By JOHN DOWNS, SR.
They came with lawn chairs and beach blankets. Many wore blue jeans, and some were dressed for an evening on the town. There were moms holding babies and dads chasing toddlers, teenagers and young couples, middle-aged twosomes and senior citizens. Numbering nearly 4,000, this gathering was here to welcome the inaugural edition of the Chesapeake Christian Music Festival at Chesapeake City Park featuring the artists of “Swallow the Ocean” national tour.
With a late summer sunset providing the backdrop, the 5:30 starting time neared and popular local DJ’s Jenn Creasey and Trina Olson from Positive Hit Radio 103.7 “The Current” welcomed the enthusiastic crowd, promising an evening of soul stirring and spirit-filled performances. The musical line-up featured a number of Grammy nominated and Dove Award winners including the headlining act NewSong whose appearance in Chesapeake was part of their “Swallow the Ocean” nationwide tour.
NewSong is one of contemporary Christian music’s most enduring acts. For more than 30 years, the group has produced an impressive list of hits that were not only commercially successful but also continue to minister to the cornerstones of their musical ministry including evangelism and partnering with organizations to help those in need. The group consists of Eddie Carswell, Billy Goodwin, Russ Lee, Matt Butler, Jack Pumphrey, Mark Clay, and Rico Thomas.
“Swallow the Ocean” is not only the name of the group’s tour, it’s also the title of their latest song. And it has special meaning to each of the band members. Matt Butler (lead vocals, keyboard, and songwriting) explains. “We have spent our whole lives trying to be artists and musicians who describe God’s love. So the impetus behind the record is to use music for that purpose – to introduce God to people who don’t know him.”
Butler continues, “The sentiment for “Swallow the Ocean” comes from an inspirational poem found inscribed on the wall of a cell in an insane asylum. It is the heartbeat of this album.” It reads in part:
‘If we were to fill the entire ocean with ink, and if we were to take pens and try to write the love of God across the sky, we would drain the entire ocean dry and still not even come close to touching the surface of God’s greatness and the bigness of His love.’
Joining NewSong on the Bagley Stage were the other tour members and popular Christian artists including Aaron Shust, Royal Tailor, and popular husband/wife singing duo Love and the Outcome. Local favorite David Glenn of River Oak Church also exhibited his considerable vocal talents.
A special attraction opened the show in gala fashion. Earl Bynum and The Mount Unity Choir entertained the willing crowd in jubilant fashion with both upbeat and soulful renditions of popular gospel songs. Aided by a talented and choreographed dance troupe, the 100 plus member local choir had the audience spontaneously rising to its feet and clapping their hands. Many in the crowd responded with eyes clenched shut and arms raised heavenward as they swayed with spirit filled emotion.
This special night of Christian music superstars benefited a charity known as Nelly’s House, a non profit organization that facilitates the funding and distribution of a school lunch program in three of Haiti’s poorest provinces. In attendance at the concert was a special guest of honor, Carmel Wagnac, founder of Nelly’s House. Now 70 years old, this former nurse’s aide still runs the charity in her impoverished country. “It’s named in honor of my grandmother,” Wagnac explains. “She spent her entire life feeding hungry children in her own kitchen. We’re carrying on that tradition to insure that no child goes hungry in our hurricane ravished country.”
Ruby Wagnac, her son, says Nelly’s House can provide a hot meal for a hungry child for 30 cents a day. “When our charity started, we were feeding 270 children twice a week,” he says, “Now, seven years later, that total has grown to 860 children and we are able to provide hot meals five days a week now. But there is such a need. So many children to feed.”
Taylor Grissom was the Festival’s organizer. “I am thrilled at the turnout for our first effort,” he said proudly. “It’s wonderful to be able to help such a worthy charity like Nelly’s house. There are so many volunteers who contributed to this effort and made it the success that it is. The support we have received from our business community has been amazing. I’m particularly grateful to the wonderful people at Chic fil A, the South Norfolk Ruritan Club, Sheriff Jim O’Sullivan and the Chesapeake Sheriff’s Office. We’re already making plans for next year. I think this is going to become a Chesapeake tradition,” said Grissom.
As the concert ended, the beautiful and powerful music of strong faith had filled the air with hope and optimism, and it appeared those in attendance left feeling blessed. As one happy young lady put it, “No matter what type of Christian music you like, nobody went away disappointed tonight.”
Amen to that!
The generosity and concern of the Chesapeake community for Nelly’s House was expressed in a generous love offering at the concert but so much more support is desperately needed for the children of Haiti. Donations are gratefully accepted by check, cash, or credit card. The mailing address is Nelly’s House c/o 442 Battlefield Boulevard, South, Chesapeake, VA 23322 or for further information please call 757-620-0561.