On Exclusion and Love

Let me start by admitting that the world doesn’t need another opinion on what just happened at the United Methodist General Conference. With so many people hurting over this situation, it’s tough to know just what to say. I believe that most Methodists in America are hurting, no matter which plan they supported, and I have no interest in piling on further layers of accusations or anger. The headlines this week have reminded me of a dark time in my own faith, and that’s why I’m writing this.

As someone who grew up around an overwhelmingly traditional Christian culture, I always wondered; how could the actions and beliefs of some who claim to love Christ be SO different from what Christ actually taught? I struggled to wrap my head around it for many years, to the point of leaving the faith entirely. It was only after I learned to separate Christianity from Christ that I was able to regain my spiritual strength.

It took me several years after some bad church experiences to realize that it wasn’t fair for me to view ALL churches in a bad light. I’d been “stung by the church bee” and it was difficult to recover. Thankfully, I found a great congregation (First Christian Church in Richmond, IN) to help me move past that. After the events of this week, I fear that many others have been stung, and in a much more painful way.

Certain Christians seem to want to exclude so many, from the LGBT community, to immigrants, to anyone who doesn’t share their particular point of view, left or right. Isn’t it fair to wonder if that might have something to do with the declining numbers in churches all across America? I don’t claim to be a theological expert, but I firmly believe that Christ commands us to love. One of the core beliefs in the Disciples of Christ is the idea that everyone is welcome, in worship and at the communion table.

If we could all learn to love a bit more readily, and point the finger of anger and judgment a little less often, I think the world would be a better place. I hope we can learn to do a better job of making room at the table.

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I’m dreaming of a white camper…

Before I go any further, let me make this clear. We love Regina! (Regina is our 2007 Toyota Sienna with a platform bed and a tent “living room.”) There are so many great things about our current camping setup. Reliability, MPG, and the fact that there are no monthly payments involved. There are a lot of things that we can do because of the flexibility that a minivan camper gives us.

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However, there are also a lot of things that we can’t do, or are difficult to do. “Boondocking” on National Forest or BLM land. Pulling over at a Walmart or a Pilot to catch a few hours of sleep. Cold weather or inclement weather camping. And most notably for Molly, traveling with a future canine companion would be difficult with our current setup.

So, we’re looking ahead and starting to think about what would make sense for the next phase of our lives. I’ve ruled out conventional Chevy 6.0/8.1 and Ford V10-powered Class C’s because of fuel economy, and I’ve ruled out all 2007-present diesels because of the maintenance cost/issues with the emissions equipment. I’ve also ruled out RV’s built on the Ram Promaster platform because of maintenance and reliability concerns.

Option #1: A small, Transit-based Class C.

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Something like Coachmen’s Orion series would fit the bill nicely. Powered by a gas V6, this unit is not much bigger than a Class B at about 24′ feet long. That means you don’t need to pull a car behind it, because you can park it just about anywhere. Folks are reporting between 11 and 14 MPG, compared to 7-9 MPG for most Class C’s. The price of a two year old unit seems to be hovering around $40k, which would put the payments around $340 per month on a 15 year loan.

Option #2: A Chevy-based Class B.

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There is a lot to like about this option from the standpoint of reliability and fuel economy. One of Roadtrek’s offerings comes to mind here; 15-18 MPG is easily attainable! The downsides come into play quickly in the form of storage and price. Being performing musicians, we have a lot of gear. There isn’t really anywhere to put it in one of these units. We’d have to add on a hitch box or something on the exterior, and the cost is high. You’re looking at a price of at least $50k, which pushes monthly payments north of $400 per month on a 15 year loan.

Option #3: A pre-2007 Sprinter Class B.

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This is the sweet spot in a lot of areas. MPG is great; around 20 MPG. Reliability is good without the added emissions equipment present on newer diesels, although cost of maintenance is still an issue. There is a ton of usable storage space in units like the Gulf Stream Vista Cruiser. So, what’s the catch? Financing is the big one. It is extremely difficult to get a loan on an RV that is more than 10 years old, which is why these older units are often such a bargain.

From what I’ve seen, you can feasibly pick up a 2004 or 2005 Sprinter Class B for around $30-$35k, but good luck getting a loan on one. Most of us don’t have that kind of money lying around, and recently married musicians CERTAINLY don’t! (It’s also worth noting that rust is a huge problem with this generation of Sprinters.)

Option #4: DIY.

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This one is super appealing from a cost standpoint. You could start with any number of vehicles; a used Ford Transit, Nissan NV Cargo, or a Chevy Express. You can get a GREAT van to start with for anywhere from $8k-$18k, and financing is easy. But there is a great deal of labor involved in converting a van to an honest-to-goodness RV. There are issues to think about with weight distribution, insulation and condensation, and a whole host of technicalities with wiring, plumbing, and the like.

Option #5: A-Frame travel trailer.

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For a while, we really thought an A-Frame style travel trailer would be the best option. It’s certainly the most cost effective, at around $6k-8k for a used unit. It doesn’t have much impact on MPG because of its light weight and low profile. We could even pull it with Regina.

But the convenience factor is a concern; pulling and hooking/unhooking a trailer all the time isn’t appealing, plus, it doesn’t help us much with a dog. We would always have to book a campspot, set up the trailer, and leave our dog there before playing a show or going out and about for an extended period. We also wouldn’t be able to just pull off the road at a rest stop to catch a few winks during a long drive, or do much cold weather camping. That being said, it’s really hard to beat the value.

So, what will we do? We don’t know yet! For now, we’re sticking with our current setup and continuing to gather information. If you have any thoughts or ideas, let us know!

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Not In My Town

In a world mostly filled with good and decent folks, there are exceptions. I’ve had great experiences and met amazing people in my travels near and far, but history tells us that there will always be individuals who want to inflict evil and harm upon others. I think one of the defense mechanisms for a community is to hear about a shooting, or a hate crime, or any sort of awful thing and say…”that would never happen here! Not in my town!

I’m sorry, but yes. It can happen in your town, and the question is…how do we respond? This is something that Molly and I have both been faced with recently. In January of this year, there was a school shooting in Marshall County, Kentucky. The place where Molly’s paternal family is from, where her grandparents still live. In a sleepy town of 4,000 people, a 15 year old opened fire in a classroom and killed two other 15 year old students.

And then, yesterday. In Wayne County, Indiana, my home for all 26 years of my life, a teenager took a gun and shot his way into a Richmond middle school. Thankfully, the police received a warning call and put the school on lockdown before he arrived, and thankfully, the police were able to respond immediately. It could have been so much worse, though that’s probably hard to imagine for the family of the shooter who turned the gun on himself. They are left trying to process pain, betrayal, and loss during this holiday season.

I’ve sat through far too many arguments about gun control. I have friends on both ends of the spectrum; I know dedicated anti-gun activists, and I know loyal NRA members. I hang out with people who wouldn’t dare to touch a gun, and I hang out with people who carry one with them every day. All of them are great people. I’ve heard ALL of the arguments, and I’m simply not going to get into them in this post. If you have a strong opinion on guns, you might be getting angry just reading this paragraph. I respectfully ask that you bear with me.

We are so quick to argue. We rush to defend our positions, to prove our points, to compartmentalize people based on political or religious views. I think we sometimes forget about simple humanity. What drives a teenager to the point that picking up a gun and killing others (or themselves) seems like the best option? Isolation? Anger? Depression? Abuse? Perhaps a combination of all of these things. How often do we even consider the question before we fall back to our preset arguments and positions?

Over and over, we hear about these incidents on the news. And we do nothing to address the root causes, because “it could never happen here”, or “if we just ban guns, then they won’t be able to kill other people”, or “if we just arm the teachers, that’ll fix it!” When are we going to start asking ourselves the hard questions about the toxicity of our culture? About what sort of environment leads to violence in the first place? And, when are we going to start reaching across the boundaries of our differences, to make sure that our sense of humanity isn’t lost?

In Wayne County, the answer is now. I hope you’ll join me.

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Artwork by Molly Wallen

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It’s Not Dark Yet…

The holiday season is full of expectations. This year, it’s hard to escape the Amazon commercials that fill TV airwaves with singing boxes. “Can you feel it? The whole world’s coming together!” Ads selling everything from cars to clothes show happy families bounding down the stairs on Christmas morning to rip open packages full of joy. Of course, we should know that stuff doesn’t make you happy, but the expectation of happiness swirls around Christmas like those little particles in a snow globe.

Every year at Christmastime, I try to think about the others, the people not pictured in the Mercedes-Benz ad. The grieving son or daughter who has lost a parent. The broken heart of someone who’s relationship just ended. The stress and pain of being estranged from family. The weary soul fighting critical or chronic illness from a bed in a hospital or nursing home. And of course, the many people who just aren’t financially able to put those gift-wrapped boxes under the tree. I have a whole playlist of songs that I go to for that reminder.

Myself? I’m happy this Christmas. I’m blessed with a great family, wonderful friends, and good health. But I know that as the years go by, that may not always be the case, and I know it certainly isn’t the case for many. I’m glad that the music makers of the world recognize that sad and simple truth. One of Bob Dylan’s best songs is an ode to weariness, recorded in January of 1997. “Not Dark Yet” is pure poetry about a soul at the end of their rope.

I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies
I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes
Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

In this season of long nights, let us not forget the story actually told by the Gospels. When Jesus made his entrance, it was into a broken world, and it was for those weary souls. Prostitutes, lepers, blind men, thieves…all manner of disillusioned and downtrodden people. He never promised happiness, shiny gift-wrapping, a new car, or even comfort. Hope doesn’t come with all of those trappings, especially if you can’t even hear the murmur of a prayer.

Don’t believe the advertisements. You don’t have to be happy this Christmas. Whatever you’re going through, know that you are loved, and that you don’t have to go through it alone. And if it’s getting darker, let someone know. We’ll bring a torch.

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Stop the Hate

From the Associated Press: “A man with the same name [as the shooter] posted on Gab before the shooting that “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

HIAS is a nonprofit group that helps refugees around the world find safety and freedom. The organization says it is guided by Jewish values and history.”

That isn’t fake news. That is hatred, fear, and evil. A man has killed 11 people in a house of worship, and it appears to be a hate crime in every sense of the phrase.

Let’s not make the mistake of dismissing this as the actions of a random “crazy person.” This crime was the latest in a long line of anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant atrocities, stretching across the eras.

And it’s an example of why we can’t be silent, why we can’t ever stop standing against hatred, division, and fear. The political climate in our country is dangerous. The lack of civility, the lack of respect for humanity, and the absolute lack of empathy is adding fuel to the fire for evil.

The discussion about immigration and refugees is a good example. It is absolutely possible to have differing ideas about how immigration laws and border enforcement should be approached without falling into the angry rhetoric, name calling, and fear mongering that surround the issue.

Everyone involved is a human being, and everyone would do well to remember that. The man who posted those comments on a social media site, picked up a gun, and killed 11 innocent people lost touch with humanity, and found other voices to encourage his hatred.

This is not a Conservative, Liberal, Democrat, or Republican issue. This is far greater than that. The last year of American history has seen white supremacists marching in the streets, massacres at concerts and high schools, and now this act of Xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

We must end it, by standing against hate with conviction and kindness.

“Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Room At the Table

I’m writing this from Ireland, because I’m on my honeymoon. My wife and I have always wanted to visit Scotland and Ireland, and we are very grateful to be here, particularly to get a break from the toxic political culture of the United States. It seems like everything turns into an argument back home, and it always seems to break down along party lines.

According to a recent AP poll, more than 80% of those surveyed think that the country is greatly divided, and 77% are dissatisfied with the state of politics. Isn’t that amazing? We can’t agree on anything, but we can somehow agree that we don’t like the political situation we find ourselves in.

Recently, the issue of sexual assault has been in the forefront of the news stream, thanks to the #MeToo movement and some very high profile cases. The accusations against Brett Kavanaugh and the subsequent frenzy on social media brought a lot of women I know to very dark places, because of the lack of humanity shown by people behind a keyboard. Victims of assault or harassment who were reliving bad memories were bulldozed by people looking to argue, and it seemed to quickly become a completely partisan issue rather than a human one.

For my part, as a musician, I don’t talk partisan politics. From the stage, or on social media. You won’t hear me stumping for one side or another. But I felt like I needed to say something to stand up for the victims in my life, especially with the issue of sexual assault so prominently in the news stream. So, I made a couple of posts on my personal page to remind people that sexual assault is wrong, it happens a lot, and we should all be considerate to folks going through a tough time because of their own experiences.

I was bewildered by what happened next. It turned into a partisan political argument! I started getting all sorts of “likes” from Democrats, while Republicans started getting upset with me. I started hearing that I should “stick to music” and stay out of politics. At no time did I advocate for one party or another. But in our political climate, everything turns ugly fast. I don’t care what’s going on around it; how messed up is our political climate when talking about sexual assault is a “side”?

What happened to us? When did everything become so sharply divided, each of us lumped all the way to one end of a narrow spectrum? I see so much hatred and anger in the way people argue with each other. The group of Christian brothers and sisters that I’m part of, Disciples of Christ, operate under a guiding principle that things are centered around the communion table. There is room for all sorts of different beliefs and backgrounds, so long as we can all meet at the table.

I’m wondering how many folks are willing to do that? It’s not as easy to insult someone or attack them when you aren’t behind a keyboard. In the midst of my posts about sexual assault during the Kavanaugh stuff, a good friend of mine who had a different perspective on some of the issues came to one of my shows. He didn’t skirt the issue; he approached me immediately, told me he was glad that we could disagree and have a conversation about it as friends and adults, hugged me, and told me he loved me.

That’s the only answer, folks. We have to put aside the anger, the bitterness, and the desire to push everything to one side or another. Life is complicated. Messy. Painful. That brokenness is it what makes us, for better or worse, and we need some humanity here. You can’t put an (R) or (D) next to your name and think it gives you license to hate everybody with the opposite letter attached. Listen. Have empathy for others. And above all, be kind.

Let’s make some room at the table.

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Starting Over

I’ve been playing music for the majority of my life, which is a crazy sentence to type. I picked up the guitar when I was 10, quit my day job and went full time at 19, and now I’m 26. I’ve been through several different transitions as a musician, starting out in church and bluegrass bands as a kid, and getting into electric blues and rock as a teenager. There are few things in life more terrifying, exciting, and liberating than starting over as a musician, and that’s where I find myself again.

When I met the woman who would become my fiancee, I knew that she was talented. You don’t spend your entire life singing and get a degree in vocal music education without having chops. But it took me a few months to realize just how our abilities could merge together to create something entirely different. Once we starting working on some tunes together, it became clear to me that we owed it to ourselves to explore this new direction. We started performing together about a year ago, and after a few months of building up to it, Molly quit her day job in November.

Up until that point, I’d been relying on a network of contacts I’d built up over seven years as a solo blues guitarist. I’m SO grateful for all of the people who have supported me in that field, from the International Blues Challenge to the Telluride Blues Fest to Europe and beyond. But even before I met Molly, I’d known that a change was coming. I started diving deep into the music of singer/songwriters like John Prine, Jason Isbell, Ryan Adams, and Jon Foreman. In addition, I found myself craving the music that I’d started out playing, the old gospel hymns of my childhood and the propulsive rhythm of bluegrass. When I found out that Molly shared a deep love for the same kind of music, I realized that an opportunity was right in front of us.

We took the first year to feel things out; to make a “soft” transition. I’m really glad we did, because there is nothing like experience when it comes to music. Playing shows, travelling, writing, and having great and awful nights are the only way to make progress. Gradually, we started to find our sound, to transition away from what I was doing as a solo artist and really become a duo. It isn’t ONE style of music, it’s our own blended up version of a bunch of them. Bluegrass, delta blues, gospel, folk, alt rock, country, foot stomping, storytelling, and singing. Call it roots music, Americana, or whatever you like.

It’s been challenging, but I really like the sound that Molly and I have found together. But now, we’ve reached the scary part, the jumping off point. We are truly starting over. I feel like that 19 year old kid again, turning in my two week notice and looking at a map of the world, not knowing where my journey would take me.

If you’d like to join us and be a part of this crazy ride, we welcome you with open arms, and we ask you to bear with us as we figure it out. Thank you to everyone who has supported me as a solo artist all these years and has already shown so much love and support to us.

-Brian of The Wallens

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