January 6, 2014

Cover Story

See how the story ends, before the end begins . . .”

It was an unseasonably warm and sticky Sunday afternoon in October when Jennifer Jill Schwirzer escorted me out of her suburban Pennsylvania home and to my car. I had spent almost three hours in conversation with her, Delon Lawrence, and Lee Givhan. The creative minds and muscle behind the music production The Lamb Wins had performed with most of the artists on the CD the evening before, but fatigue didn’t show as they spoke animatedly about the project, their lives, their friendship, and their hopes.

So glad I had followed Jennifer’s project status e-mails during the past two years—and glad I had ventured out to cover the story and witness the music for myself—I hugged Jennifer one last time. With both Delon’s enthusiasm and Lee’s prayer for safe travels in mind, I gave a quick wave. Then I navigated my way back to New Jersey and then on to Maryland, an office camera and digital recorder carrying the memories of the weekend’s activities.

High School Meeting

Delon first got excited about music in high school. That’s where he met Lee.

During his lunch period in Central High School’s cafeteria, Delon, who became an Adventist at 12, would beatbox
1 while students rapped, unsavory lyrics and all. Delon explains, “I did the beats because I enjoyed it—I would preach to people, and then I would do that.”

One day during sophomore year Lee came over and started to rap to what Delon was beatboxing. Says Delon, “I was thinking,
This guy is amazing! He is using big words, and he isn’t really cursing.” From that moment the two started to collaborate musically.Lee wasn’t a Christian when the two met. Delon, who had roots in Pentecostalism, was utterly convicted about Adventism, and he did his best to live that faith: he wasn’t shy about telling others about Jesus. Early in their friendship there inevitably arose occasions when, says Lee, “we would make music, and I would say stuff that was really not in line with biblical principles.”

Several times Delon suggested that the two stop making music together. “I wasn’t asking him to change; I just didn’t want to work on music that went against my faith and principles.”

Lee asked if there was any kind of compromise they could make between their two views. “I wanted to see where he was coming from,” says Lee. He started reading the Bible for 15 minutes a day but stopped—they both agreed it was wrong to force Bible study. Lee tried keeping the Sabbath in his own way—not going to parties, staying home, smoking marijuana, writing, journaling, and sometimes reading the Bible.2

Delon and Lee agreed that reading the Bible and trying to keep Sabbath just because of an agreement wasn’t the best approach. Eventually Lee got in touch with his grandmother in Alabama, who, he was surprised to discover, is an Adventist. She encouraged Lee to start observing the Sabbath again. Not yet fully ready for Adventist membership, Lee got baptized in a Sunday church as an acknowledgment that he believes in Jesus. He was still smoking. He was still in questionable relationships. He was also making a lot of money as a beer vender at the Phillies stadium. The breaking point came at a CD release party.

“The event was packed,” says Lee. “We quickly made thousands of dollars. But my conscience was bothering me—people were getting drunk, fighting. . . . At that moment I chose to live for Christ. That decision to really get committed to Christ also went along with joining the Adventist Church, because I wanted to join a church that takes the Bible literally and follows it.”

Then the music stopped.

A Path Made Clear

“Once Lee accepted Christ, it was as if his music had to be reborn too,” Delon says. “Lee had to drop everything he’d learned, and then start going about writing in a new way. Writing music now was a process—it wasn’t coming naturally. His ability to freestyle is incredible, but that too slowed down.”

Lee persevered. The more he read his Bible, the more he practiced, the more his music changed. “I think he is better now than when he was in the world,” says Delon. “People who hear his music say, ‘This is incredible art.’ Even secular people. They hear that he’s talking about the Bible, but it’s being done in a way that’s amazing—and inspiring.”

After graduating high school in 2006, the two friends grew to understand that music would be an important part of their futures, but by spring 2010 they had no clear path mapped out. Delon, a broadcasting and telecommunications mass media major at an area college, had also added nursing as his second major. He was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to make a living producing music—nursing was more of “a sure thing.” Lee had stopped attending college as he too pondered direction.

A visitor to the Germantown Seventh-day Adventist Church changed that.

Three Into One

Kimberly Schwirzer, Jennifer’s younger daughter, was recruiting Philadelphia-area high school and college students for Pennsylvania Youth Challenge (PYC).
3 One stop was the Germantown church. “Kimmy ended up sitting with Delon and Lee,” explains Jennifer. “After chatting, they signed up for the summer program.”

Jennifer, a professional counselor as well as an accomplished singer, musician, and songwriter, was heavily involved with PYC that summer. Through the many meals she cooked and served for the kids, she got to know Lee and Delon. She says, “I discovered they were musicians—so we had that in common.” Lee first connected musically with Jennifer as they spent hours talking shop.

“The first song Jennifer showed me was the “Babylon Is Fallen” rap, which we later recorded together for
The Lamb Wins. Jennifer also played a song for us [with her guitar], and she gave me her CD, which I listened to all summer during PYC,” says Lee.

“It surprised me that both Lee and Delon were interested in my music,” Jennifer adds. “I remember thinking,
Here I am in my 50s, and these kids, a beatboxer and a rapper, are liking my folk music. And then they took my song based on Joel 2, repackaged it, and played it for me.”

Lee encouraged Delon to listen to Jennifer’s CD. Delon explains, “When I heard Jennifer’s music, my thought was:
weird, but good. Her songs didn’t sound like anything I had heard before—it was just unique. That unique quality is what attracts me to artists, and that’s what attracted me to Jennifer’s music.”

As the summer drew to its end, it seemed that the cliché became true: their pairing on this music collective was a match made in heaven.

Redirection and Synergies

Focused more on her role as professional counselor, Jennifer hadn’t been doing much musical touring, but she had been writing. In 2009 she started putting the book of Revelation to verse as a way to study and understand it. Verse soon became song. Thinking the songs would make a good cantata, Jennifer tried to get several of her professional musician friends interested. They either said “no,” or they didn’t respond to her texts and e-mails. “I think God was redirecting, because after nobody responded, I shelved it. And then I met Lee and Delon.”

Lee told Jennifer that Delon, now a graduate of Temple University, had the potential to be a record producer. Jennifer had some money saved and bought the needed equipment—it would serve as Delon’s payment for producing.

Jennifer wanted Delon to produce the album for her. He was surprised and dubious, but with Jennifer and Lee’s encouragement he took the first song Jennifer gave him and worked on it.

“I worked on that song in my bedroom with a computer that was barely functional. But when Jennifer heard it, she was excited. That’s when we really moved forward,” Delon says as Jennifer nods. “But there is
no way in the world I would have even remotely thought this project would have been as hard and extensive as it became.”

It took countless hours of creative work during the course of two years. Eighteen artists collaborated. The team of Jennifer, Lee, and Delon persisted through doubts, relational struggles, and creative blocks. But God answered prayers, and
The Lamb Wins was completed. The final product is a two-CD collection of music and narration, containing 32 full-length songs and 10 shorter Scripture songs. There are two versions available—narrated and non-narrated.

Come Together

“It started with the three of us,” says Jennifer, “then I asked my oldest daughter Alison, who has her own music ministry, to sing.” Young people involved in PYC and REACH Philadelphia joined, as did several of Jennifer’s professional musician friends and acquaintances. Think classically trained contralto from Honduras and a former Hong Kong Philharmonic cellist, plus others, producing musical pieces of art with a rapper, a beatboxer, and a folk singer.

“The way this entire thing came together was miraculous. God put the people together,” says Delon.

As I dined on smooth and creamy homemade butternut squash soup, and Lee crunched on popcorn, the three artists shared story after story about how God moved in this project, how God helped them overcome personal differences and rough creative patches, and how He amassed a collection of sounds and voices each uniquely different but weaving together a colorful tapestry telling the story of Revelation.

“The entire time we were working, it was really more about the people and the community, and the relationships between the people that were working on it, than it was about the music itself. This is what matters more to me, and I believe, more to heaven.”

Earnestly, Jennifer brings home her point: “There’s lots of music out there. God doesn’t necessarily need more musicians and more singers, but He needs His people to love each other, and together pool their resources to lift up Jesus. . . . A sense of community was the objective. I’m a mother in Israel, you know, and mothering these young people and encouraging them in the faith was the bigger issue.”

“I told Jennifer that I believe God is going to use this [music collective] in a profound way,” says Delon. He explains how he struggled with maintaining patience with artists, having creative differences with Jennifer, and with living in the same house with Lee while working on the project.

At one point Lee and Delon were interviewed for the Hope Channel. Lee was hesitant. “I didn’t want to go on the show and say ‘Yeah, I was this rapper in the world, and now I’m free, and Delon brought me into the church, and everything’s good,’ when in actuality, it wasn’t really like that. We were struggling.”

Ultimately, Delon realized these problems and sought help. God worked in his life, and so did Jennifer and Lee.

“I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Lee,” Delon says. “Lee has been so supportive. He and I had our issues—there was always this competitive spirit that the devil would try to bring up.”

Despite the strain their friendship was undergoing, as they neared the end of the project Lee encouraged Delon, who was ready to quit. He told Delon that it could be wrapped up in the few days before the PYC summer campaign began.

It was just the nudge Delon needed. He decided to export copies of the songs, listen to them at PYC, and figure out how to polish everything up after the summer. To Delon’s astonishment, he discovered the songs were
done. “I had gotten so focused on what I couldn’t do that I hadn’t realized we had it all finished.”

God and Art

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked up the cobblestone sidewalk to the Chestnut Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But the eclectic mix of music and artists at
The Lamb Wins concert impressed. And the fact that each song’s words appeared on the church’s projection screen brought the words and messages of Revelation to life. Each piece of audio art took words and music—melodies, harmonies, violin, guitars, piano, cello, percussion, sopranos, altos, baritones and more—and infused them with powerful biblical messages that transcended song. Pastor Tara VinCross’s assessment: “They’ve done an incredible job. This music rivals anything I’ve heard in current Christian music.”

And yet, the music has a distinct “down-home” feel to it. “I think the ideal way God would like to create music within a community is that the local body, people who actually know each other, work together to raise up a monument that does evangelism,” says Schwirzer.

Adds Delon, “And I
know that this is truth: God is not looking merely at the genre of music that you’re working on—or who you have doing it. God is looking at whether we love Him and love others. . . . It’s all about the Ten Commandments, the law of love.

“I was blown away when I saw how God used rap, folk, blues . . . But if our relationships weren’t working out, that’s when we were stopped.”

Lee says, “I learned from this, more so than any other musical project, that the Spirit behind what you’re doing is more important than the quality of the music.” Lee, who had his own tough moments writing for the project, and admits to being a stickler for quality, knows they do have a quality product in hand. But this plays second fiddle behind the quality of the message. “If I’m portraying a biblical message, the quality of the message is important. But if my spirit behind it is not attuned to the Spirit of God, it means nothing.”

Working with Jennifer and Delon on
The Lamb Wins showed Lee that there is a godly outlet for his rap music—a place for this medium of art. Says Lee, “Time is short, I want to do more stuff like this—getting the Scripture and music and content together and put the message out there so it can really be a blessing to people.”

“This [project] was a God thing,” says Jennifer. “God kept moving and bringing people here and pulling it together. This is so much bigger than us.”

Faith and Prayer

Crumbs of bread and an empty soup bowl sit on the low-slung glass table in front of me as the interview draws to its conclusion. I’ve just one more question. One about their faith, and how they’ve seen God work through prayer.

Every studio session began with prayer. If something started to feel uncomfortable while they were working together, if there was tension, the group stopped and prayed.

During the most challenging times, when group members wanted to quit, prayer brought them back. God used the words of the songs to bring them back in—and help them recognize that God can make all things new.

“This project has shown me that God is a God of relationships,” says Delon. “It’s also taught me what it means to be a true Christian. I listened to the final product in my car, and tears started to come to my eyes. Not because we got through the project, but because the music was moving
me. God actually does work through our weakness. We serve a real God!”

Delon shifts, and I see a glimpse of deliberately mismatched socks as he continues, “God helped us from start to finish. We prayed, and He answered. He will continue to help us with the next part, which is spreading it.”

As Delon’s words hang in the air, Lee nods in agreement. Jennifer adds, “And He can also finish the bigger project, which is our characters.”

“See how the story ends, before the end begins . . .

The Lamb wins, the Lamb wins.”

  1. A form of vocal percussion involving the production of drumbeats, rhythm, and musical sounds using one’s mouth, lips, tongue, and voice.
  2. Shortly after high school graduation, Lee and Delon opened for the rapper Common, did some work with The Roots, and were finalists in an MTV contest.
  3. See Sandra Blackmer’s “Frontline Witnessing” (Dec. 15, 2011) for more on PYC: http://archives.advent istreview.org/article/4967/archives/issue-2011-1535/frontline-witnessing.
  4.  From writing to producing, from singing to playing, and from marketing to selling, Jennifer has maintained strategies on how to help the young adults involved. To learn more about this, and more about the artists involved, visit www.adventistreview.org.

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