I was a casual fan of his, but had always enjoyed his music. It seemed different from most other Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) that I had heard. It was somehow more real than the standard imitation-rock bands that were and are popular. It was often acoustic and had elements of Irish music, including the use of dulcimer, Irish tin whistle, and other exotic instruments. And the lyrics were excellent: “Awesome God” and “Step By Step” seemed to be written by a guy who didn’t just know a few Bible passages but actually tried to live in the world of the Bible. But I was, as I said, a casual fan. So I was blown away when I was told after his fatal September 20, 1997 car accident that Richard Wayne Mullins was on his way to be received into the Catholic Church. The 41-year-old Evangelical fan of St. Francis of Assisi and G.K. Chesterton had been drifting that way for a long time, but something was different this time.
After a long game of phone tag Mullins had finally contacted Fr. Matt McGuiness, with whom he had done an RCIA program five years before in preparation to enter the Church. He had never quite been able to take the plunge, but this time he was serious. Fr. McGuinness recounted that conversation:
“Fr. Matt, this may sound strange, but I HAVE TO RECEIVE THE BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST.” I told him that it didn’t sound strange at all but that it sounded wonderful. I told him that he had gone through RCIA so that all he needed to do was to go to Confession and to make a public Profession of Faith. I also remember saying, “We’ve talked about everything; you can go to Confession with me.” And he said, “Ah, no, we haven’t…” So, I said, “No problem, I’ll hook you up with another priest friend.” I set up an appointment for Rich to go to Confession to Fr. Paul Coakley who is now Archbishop Coakley of Oklahoma City. He was going to make his profession of Faith at the 7:00pm Mass on September 21 at the Newman Center at Wichita State University where I was chaplain for several years.
A Presbyterian friend later told Fr. Matt that Mullins had decided at the last minute that he wanted to be received on October 4, the feast day of Francis of Assisi. As Protestant friends of his pointed out, Mullins could be a little impetuous, so he might not have gone through with it ultimately. But it seems likely, given his discussions with Fr. McGuiness and others, and the fact that he had set a date for his reception, that this time he was serious.
Of course nobody would have guessed all this from the beginning. Life has a way of almost, but not quite, making sense to us. Mullins had learned this from one of his favorite writers, Chesterton. And he had not shied away from the strange things to which God calls those who receive him. Instead, he had embraced them.
Richard Wayne Mullins was born in Richmond, Indiana, to a tree farmer and his Quaker wife. He had two brothers and two sisters. Mullins learned to sing four part harmony from his grandmother and studied piano with a Quaker teacher. He was baptized in the third grade and joked that he loved going to church so much because he was never good at basketball, and Hoosier men didn’t like to sing except in church.
As a teenager Mullins joined a traveling church music group, and later attended Cincinnati Bible College, working in a parking garage to pay his bills. After some time as a music director at a Methodist church in Kentucky, he made his way to Nashville in the early eighties to put his musical ambitions to the test. He had been engaged after a ten-year relationship, and he first made it big when Amy Grant recorded his song “Doubly Good to You,” a song written for Mullins’ own wedding. But the woman broke it off.
Mullins wrote most of his songs with a childhood friend, David Strasser, known as “Beaker.” He and Beaker moved to Wichita, Kansas in 1988 to escape Nashville and attend Friends University. There he met Mitch McVicker, with whom he collaborated and then moved to New Mexico where they lived on a Navajo reservation until his death. Mullins, attracted so strongly to St. Francis, had begun with Beaker a ministry intended to mentor young Christian men and called it the “Kid Brothers of St. Frank.” Wanting to do something more than just use the name, Mullins made the distinctly non-CCM move of having his salary paid to his church, which then disbursed his money to Compassion International (an international ministry to poor children), its own ministries, and paid Mullins the average salary in America ($24,000/year). In New Mexico Mullins continued this way of poverty while teaching music to reservation children. Despite objections, Mullins attended daily Mass on the reservation for several years before his death.
Mullins’ attraction to Catholicism had been coming for a long time. A friend from Cincinnati Bible College days, Catholic convert and theologian Kenneth Craycraft testified that Mullins always carried around books by C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. His attraction was not just to a generic St. Francis, either. His later albums, like the 1993 A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band, whose parts were organized according to the order of the Mass, bespoke a deeply Catholic sensibility. When producers scrambled them, Mullins was reportedly very upset. One friend called the Catholic imagery of his last two albums “over the top.” His song “Screen Door” included the following lines: It’s about as useless as / A screen door on a submarine. The subject? Faith without works baby.
Mullins hadn’t become anti-Protestant, but like Chesterton he had discovered the Church, even if the car accident ending his life prevented him from entering it fully. It should be no surprise that his song, “Creed,” which brings out the dynamic qualities of the Apostles’ Creed in a way quite similar to Chesterton’s most famous book, should have as its most memorable lines a mash-up of Orthodoxy and St. Paul himself:
And I believe what I believe is what makes me what I am
I did not make it for it is making me
It is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man.
Republished with gracious permission from Gilbert, the magazine of the American Chesterton Society (September-October 2013).
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Editor’s Note: The featured image of Rich Mullins is courtesy of Wikipedia.