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Music as Ministry: Joe Jencks

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When I sat down to talk with musician and fellow congregant Joe Jencks, I asked him to tell me about himself and why he’s chosen to join our UCC congregation.  He decided to share his spiritual journey, a story that is rich and compelling.  Raised Catholic in the city of Rockford, IL, he began the interview by asserting that he loved going to church when he was a kid.  “I enjoyed the ritual; I enjoyed the various traditions.”

His love of church hasn’t abated.  If anything, it’s grown stronger. 

He grew up in a very “rough-edged”neighborhood.  Born in 1972, his coming-of-age coincided with the crash of the U.S. Steel industry and the loss of manufacturing.  He explained, “Rockford is a town of secondary manufacturing.  We weren’t building cars there.  Belvidere was, but we were building alternators and engine parts, and secondary manufacturing for the aerospace industry, and many things for the tool-and-dye industry. Rockford really hit profound economic hard times in the middle of my childhood. 

 “When I walked to the Catholic school that I went to, a lot of times as a child I would see people’s possessions out on the front yard or on the curb.” Jencks didn’t realize until he was in his early thirties that all those possessions belonged to people who were being evicted.  He saw Michael Moore’s film, Roger & Me, and began to understand.  “There was that scene in Michael Moore’s film where the cops show up, and they’re dragging people out of this house because they’re not paying their rent and they’re months behind, and the landlord is asking them to leave.  Suddenly I understood what the bigger picture was, economically-- national economic issues and trade wars, the cost of gasoline, the big spike in the late Seventies, and how all of this conspired to create a situation where my hometown, which was brought into existence largely to serve the needs of industry” was abandoned. 

Jencks states that “there was a reason why church was a gentle and beautiful place in a town that was falling apart.  It was a place of serenity and a place of joy, and for me, a place where I really discovered the depth of my own relationship with music.  For me, I have always prayed best when I let it come through my song.  I use the voice that God gave me in a way that isn’t necessarily or overtly about ministry, but is very much about channeling the kind of compassion and hope and peace that I have experienced when church is done well.”

Jencks’s spiritual formation was developed in a congregation that was “very healthy.”  The priests he encountered were “very devoted to young people in an incredibly gracious way, committed educators, some diocesan, some Franciscan, some Jesuit.  The nuns I had in grade school were, with one exception, extraordinarily gifted, intelligent, creative, devoted to education, devoted to young people, devoted to crafting a better world for tomorrow and doing it through young people.”  Those clergy and religious sent very strong social justice messages.  “People ask where that vein of thought came into my life and I’d have to tell them I was radicalized by Catholic clergy!  People look at my values around social justice and human rights, civil rights, worker rights, women’s issues, environment concerns, and all of it came out of the teachings of the Catholic church.  Even though I no longer define myself as Catholic, I have extraordinary affection for the educators that I had as a young person and as a teenager.”  Those educators encouraged Jencks to ask questions about church canonical history. 

For Jencks, church and school served as refuge from the violence that was happening in his neighborhood.  “I think there were a lot of kids experiencing violence at home” and as a result, they emulated violent behavior that they themselves had witnessed.  “For me, walking to and from school was incredibly perilous at times.”  Jencks was big for his age and became a target for kids wanting to prove how tough they were.  They would pick a fight with him, but Jencks was not interested.  “I was just a tender, gentle young person who was not inclined towards violence.  A neighbor who knew karate connected me with some classes at the YMCA.”  He was trying to encourage Jencks to learn martial arts, but Jencks didn’t enjoy it.  “I understood that the end result of that was I was going to hurt somebody.  It wasn’t my inclination, but I learned to throw a punch well enough to let people know I wasn’t an easy target.”  The last punch he ever threw was when he was 12 or 13.

In high school, Jencks made a very conscious choice, because of his musical work, church work, and religious education, to commit himself to the idea of non-violent resistance.  Having been exposed to the teachings of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Henry David Thoreau’s treatise on Civil Disobedience, he made a very conscious choice that “whatever problems I needed to solve in the world, I was going to do so with my mind, not my fists, and that I was going to find a creative way to solve a problem, rather than a violent way.”  He studied King and Gandhi, and learned the difference between pacifism and non-violent resistance: “Pacifism refuses to engage in conflict.  Non-violent resistance challenges oppression proactively in every means possible other than violence.”

That is not to say that Jencks’s philosophy wasn’t challenged:  His father, a Korean war vet, gave him a copy of the papal encyclical on The Just War Theory.  From this, Jencks says, “the beginning of an honest conversation with my father began.” That conversation started when Jencks was about 13, and lasted until his father died when Jencks was nineteen.  “He had a huge influence on me.  There was something in Catholicism that meant the world to him.”

It was in high school that Jencks took a course called The Christian Call to Peace and Justice.  In this course, students looked at Judaism and other religions, and the way they influenced ideas of social justice within Christianity.  Students studied the core teachings of Jesus as presented in the Gospels and the writings of St. Paul.  Carrying those studies into modern times, they studied contemporary peace & justice activists like Lech Walesa, leader of Solidarity, the Polish Labor Movement.  Jencks learned about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, and about Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker’s movement.  Jencks later learned the iconic song De Colores from friends in the United Farm Workers. “Chavez had heard the song De Colores while on retreat in Spain. He brought it back to the Farm Labor Movement in the United States. Chavez and some other folks created a few new verses to it that would serve the farm workers.”

Early in high school, Jencks resumed studying music and theater with his mentor and friend, Dorothy Page Turner. A nationally recognized jazz vocalist, musician, and educator, who has had a profound impact on Joe’s life and work.  “She started something called the Black Theater Ensemble because as an African-American and artist, she felt like there were significant pieces of the African American experience that were not being taught in the schools, and not being shared in the community.”  Turner asked Jencks’s mother if her son could participate, and it was then that Jencks began to learn about African American history.  Of this experience, Jencks says, “There could have been no more significant or prominent a lesson in my life about the power of art to transform people’s thinking and ideas, and the power of art as a spiritual practice that helps us transform ourselves.” 

All of the above history helped to shape Jencks’s spiritual and social values, and he began to feel he had a calling to ministry of some kind.  The priests in the diocese encouraged their male students to consider the priesthood.  Jencks states, “I did feel a call to ministry, but there was no realistic way I could answer that call within the Catholic church.  There were too many things that I did not agree with, theologically, in core doctrine.”  He began to explore other forms of spirituality and practice: “I explored Native American spirituality, primarily Lakota.”  He also studied Buddhism, Hinduism, the B’hai faith, and the Sufi mystical writers.  He became a student of several mystical traditions, “and as an adult I was away from the church for a long time.” 

He returned to the Catholic Church while courting his former spouse, who converted to Catholicism.  He realized that he could look through the lens of Christianity, or look through the lens of Buddhism and find those same teachings in Dharma, “the core ideas by which we can reduce suffering, live happier and healthier lives, and help other people around us to do the same.”

Eventually, Jencks’s spiritual journey led him to explore Unitarian Universalism.  He says, “I still have strong affiliations with the Unitarian Universalist church, professionally, spiritually, and personally. But I hit a phase in my spiritual path where I was really missing Christianity as the center point of my faith practice. In Chicago, I had been a part of a Unitarian Universalist church - People’s Church, which has a dual affiliation.  It was historically a Universalist church, and then when the Unitarians and Universalists merged, the minister became a UCC minister, feeling that Christianity was losing its place in the combined faith.” Jencks explains that this minister’s core thought was that “God didn’t create horrible, dark, miserable, sinful people that must be saved.  God created perfection, and that the world we live in corrupts that perfection.” This was a message that Jencks could embrace.  “We must engage in faith practices and communal practices that help us heal the wounds that have been inflicted on us either by culture, race, gender, or economic status, or just in general in human relationship.  We are restored by faith, but not because we were imperfect to begin with.  We are restored by our faith because that is how we gather in community to collectively try and correct the wrongs we have created.”

This theology made sense to Jencks and led him into a deeper understanding of UCC.  He recalls walking into People’s Church in Uptown Chicago – and starting to weep. He saw the UCC banner that read – God Is Still Speaking.  “It hit me with such depth because I felt like God was still speaking to me.  In spite of my tug-of-war with the Divine throughout my life, there was still something in church that I didn’t want to dismiss.”  He briefly attended seminary, and has not closed the door on the possibility that he may do so again.  But it was through the UU church that he realized that music is his ministry.  He also realized that his music didn’t have to be about God per se, to be a ministry.  “My music doesn’t have to be about politics in order to be political.  It doesn’t have to be about any specific form of revolution to be revolutionary. Beauty, all by itself can be revolutionary and be a ministry all at once.”  The idea of being present in the world through his art as a musician, with an emphasis on compassion, kindness, and justice, was a perfectly viable way to serve others.  “It’s not an ordained ministry in a traditional sense, and it’s certainly not a Christian ministry in any overt way.”  But it is a ministry, nonetheless.

As for his relationship to UCC in general and this congregation in particular, he says, “I have found for the first time in my life a place where my progressive politics, where my love of global religion, and the wisdom to be gained from a study of many religions is welcome, and where my core faith in the teachings of Jesus and in their redemptive power is recognized in one place.  For somebody who has been a spiritual seeker much of my life, to now in my mid-forties find a church where all of that is welcome without reservation, without ambiguity, to find a congregation that has people talking about big things and asking big questions, and who want the teachings of Jesus to inform how we live in the world without being hung up on any literal interpretation of those teachings—[this is] a place where God is still speaking.”

In Jencks’s experience, ours is a very welcoming community.  When he first began to attend, he was going through a divorce and having a very hard time.  “I was in crisis,” he states, “and just the act of someone greeting me” was healing.  “When Gertrude Nettey gave him a hug and a big smile, it meant everything to me.  The power of one act of kindness and one gentle person radiating hope, that was as healing as anything anyone could have done for me.” 

Jencks closed the interview by saying, “This is not the beginning of my spiritual journey and very well may not be the end of that journey within this denomination, but it is the perfect church for me at this point of my life.  I am so grateful for the people who have been stewards and caretakers of this community here in DeKalb.  This has been one of the few anchors in my life as an itinerant musician that has helped me to right the ship again, and really point myself in a healthier direction.”