Northmoor News, UK, May 2012
people Garth has befriended over the years and who have been able to share their struggles with people in the West through the songs Garth sings. His album titles read like a gazetteer of his musical ministry: Bethlehem, Gaza, Palestine, The Dalit Drum and a series of albums called Journeys: Journeys Africa, Journeys Holy Land, Journeys Asia and Journeys Latin America.
Sir Cliff Richard, who sang Garth’s song ‘A World of Difference’ at Live Aid, said, ‘Garth is unique amongst Christian singers. For forty years his music and ministry have fearlessly focussed on issues of injustice and poverty, and have challenged and influenced a generation. It has been my privilege to share a stage and a recording studio with this exceptional, gifted and devoted servant of God.’
Reflecting on his distinctive approach to music, Garth says, ‘You could be a political campaigner, and in a sense I try to raise issues and be an activist, I do speak at rallies and in churches and so on, but the power of song to me is something extraordinary, in the sense that its sticks in your mind in a different way. You can remember a song somebody’s sang for a long time. You may not remember the whole thing but you’ll remember some key points of it. And I think it’s a very good storytelling format, and that’s what I think is part of my role.’
Garth’s songs are influenced by country, folk and blues and in 1988 Garth received the International Artist Award from the Gospel Music Association in Nashville. He aligns himself with American grassroots radicals, citing ‘Pete Seeger, or indeed the spirituals that came out of the States which were really songs of liberation, cries for liberation.’ Garth suggests that music is ‘a way of communicating that is also more gentle in some ways, it doesn’t hit you straight off. If you speak politically – and there’s a place for that – it hits you head-on. With music and with a song, even if it’s quite direct in its storytelling it’s working on you in a more emotive way, it’s closer to a poem in that sense. It gives you a chance of being informed, but hopefully not hitting you over the head, it comes sneaking in.’
Garth gives a recent example of how a song can return, after many years, to inform a situation of justice: ‘When the recent court case over those who killed Stephen Lawrence came up, quite a few people contacted me about the song I’d written called ‘You’re Loved, Stephen Lawrence’. I wrote the song eighteen years ago, but it came back to people when the issue was in the news, and became a relevant comment again. The line ‘You’re loved, Stephen Lawrence’ was spoken by a couple who found his body on the street – they’d just come from a prayer meeting at a Catholic church – and that was the line the woman repeated to him, ‘You’re loved, Stephen Lawrence’. For the first time on the television I heard that line quoted very clearly recently. And so we put the song on YouTube, did a little sequence with pictures, and we’ve had a very good response to that from people looking at it.’
Garth is just back from a sabbatical, which he found ‘lovely, having a chance to pause and ponder’, and which included ‘a very moving time’ visiting Nicaragua, singing and speaking at the 40th anniversary of Cepad, a Christian organisation working to improve the quality of life of poor communities, which Garth has been associated with for many years. Garth’s organisation, Amos Trust, also works in India with Dalits, formerly known as ‘untouchables’, and with the street children of South Africa. In Israel and Palestine for the last 20 years Amos Trust has worked in partnership with a wide number of Jewish, Muslim and Christian peace groups, from Israel, Palestine, the UK and North America. ‘We seek to raise awareness of the devastating impact of the wall, settlements blocks and travel restrictions upon Palestinian life, particularly within the Bethlehem area’.
‘People have an image of Palestinians,’ says Garth. ‘I have a song in my set called ‘Palestinians are humans too’, and it’s reminding people that if we have values of equality, that’s not always being on one side, let’s have an equality and therefore justice.’ Garth sings ‘songs which express the hopes and yet the despair of Palestinian people, whose stories are not often told or understood outside their region’. Garth explains some of the problems inflicted on them by the Israeli occupation of their land:
‘There’s a huge amount of demolition of homes of Palestinians by the Israelis – it’s about 26,000 homes which now have been demolished – and this of course causes devastation for families. And so a group from Amos Trust went and helped to rebuild one of these homes. They were linked to an organisation, the Holy Land Trust, and also the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. They went and actually rebuilt a house in a place called Al Walaja, and as soon as it was rebuilt there was then an order put on the house that it was going to be demolished again. So there was a real poignancy, people who helped rebuild it having a strong empathy, that it wasn’t going to be demolished, and people wrote to the Foreign Office, and the Foreign Office have been very supportive on this, trying to put pressure that it won’t be destroyed. And it hasn’t been yet. But we’ll have to see, because another house has just been destroyed for the fifth time recently, of some friends of ours, so even with pressure from around the world the Israeli government still do it quite regularly.
‘Ironically quite close to the house there is a tree thousands of years old, an old olive tree there at the time of Jesus, and a huge wall is being built right around the whole of that area. And so I do a song called ‘The Death of Trees’ which is about the terrific destruction of olive trees – other trees too – but I think somehow it symbolises the destruction of the community.
‘I tell these stories to remind people that there are things happening on the ground which most people wouldn’t be aware of, you know, this wall twisting and turning and imprisoning people, houses being demolished, and the cry from the Palestinian community is simply for the rights that we would take for granted, human rights, international law, the Geneva Convention and so on. That’s what they would like to see happen, and like to see the world respond to it.’
The rights which Garth speaks about play out in everyday situations, and include the right of people simply to move around, to get to their places of work, to reach hospitals and schools, and so on: in Palestine their movements are restricted. ‘Yes, and to their places of worship. Christian and Muslim Palestinians can’t go into Jerusalem to worship as their traditions would have it. It affects every bit of life, and we try to support those (the Holy Land Trust in particular) who work in nonviolence and training people in nonviolence, to respond to the occupation but to protest in ways that are nonviolent. So there’s a big movement going on all the time, trying to resist, and as one hears the stories of these people you feel there’s a tremendous witness and example, but one which is not hugely supported around the world, most people probably don’t know much about it.’
Garth is an honorary Canon of St George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem, and in 2006 he was given special accreditation by the House of Poets in Ramallah, West Bank for his ‘positive attitude towards the Palestinian people and their struggle towards freedom and justice’. Back home in England Garth is the Guild Vicar of All Hallows on the Wall in the City of London – a church without a parish, which Garth and his associates have transformed into a centre for organisations involved in issues of justice and art.
‘It’s been a lovely story,’ says Garth. ‘We’ve been here fifteen years and initially it was Christian Aid and Amos Trust who came in here, as at that time we were thinking about a place which had a focus on justice, development and human rights and so on. And then Christian Aid asked if we would take their partners Greenbelt (the Christian arts festival) into the building, and this was tremendous, it brought in an aspect of the way that arts and creativity also picked up these issues, and works with us. Then we had another group called Stamp Out Poverty, a lobby group supported by most of the big development agencies, and a couple of other groups related to the arts – Wallspace, an exhibition centre which made a terrific contribution, and Art and Christian Enquiry. So the lovely mixture here has been art, creativity, issues of justice, development and human rights, and the different organisations will put different things on, using the building, and occasionally will work together to put things on. I think it’s made it a centre with a focus, right in the heart of the City of London, which will reflect issues from around the world in terms of the stories we need to hear, or creative arts that has its power and impact as well.’
All Hallows on the Wall occupies an iconic situation in the financial centre of London – ‘Deutschebank, for instance, is directly opposite, and we’re right in the heart of it all,’ says Garth. It seems a most unlikely place to find a group of organisations whose raison d’etre is to raise awareness of the consequences of global inequality and to challenge the misuse of capital, advocates and supporters of the world’s poorest people, but their situation in the City creates interesting opportunities.
‘We had a very interesting exhibition of art on the outside of our building organised by Stamp Out Poverty,’ says Garth, referring to Peter Dunne’s Anti Greed Give Away in 2011 where City bankers were offered a white gloved service as 300 signed original works by the artist Peter Dunne were given away to them. Reactions were mixed as each the artworks raised searching questions about the practices of the global banking system. Garth recalls: ‘The paintings were put on the outside of the church and were available for people to take. They were very, very challenging to the community that was coming and watching and having a look, and in fact one of the banks nearby phoned the police because they thought it was going to be a big demonstration. The police came along and said, what’s going on? and they said, ‘We’re sharing our art, you can have some if you want!’, and they said, ‘Great, we’ll come back when we’re off duty and get some!’’
‘It was not a confrontation, but it was a witness and an example, and it was very creative. I have one of the pieces which they gave me, and it says, BANKS – THEY’VE GOT THE GOLD MINE, WE’VE GOT THE SHAFT. People working in the local community and the banks were coming along and having a look, and there was a moment of hearing the voice of people creating some aspect of protest but doing it in a very thoughtful way.’
Not every Christian shares Garth’s instinct that issues of justice and peace are at the heart of our faith, and many of us would be more comfortable with a musician whose focus was on a more individualistic, less socially-engaged God. Martin Smith from the chart-topping contemporary Christian group Delirious? is quoted as ‘… remember[ing] being at the Greenbelt Festival when I was a kid and seeing Garth Hewitt on stage. He was banging on about Christians having a heart for the poor and saving the world and frankly I didn’t get any of it. Garth has always been ahead of his time and we are all catching up with what God has been saying through Garth for the last 30 years. I wish I had listened closer standing in that field, but it sometimes takes a lifetime to recognise a true prophet. It is people like Garth who make us look at the world differently and realise what it is to be a true Christian.’
Garth cites an experience as a youth as influencing his approach to faith and justice: ‘When I was a teenager I heard Martin Luther King speak at St Paul’s Cathedral, who was on his way to get the Nobel Peace Prize. It was very important for me to hear what he was saying because he gave me a very holistic approach to Christianity, pointing out that there needs to be the love of God, and the love of yourself in the right way, and the love of neighbour. And as he talked about all of these areas, he was uniting those issues of a personal faith with how you then live, and what prophetic faith means. And what is the challenge. Sometimes I think we can be strong on personal faith but it can almost then become a selfish thing, if it’s not being lived out. I think the example of Jesus, particularly the very prophetic example of Palm Sunday where the symbolism of the way Jesus rode into Jerusalem, nonviolently, whereas the empire was riding in with all its power and weapons and so on, this says something very important.
‘The Anglican Church and many other churches support the ‘Five Marks of Mission’ which talk about introducing people to the faith, discipleship, caring for your neighbour, and then challenging injustice, systemic injustice, and also caring for the environment, and I think therefore if we’re not including this challenge to injustice, we’re failing to live out the gospel in a key way. And when you do this and you live out the gospel I would say you make Jesus visible. You make the values of Jesus visible. I’m thinking of our partners in Nicaragua who are a very good example of this. I believe therefore that that in itself is a way of introducing people to the really deep dimension of faith, and how it can make a difference, and how it can be a healing and hopeful thing in the community.’