This evening I finally had the chance to watch Ragamuffin, a biopic of Rich Mullins that came out earlier this year, and want to assemble my thoughts about the film before I write my review.
But watching the film brought up a favorite memory of a time when I had the opportunity to sit down with Rich over cake and cups of cherry Koolaid in a little church in Birmingham, Alabama. Please allow me to fill the time between watching the film and writing my review by doing a bit of reminiscing.
Was it the spring of 1996? I believe it might have been. A student at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, I was in my mid-20’s, single, and a huge fan of the music of Rich Mullins. One afternoon I was sitting in the computer lab at school when a couple of friends rushed in and asked if I wanted to go to a free concert that night at a local church.
“Who’s performing?” I asked.
“Rich Mullins,” they answered, excited.
I laughed. “Guys, I listen to WDJC every morning on my way to school, and if Rich Mullins were coming to Birmingham “Buckle of the Bible Belt” Alabama, I would know about it.”
“It’s sort of a secret concert,” one of my friends whispered conspiratorially. “It’s only for people who work with youth, and so the church didn’t advertise it publicly.”
In the end, I decided to go, even though I figured I’d walk into the church to find some overweight, middle-aged, southern gospel evangeli-singer who happened to share a name with my favorite Christian artist. But being young and single and in seminary, I didn’t have anything better to do.
About five of us piled into a car and drove to an unfamiliar part of Birmingham where we parked in the lot of an innocuous Baptist church. The dozen or so cars already there confirmed to me that we would not be seeing the Rich Mullins that evening. But, of course, we couldn’t come this far and not make sure.
We entered the nearly empty church, introduced ourselves to the woman at the door as seminary students and youth workers, and sat down to see what would happen.
About ten minutes passed, and then the door at the front of the sanctuary opened, and a short barefooted man walked in, followed by a tall, lanky blonde guy. I’m sure we were all sitting with our mouths wide open as we saw that it was not – in fact – an overweight, middle-aged, southern gospel evangeli-singer.
It was the real deal.
It was Rich Mullins. The Rich Mullins.
We were sitting in the third pew, just a few feet away in a church with about twenty other people, as Rich and the blonde guy (who turned out to be Mitch McVicker) walked up to the mic, slung on their guitars, and Rich started talking.
He sang and told stories, he talked about the need for Christian music to actually be about Jesus, and it was about ninety minutes of mid-20’s single seminary student heaven.
But the best part was yet to come.
When the concert was over, we approached him cautiously, not exactly sure how to talk to our hero. As we approached, he turned and smiled and stepped over to us with a smile on his face. After telling him that we loved the concert, one of us nervously stammered that we were all in seminary (which I’m pretty sure he called cemetery, but I could be wrong), and so then he asked us our church background.
Since Samford is a Southern Baptist affiliated university, most of the guys were from that denomination, and they said so. When they told him, he laughed and said, “Hey, do you know why Southern Baptists don’t have sex standing up?”
Did the guy who wrote Awesome God and Sing Your Praise to the Lord really just ask us about Southern Baptist sexual positions?
Of course, we just sort of shook our heads, not sure what to say.
With an impish twinkle in his eye, Rich Mullins delivered the punchline.
“Because they don’t want God to think that they’re dancing!”
The woman who had greeted us earlier walked up, probably wondering what brilliant remark Rich Mullins had made that had caused the five nice young seminary boys to break out into laughter, and told us that we could join Rich for cake in the fellowship hall, if we would like.
“Yes ma’am, please and thank you!” we enthusiastically responded, and then followed them down the hall to the fellowship hall where we were able to sit on folding chairs and enjoy cake and cherry Koolaid with Rich Mullins.
We each took turns asking him questions, and he was incredibly patient and personable, talking to us in turn, telling more jokes as the night went on. It didn’t occur to us that this was the man’s life – sitting with fawning 20 something Kid Brothers of St. Frank wannabes – answering the same questions over and over again. But it probably didn’t occur to us because he seemed to enjoy it so much, too. He was overflowing with good graces, authenticity, and openness.
What a night.
Looking back on how we left that evening, I can see why he always had so many young guys gathered around him. From that brief time, I could tell that he was the kind of person you wanted to hang out with, because he was so inviting, so full of humor and wisdom, so full of life.
My review of Ragamuffin will come in the next couple of days.