Medical problems. A lost job. Divorce or a busted relationship. Coping with death.
In every life there’s a story to tell. The job of a great storyteller is to tell it well.
For Grammy-nominated & Sparrow recording artist Matthew West, that means using his heart, his voice and his music to turn people’s stories of pain and sorrow into songs of hope and inspiration.
The 34-year old Christian artist and his band were featured at the opening night of Hillsboro, Ohio’s annual three-day Fourth of July celebration, the “Festival of the Bells” on June 30.
“I’m a song writer, that’s what I love to do,” West told a large crowd gathered to hear him sing to the backdrop of carnival rides and food vendors on the streets Thursday night.
A 500-seat VIP seating area directly in front of the stage was nearly filled by members of area churches who sponsored the artist, while hundreds more spilled out in all directions at the town’s main intersection.
“Feels good being in Ohio tonight, shutting these streets down for a few days, that feels good,” West, a native of Downers Grove, Illinois, said at the start of the performance. “Summer time is here. It’s an honor to be here.”
With a unique blend of humor, energy and emotion, West warmed up well to the southern Ohio crowd. At one point during the evening, the singer darted off the stage and mingled with the assembled to take pictures and eat kennel popcorn. He also hosted his own version of “Ohio’s Got Talent.”
“He didn’t know this when he came here tonight, but his dream of becoming an Ohio star is about to come true,” West said about Shawn, a young man brought up on stage to participate with him. “He gets to sing ‘La, La, La’s’ all night.”
When asked if he knew what the grand prize would be, Shawn appropriately replied, “Praising the Lord?”
“How about this,” West said to laughter. “You get a day-old funnel cake if you win the prize.”
One thing was clear; as he introduced each song, West wasn’t shy about sharing his faith and encouraging people to look to God for answers to their problems.
“I don’t know about you,” West said humbly during a moment of personal testimony, “but I sure am just glad to be alive. The reason I have hope, is not because of anything I’ve done for myself, but because of what my best Friend has done for me every single day of my life. My best Friend is God.”
West said no matter how many times he messed up in life, he was able to re-gain his footing because of a special gift.
“The reason I have that hope is because of a gift called Grace,” West declared.
During one musical selection, “Only Grace,” West told how the song was born.
It was a few years ago during a concert at a maximum security prison where West prayed to God for help.
“The security guards were searching me and my guitar, and as they were searching me, I was just totally filled with fear,” West said. “I felt like I was on the edge of the unknown.”
West was told that the warden had decided to give him permission to perform in an area where visitors weren’t normally allowed — solitary confinement.
“My audience was behind two stories of cell doors,” West said. “I stood there with my guitar in that cold, dark hopeless place. I remember praying, silently, just asking God for help. He put these words in my heart, eyes closed, singing these words.”
There’s only grace,
There’s only love,
There’s only mercy,
And believe me it’s enough.
Your sins are gone, without a trace,
And there’s nothing left now, there’s only grace.
As some in the audience stood, hands outstretched to the sky in praise, and others sat with an arm of comfort around a family member or friend as they wiped away a tear, West invited the hurting and the lost to respond to the call of grace.
“Tonight, I just want you to know, maybe you feel like you’re not in prison, but you feel like at times in your life you’re in just as a hopeless place,” West said softly. “The only reason I can stand here and sing this song about grace is because every single day that’s the only way I can wake up. Because I’ve been given that gift of grace and you can receive it too.”
“Maybe tonight, I pray that you can be reminded that your life’s not over yet,” West said. “You can get back you, you can get back up, and His grace is the reason why.”
The artist recently released a new album entitled, “The Story of Your Life,” which he described as a collection of powerful and inspiring stories from his fans.
“I decided instead of writing stories inspired by my life, I was going to write stories and songs inspired by your life,” West explained.
He asked fans to send him personal stories through social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook and was overwhelmed by the response.
“I thought I might receive a couple hundred stories,” he said. “I got 10,000 stories!”
West spent the next few months secluded in a cabin reading the stories. He joked that he grew a knee-length beard and didn’t take a shower during that time.
West said the stories he got were about the most difficult days of the writers’ lives — Tonya, a single mom with three kids living with the consequences of teenage pregnancy; Kristen, an unloved and unwanted orphan who never had a family of her own; Melody, a two-time cancer survivor who recently suffered more bad news.
“I called Melody to let her know she helped inspire this next song,” West said before performing “Survivors”, a song about the determination of people facing adversity. “She said, ‘Two weeks ago my doctor called me and told me that my cancer’s back for a third time, and this time there’s not much they can do.’”
When West asked Melody how she was holding up in light of the news, he was shocked by her attitude.
“I’m doing better than ever,” Melody told him. “I’m not scared anymore. God’s brought me this far. I may not beat cancer this time, but I know where I’m going when my life is over, and I know there’s no cancer in heaven.”
West, who has upcoming tour dates in Wisconsin, South Dakota, Illinois and California, ended the night with a tribute to America’s service members and a patriotic rendition of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”
“How wonderful it is that we can gather here in the middle of this street tonight in a free country,” West said. “I want to take a moment to say thank you to all the men and women of our armed services who are out there protecting our lives and protecting our freedom.”
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(Editor’s Note: This event was filmed by Big 3 News with permission of Chuck Lipps, Vice President of Rick Modesitt Associates, Inc. and the artist, Matthew West)
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