This article is one component of the cover package on "Songs of Justice, Missions of Mercy."
Derek Webb rarely does anything conventionally. In 2003, he left a steady paycheck as a member of Caedmon's Call to launch a solo career. He promptly offended many with his debut album, whose lyrics include words like bastard and whore.
For his third album, Webb bucked convention again by giving it away online for free. Blunt in his lyrics and everyday conversation, Webb has criticized churches for a lack of compassion for the poor and slammed the Christian music industry for greed. But although some resent Webb's outspokenness, few doubt his commitment to love God and neighbor.
Webb and his wife, Sandra McCracken, also a musician, channel much of their energy into their church, Nashville's City Church East. The Presbyterian congregation has a number of outreach programs for the urban poor. Four years ago, Webb and McCracken sold their suburban home to move into a modest house in a racially and economically diverse East Nashville neighborhood.
Local drug abuse and crime rates worry the couple, who are raising two young children. "We feel pretty safe now, but not when we first moved in," said Webb. "It was a real struggle at first, sacrificing our idol of comfort and deciding to make neighbors of people who are not like us. Some of them have been dealt a really hard hand of cards."
One man dealt a particularly hard hand is David, a homeless Vietnam veteran whom Webb met in 2008. When he learned that David wanted a radio, Webb took David to a dollar store and bought him a radio and a few other things, spending about $60. What Webb most remembers is the vibes they got inside the store.
"I could feel what David feels when he goes into places. Everybody's looking, following him around. It's oppressive. It's hard enough to be down on your luck. But to have your dignity taken away—it's dehumanizing. This is a human being, made in God's image."
Webb and McCracken are determined to make a difference in their city. "It's like a sense of calling," said McCracken. They are getting to know their neighbors—single moms, widows, broken families, and Vanderbilt University students. Webb joked that neighbors sometimes barge right in. "We need that. We're the kind of people who resist it."
"Once you sit down with a neighbor and have a conversation," added McCracken, "you realize you needed to make that connection. You'd miss that if you just took the path of least resistance all the time."
City Church pastor Craig Brown said Webb and McCracken have become "part of the fabric" of the East Nashville community. They give of their time and are available to others. "They've decided to raise their family in the city. Many may feel like that is a sacrifice, but they see it as a unique opportunity.
"They're not naïve about the city's dark side," said Brown. "They are willing to enter into the pain of the city, and to live and sing the love and truth of Christ into it."
Mark Moring is senior associate editor at Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
As part of the cover package on "Songs of Justice, Missions of Mercy," Christianity Today also posted the following articles:
Jars of Clay: Clean Water, Clean Blood
Sara Groves: Less Charity, More Justice
Steven Curtis Chapman: Beauty Will Rise
Third Day: Diversification Is the Key
Previous articles about Derek Webb include:
Disentangling Webb | Derek Webb says the recent quasi-controversy surrounding the release of his new album was not orchestrated at all, but that "the struggle was 100 percent real." (August 18, 2009)
A Questioning Faith | Derek Webb calls us to conversation, not conversion. (June 11, 2007)
An Unfiltered Webb | Derek Webb is a bit of a prophet in Christian music, writing in-your-face songs that might make you squirm. He says he's just writing honestly—without the usual "filters." (January 1, 2006)
More information about Derek Webb, Sandra McCracken, and City Church East can be found on their respective websites.
Christianity Today covers more musical groups through reviews and news stories.
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