In Between the Lines & Spaces

The story behind the Russ Taff classic “We Will Stand”

Preconceived Notions

 

It was 4AM. I was tired, frustrated. I needed another song for my first solo album, but the pen in my hand wouldn’t move. The page was blank, intimidating. The only lines my mind could conjure were the not-so invisible boundaries that had divided my world.

I was twenty-two. My musical career was taking off. Tori and I had just married, and we’re mostly ‘on the road’, performing solo concerts and touring with the legendary Imperials. For awhile traveling, singing, spreading the good news, was everything we dreamed it could be. But with every state line we ventured across, we discovered another more tangible divide.

It was the 1980’s, a time when a memorable TV commercial showed a hillside covered with people holding hands and swaying to the tune, “I’d like to teach the world to sing… in perfect harmony. ” The notion was appealing, inclusive. That is, to everyone but the Christians of the day. Back then, holding hands and harmonizing with anyone – especially someone who belonged to ‘another’ denomination – was just not done. In those days, it was practically blasphemy if a Pentecostal went to a Baptist concert, or vice-versa.

While we were on the road singing “Listen to the trumpet of Jesus,” some of our fellow Christians were obsessing over the ‘different sound.’ On national television, a prominent evangelist was spending valuable airtime blacklisting artists like me, the Imperials and others, because we did not conform to his preconceived notion of Gospel music.

And while we were trying to ‘march to the drumbeat of God Almighty,’many of our brothers were ‘wandering around’ preoccupied with length of hair, and styles of clothes. Even to a kid in his twenties the situation was immature, divisive. Sitting in our small west Nashville apartment in the middle of the night, the only lines my mind could focus on were the scrimmage lines of separation. All I could envision were images of high walls; immoveable roadblocks against which my own gullible illusions shattered. I wanted to write a song about the love of God, yet all I could think about was the prejudice of man. And it was in the middle of this frustration that my pen finally began to move….

Sometimes it’s hard for me to understand
Why we pull away from each other so easily
Even though were all walkin’ the same road
We build dividing walls between
Our brothers and ourselves

It seemed so obvious to me that our superficial differences were petty, irrelevant. And if our contrasts have no affect on the population of Heaven, it just doesn’t matter.

I don’t care what label you may wear
If you believe in Jesus you belong with me
The bond we share is all I care to see
We can change this world forever
If you’ll join with me, join and sing

Music is amazing. In the short time it took to record these lyrics and mass distribute the album, I discovered that I wasn’t alone. That vinyl disc became a musical magnifying glass, exploring not only the times and my best hopes, but also the sentiment of the larger Christian community.

Immediately folks like Billy Graham latched on to its musical message and started using the song as an anthem in his crusades. Then, Bill and Gloria Gaither reprised the song as an invitation to ‘come home’ and join their ever-growing family of friends.

You’re my brother you’re my sister
So take me by the hand
Together we will work till He comes
There’s no foe that can defeat us
When we’re walkin’ side by side
As long as there is Love
We will stand

For over twenty years I have watched the effect these lyrics have had on others. I have seen them reshape ideas, promote dialogue, and help banish the preconceived notions that have surrounded me. Of course, I’m pleased that this wave of examination was initiated by my song, but I’m not surprised. The human desire for improvement is far from a novel notion.

For me, self exploration is an on-going exercise, a journey of improvement that never ends…

Still, facing our self is never easy – in fact it is physically impossible. The only person we have the power to change is the one person we can not see bodily – our self. Athletes must resort to the ‘instant replay’ to improve their game. Actors depend on the critique of the director and the audience for their insight. In every walk of life, personal self improvement requires the involvement of someone outside our self –holding that magnifying glass.

The day will come when we’ll be as one

When I penned those words, that dark frustrating night, I was the ‘outsider’, commenting on a society that was so caught up in their prejudice they couldn’t see their own actions. And when that magnifying glass was turned my way, I, too was so caught up in the moment that both my prejudice, and the outsider, startled me.

On that revealing day, I was ironically in the middle of my latest self-improvement kick: walking. Whether I was home in Nashville with Tori and our girls, Charlotte and Maddie Rose, or on the road doing a string of concerts, I had made it a priority to carve out a portion of every day for a vigorous, heart-pumping hike. … It was during one of these strolls down a busy San Jose street that I discovered something about myself I never imagined.

It was around noon, and the California sun shined down on a city sidewalk filled with hungry pedestrians, all trying to make the most of their lunch break. Meandering through this ever moving maze, I briskly stepped off the curb to cross the street. From the opposite corner a woman approached. At first she was just another face in the crowd, that is until we were about to pass on the crosswalk.

“You be careful down here.”

Her unexpected words took me off guard. They broke the concentration of my stride. My eyes darted in her direction. That’s when I noticed she was dirty, disheveled and pushing a grocery cart filled with items salvaged from the garbage. In that instant I came to the all-inclusive conclusion, “Homeless.” 

Instinctively reaching into my pocket, I pulled out three dollar bills and put them in her hand. I smiled and walked on, subconsciously relieved, “There, I’ve dealt with you.”

I had only taken a few steps when a voice inside of me whispered, “Go back. Talk to her.” The words were as clear and as unexpected as the woman’s greeting. And my response was just as sharp; “No! She’s filthy, and very likely a loon!” But my walking shoes turned of their own accord and I soon found myself navigating my way back through the crowd.

Retracing ground I had just covered, my eyes scanned for the grocery cart. Zigzagging my way through that pedestrian maze, I was sure that she and my three dollars were headed for the nearest liquor store. But through the forest of bobbing heads, I spotted her opening the door to a coffee shop.

By the time I entered the establishment she was sitting by herself at a table; her only companions, her cart and her just-purchased lunch of an apple and coffee.

Hesitantly I approached her. “Excuse me. Can I talk to you?” She looked up from her steaming cup of java a little befuddled. “I’m the guy who just gave you three dollars.”

A sudden look of recognition crossed her worn face, “Please,” she smiled, “have a seat.”

After a few awkward moments, our conversation slowly took on the rhythm of a good walk. Her name was Portia, and the heart-braking story of her sixty years was a marathon-tale of hard luck and love lost. Looking into her dark sunken eyes, I realized that the labels I had sung about so adamantly, I had placed on her instantly. And peeling away that preconceived notion I could see that this wandering, lonely outsider had once been pretty.

The California sun, and that self-examining magnifying glass started working on me, burning a hole in my pride. And it didn’t take long before the wall I had built between my sister and my self began to melt.

“How would you like a real, hot meal?” Her blue eyes lit up.

Portia and I ended up spending the rest of the day together; walking, talking. As the sun started down, I escorted her and her cart back to the arena where I was booked that night. Somewhere along the way she took my arm and started singing an old Everly Brothers song from her youth. And swaying to the tune, I harmonized.

Backstage, in the arena’s Green Room, Portia was stunned by the sight of tables upon tables of food. Standing back, I got a kick out of watching the other artists on the marquis stop by her piled-high plate to chat. Each one treated this outsider with the kindness and respect we all deserve. And it was then that I fully recognized my own prejudice.

Our differences should be ice-breakers, not wall makers. If it doesn’t affect the population of Heaven, it just doesn’t matter. That day I realized that there is only one preconceived notion we should entertain…

You’re my brother you’re my sister
So take me by the hand
Together we will work till He comes
There’s no foe that can defeat us
When we’re walkin’ side by side
As long as there is Love
We will stand

There will come a time when our long frustrating night as outsiders will finally be over. On that bright day I’ll see Portia again. All of my personal baggage will be gone and so will her cart. Together, we will walk side by side. I’ll take her by the hand and… harmonize.

***
 

PRAYER

No more labels. Let me always look beyond the facade and see Your face. And remind me everyday that if our disagreements do not affect the population of heaven, it just doesn’t matter.

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