I do still work with but over the years there were about probably 30-50 musicians and no rehearsals. 98 per cent of what we did arrangement wise was created live on the spot - real fresh. So I wanted to critique whether the styles were connecting."
Tony's collection of 'Rooftop' tapes were accumulated over four years. The singer/evangelist remembers, "They just piled up in a drawer. My father-in-law had moved into a new home and he asked me if I would help him paint it and I said, 'Sure.' So while I was painting his home I decided to listen to some of those recordings just as background music so I wouldn't be bored. And as I was painting I was captivated by the sense of the Holy Spirit and I would stop what I was doing and run over to the tape and I would make a little mark by where that was. And then I noticed the pattern - this just kept on happening - it was unbelievable! So as I marked all this information down the record company had to make this very difficult decision. The decision was, do we release this material to the general public what was never really recorded with the intent of releasing commercially? What we had here was a documentation of spiritual history - a part of God's word on tape that was accidentally picked up. It was decided that what we had was an incredible record of spiritual history that we needed to share with the public. So the decision was made to release the tapes to the general public."
Tony has a heart and compassion for prisoners. A one-time inmate himself, Tony's background is harrowingly hard. Born in Paterson, New Jersey, he grew up in a Second World War army barracks, dirt poor. His father was an alcoholic and a gambler. "He was probably messed up from the war. He was raised an orphan and from what I've been told his mother ran a flophouse. So he had a pretty messed up life. I don't know a lot of details about my father. I only know the violence he brought into my home." On leaving school Tony enlisted as a means of escape from his traumatic home life. After two years in the army, he returned to New Jersey in 1968. His father was dead and his mother ("a wonderful lady who did a great job trying to provide a decent environment for us children") was dying of cancer. "Trying to reconcile all the suffering of my mum, and the bad memories of my father I turned very heavily into drugs, gambling, you name it. Anything that could be abused I abused it - cocaine, LSD, hash, mesculin. I dabbled with heroin but only dabbled - I didn't like the high I got. I went more for the psychedelics and the speed and the coke. I was incarcerated seven times. After my mum died I went deeper into the drug world and I moved out to California which was probably a big mistake. I told my wife I was just going to go on a little vacation with a friend and I never came back for about a year and got involved with some really heavy drug-related type people.
"My life got progressively worse as I lived out there. I was high all the time, trying to sell drugs to keep myself alive and make money. I was involved with witchcraft, Hinduism, tarot card reading, astrology. You name it! All of the isms and schisms of life, trying to make some sense of it all. I thought I was pretty close when I landed up in a hippy commune - it was the lovey-dovey thing of the late 60s. I thought, 'This feels pretty good - a community of people, nobody's ripping each other off, everybody's pretty decent.' I thought that way until a couple of heroin addicts who were really strung out became involved in our community. They started to do all the things that come with the drug lifestyle like ripping each other off. So I began to see that this wasn't it. I continued my search, even dabbling into the occult for a period - Satanism - I was reading some books. As I got worse and worse on drugs I'd start talking to trees and televisions. I would listen to the news and if Florida came up six times in the news that was God telling me to go to Florida. If California came up that was God telling me to go to California. I got actually to live that way and travelled quite a bit. I would look at the trees and if the trees were leaning in a certain direction that was my indication from God that this was the way I should go."
The drug-ravaged Loeffler came back to the East Coast in 1971. "A friend of my wife's had come to know the Lord - it was Kathy Stafford - and she was sharing with me her salvation. She would share the Lord with me and I would get real agitated and irritated. I used to do drugs with this girl and I did drugs with her husband. All of a sudden she's implying to me that she has something that I didn't have. That bothered me. I could see the joy she had and sense the peace she had in her spirit. But it really ticked me off. So I would listen, I would get irritated, I would leave. Then I would come back and I would go through the same process all over again! One night I was going to visit her, I drove my car and turned around and started going back home and turned around and started to go to her house... I did that five times before I went to her house and every time I thought, 'If she's going to talk about this Jesus I'm going to walk right out!' I went into her house that night and I was fairly high, smoking some pot. I was trying to tell her about my 'I Ching'. But the Lord really spoke to me through her that evening. I was very, very convicted about it. I felt the presence of God in a very powerful way through her to me. I realised what it was because I saw in her face like a vision of Jesus and speaking to me through her face was this - 'I Ching, huh?', a smile. And it was almost as if I was sitting there with the Lord and his goodness and mercy and grace was just smiling at me - 'I Ching, huh?' -revealing himself to me. He wasn't rude, he wasn't nasty, just, 'I Ching, huh?' It was the most unbelievable experience!"
Totally confused, Loeffler returned to his home. Not knowing what else to do he reached for the I Ching. "I threw the coins and did the reading and the reading suggested, 'Get out of here. Get on the road and go back to the West.' I appealed to my brother to help and give me money and stuff and to cut a long story short I got on to route 80 and started heading out to the West Coast again. I had no car so I was hitchhiking. As soon as I put my thumb out I got a ride. As soon as I got out of that car and put my thumb out I got a ride again and so on all the way to Chicago, Illinois and then it stopped. I could sense this cosmic thing. All the doors were opening at the front end of my journey and I was saying to myself, 'Boy, it sure does pay to follow God,' 'cos everything was going smooth along the ride. But at Chicago it stopped dead. I couldn't get any more rides. It was in December and cold and I had no money and no warm clothing, I was down to bare bones trying to get back out to the West Coast. I finally made a sign, 'East, west, north, south, anywhere' - I just wanted a ride. Some fellow spotted my sign and came up to me and asked me if I was saved. I found myself in a struggle because at this point in my life I tried to be honest. It was all to do with my Karma - I was very much into that kind of thing. If I gave out truth I would get good things back again. When he asked me that profound question I couldn't say yes and I didn't want to say no. So I said, 'Well, I might be' and he explained the Gospel to me, gave me a little Gospel tract and said, 'Listen, if you've got nowhere to stay you can stop at my house,' and left me his number. I said 'No, no I need to go.'
"I wound up in Chicago inner city and I was walking on the streets. I had thrown my suitcase away and attempted suicide prior to this. I wanted to end my life. I stood on top of a bridge outside Chicago, looking at trailer trucks coming underneath onto the highway, wanting to throw myself off the bridge to commit suicide. The thought went through my mind, 'What if I were to live with the loss of a limb and had to live on with greater pain?' That thought got me off the bridge. I wandered through the streets of Chicago. I was walking in the streets and I just began to cry out to God. I said, 'God, I don't know who you are - I really need your help. Just reveal to me who you are and I'll put my faith in you and I'll tell people who you are the rest of my life.' I really cried, yearning that God would meet my need. A man came out of the Salvation Army building and he said, 'Son, you need a place to sleep?' So he invited me in and gave me a loaf of bread and a bed to sleep on and he invited me to the little chapel. At this point I was speaking to trees, radios, I was paranoid schizophrenic. I went into that room, feebly opened up a little hymnbook trying to stay in step with everybody else and I continued to talk to God in my mind saying, 'Who are you? I need to know who you are.' And as I'm crying out to God I'm listening to the hymns sung by other these derelicts that had come off the streets for a place to sleep. Each hymn was answering a question that I was asking from God. At the end of that small chapel service I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that something spiritual had happened in my life. I went up to the chaplain and I shared that with him and I said, 'I don't know what to do but something's happening to me tonight.' And he asked if I knew that I was a sinner and I said I didn't have any problem with that! I just had to look at my life! He asked me did I know that Jesus died for my sins and I said I was born and raised a Catholic. He said, 'Did you know he was raised from the grave and I said I knew that was true in my heart. Then I got on my knees and I invited the Lord into my life."
An experience of God's love swept through Tony. The hatred and self-loathing were driven back. "The love of course overpowered my hatred and I never went through any drug programme, never went through any rehabilitation programme. The desire of my heart was to give whatever little I had to God as an appreciation of what he did for me. That's how real salvation was for me at that point in my life. I stayed at the mission that night. I felt clean, I felt like a new man. The next day I wandered to the Pacific Garden mission in Chicago -that was another mission outreach -and I was able to get back to the East Coast within two weeks. The Lord saved my wife and we were reunited and so the rebuilding process went from that point on. I exercised my faith from day one, just feeding on the word of God and exercising my faith and growing in God's grace and mercy and I got involved in a good Bible teaching church."
Tony soaked himself in Bible reading consuming the word every lunch hour and coffee break. Comments Tony, "The Bible was the only thing I could hold on to because I was in very, very bad shape. In the 20 years of ministry that I've been out on the streets I haven't yet met anybody quite as bad as I was."
As Tony grew up in faith and Christian maturity he began to witness to the people he encountered. He also began singing. "I started playing music about a year before I got saved. I picked up the guitar and once I got saved I had a message to share. I had recognised the power of music in my life as a drug addict, I mean, music was an incredibly important part of my life. So from a cultural point of view of reaching people that is basically a musical generation I started to apply myself to music. I joined a group called Go And Tell, which was a conservative musical group. But I struggled with being able to express freedom in my music and not just conform to a church subculture. That struggle lasted four years."
Gradually as Tony built a successful engineering business, a radical ministry began to develop for the New Jersey singer and evangelist. Occasional visits to New Jersey prisons eventually grew into a fully-fledged prison ministry. This in turn led to another radical expression of the Gospel. Explains Tony, "I spent a good amount of time in prisons and the recidivism rate was so high with the people coming back in that I realised that in order to be effective in the ministry that God has given me I need to go further upstream. About 1985 I said, 'Hey, in order to be really effective here we need to be going to the street. We need to reach people in the street with the Gospel of Jesus Christ before they get to the prisons or catch them before they get recycled back to prison. So we spent a good amount of time working in the streets. I was doing a series of outdoor crusade type outreaches in Newark, New Jersey. I also worked in New York City with Teen Challenge. The problem I was having was a lot of churches or religious organisations had a great passion for the lost but when it came to organising events to do them properly and effectively with good sound, good planning, and good strategy and they were terrible. They might have the passion but not the skill to do it. So we stopped working through organisations and started to host our own concerts outside. One series of concerts was called 'Military Park City Street Concerts'. We worked with 70 volunteers representing 20 churches in the metropolitan area of Newark, New Jersey We came in contact with 200 homeless people in three days. But not one of the churches was prepared to deal with it and the volunteers didn't know what to do 'cos there was no way to help these homeless people.
"That fuelled my first album, called 'Hopes Of Glory'. The title track dealt with that issue. It went, 'Hopes of glory with our Bible stories/Can't we live like Jesus Christ/When will we ever learn ...' It talks about mothers crying when their babes get hungry, all those kinds of things. I wrote the album 'Hopes Of Glory' with the intent of trying to reach the body of Christ, because the churches' indifference to the homeless was a shocking revelation to me. I had been in the ministry at this point for 10 years, I just assumed that Christians were doing what I was doing for the most part. I thought every church was busy about this type of work. This outreach to the homeless was the first real integrated effort with a lot of volunteers representing a lot of churches. Then the reality smacked me right in the face. We're never going to get anywhere here because we're going to get people saved on the streets or in prisons, then they're going to go through the church and right out the door. We're not meeting the need. I realised we needed to go one more step upstream and start to spend some time reaching the Church. That was the third stage of the ministry. Working in the prisons, on the streets and in the churches -since that time I've been doing a combination of those three things.
"Around 1988 I was doing what we called homeless awareness tours. I worked with Randy Stonehill; he came out and helped out at one in California and one out in the Mid-West. These homeless awareness tours would hook up with a local rescue mission and we would go in and spend 10-12 days working the media, doing interviews for television, radio and the press; I would do a banquet, a benefit concert, local concerts... The objective was to stir up the people in the community to apply their faith by giving time out of their lives and helping the local homeless. And so what we would do was present to them practical ways that they could serve. There was a real emphasis on identifying the need, bringing the church people face to face with needs. The thinking here was a process we used in visiting in prison which was the osmosis process. That process was this. If you can bring Christians into an area where the need is, it is easier for them to function. If you have a child that falls down and gets a badly cut knee everyone knows to clean the cut and put a band aid on. The osmosis theory here was let's bring people face to face with the pain of life and out of that there will be Christian response. We've seen that happen in the prison side of our ministry. We spent some time doing that. It was a very strenuous time doing a lot of travelling. At one point I did 14 concerts in four days. Now I've scaled these tour schedules down to a weekend just three days, much tighter, more focussed. As opposed to penetrating locally with the media I do it long range by telephone and as opposed to doing a variety of concerts I just do a benefit and the banquet and maybe one large church. One thing was we would never take any money from a community. Of course our operation expense was covered by the local sponsor but ongoing financial support was directed to the mission. If the mission was unable to cover our operating costs we would often underwrite those expenses through our organisation, if we had the money. When we went into a community our whole focus was to say to the people, 'Here are needy people in your community, support them. No need to support me.'"
What has motivated Tony in his work with the homeless is a passionate love of God. It was this love that drove Tony and his fellow musicians and volunteers to commence the New Jersey prison rooftop concerts. When they ended, a plan emerged to commemorate them with a recording. As a forerunner to the 'Rooftop' tapes proper Tony Loeffler assembled the Blue Angels and during a five and a half hour recording session cut some of the songs performed during the prison concerts. But The Best Of The Rooftop' CD was a pale recreation lacking the smouldering intensity of the 'Rooftop Series'. Tony pays tribute to the musicians and volunteers who gave sacrificially of time and talents who made the concerts, and the subsequent tapes, possible. "Some folk drove nine hours to come. Five o'clock in the morning to load into a prison, carry as much as 35,000 lbs of equipment to the roof of a prison, stay up there in the heat (on a couple of occasions in 100 degrees weather with no shade) for almost 10-12 hours, and go home so tired it felt like you've been beaten with 2x4s. That kind of effort can only be motivated by the Gospel. I think that's what's bleeding through the 'Rooftop' tapes loud and clear - it's the passion of God expressed through the lives of saints that are willing to give up some of the comforts of life to bring the greatest message this world's ever heard to a people who are severely neglected by society. And that, in a nutshell, is what the 'Rooftop Series' tapes are all about. The tapes come complete with preaching and testimony as well as music. There was a strong attempt to keep the continuity exactly what one would experience on the rooftop. We had a certain process. We would go up, we would play some music, we would share testimonies, maybe a very brief message. The tapes reflect that."
Despite the 'Rooftop Series' flying in the face of all accepted rules of marketing Christian music - seven volumes of a cassette only album released by an "unknown" band with the tapes featuring preaching as well as music and some of the songs even being repeated (in new renditions) from tape to tape - the effect of the series has been profound and international. "I'm getting letters from all around the world from people who one way or another have heard the tapes and been deeply, deeply touched by them. I think what people are reaching to is not the skilfulness of the musicians -though I think there's some wonderful stuff musically that took place - but they're reacting to the passion of God bleeding through the lives of sacrificial people that were willing to give of their time and their art for the sake of the Gospel."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.