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Grammy-nominated artist headlines JC Christian Storytelling Festival

Jessica Fischer • Aug 17, 2013 at 4:30 PM

Most folks recognize Matthew West as a Grammy-nominated contemporary Christian recording artist, whose most recent single, “Hello My Name Is,” has spent much of the summer at the top of the Christian music charts.

Turns out, he’s a talented storyteller, too.

West will headline Providence Academy’s 2013 Christian Storytelling Festival, set for 7 p.m., Aug. 24 in the school’s gymnasium in Johnson City. Doors open at 6:15 p.m.

General admission tickets are $15 and are available online at www.christianstorytellingfestival.com.

Several years ago, when West invited people to share their stories to serve as inspiration for an upcoming album, he had no idea it would be the start of an amazing journey that would forever change his music, ministry and life.

Armed with more than 10,000 stories from fans all over the world, the floodgates of inspiration opened and West crafted a landmark album, “The Story of Your Life.” Suddenly, people were given a voice and a chance for their stories to be heard. It started a powerful wave that continues with even greater momentum on West’s new album, “Into the Light.”

“On every level it has been the single most fulfilling thing that I’ve had a chance to be a part of in my career,” West said. “It’s just the added element of emotion that I feel by having a chance to be a part of this person’s story and to share their story with an audience. Something really special is taking place and I’m along for the ride for as long as it needs to go. As long as those stories come in, I think I’m going to keep making these kinds of records.”

A two-time Grammy nominee, West has released five previous studio albums, populating radio with such hits as “Strong Enough,” “The Motions,” “My Own Little World,” “More” and “You Are Everything.” One of Nashville’s most highly respected songwriters, West has also had songs he’s penned recorded by Rascal Flatts, Michael W. Smith, Billy Ray Cyrus, Casting Crowns and Diamond Rio.

“The Heart of Christmas,” the title track of West’s 2011 holiday album, inspired a television movie and provided him with his first foray into acting. His 2010 album, “The Story of Your Life,” burst onto the Christian album chart at No. 3 in its debut week in 2010 and has, to date, outsold West’s previous album by 20 percent. It also spawned a popular book, “The Story of Your Life,” which West penned with noted author Angela Thomas, and a church curriculum DVD series.

In writing the songs for “Into the Light,” West didn’t have the luxury of clearing his schedule and singularly immersing himself in the stories he’d gathered to work on the album. He was busy touring with Casting Crowns on one of 2011’s most successful tours.

“I wrote every song on the road, all over the country. My songwriting retreat was the back lounge of the bus, the dressing room at the arena, every town and city that I traveled in,” West said. “I was writing all day and then I would hop on stage and sing in front of these audiences and get a good look at the faces of these people. I would tell them, ‘Hey, send your story to me if you want to’ and then I’d hop off the stage and go back to my dressing room and write more songs. It was a lot more challenging just because it was really hard to find that solitude. I was in 43 cities around the country writing songs all along the way. It was special in its own way.”

Still, West took his job of sharing fans’ stories seriously.

“There’s something that feels important when I sit down with the responsibility of somebody’s life story in front of me and I’m going to put that to music in some way,” he says. “It’s not important like, ‘Look at this awesome thing that I’m doing,’ but it feels important because this person has trusted me with their story and my responsibility is to them.”

The album’s first single, “Forgiveness,” was inspired by Renee Napier, whose 20-year-old daughter, Megan, was killed by a drunk driver over Mother’s Day weekend in 2001. The driver, Eric Smallridge, was sentenced to 22 years in prison. Not only did Renee forgive Eric, she also petitioned the court to let him out of prison early. He’ll be released this fall, after serving 11 years, and will join her at speaking engagements warning young people about the dangers of drinking and driving and sharing about the power of forgiveness.

“This woman’s act of forgiveness continues to be felt by everybody involved,” West says. “Eric’s life has been changed because this woman said those words: ‘I forgive you.’ Eric accepted God into his life as a result. I feel like her story and, hopefully, this song can unearth some life-defining questions that all revolve around the one word, ‘forgiveness.’ Is there a grudge I’m holding towards someone and it’s time to let go? Is there anyone in my life who I have wronged, and my pride has held me back from asking for forgiveness? And the most important question of all: Has my heart fully embraced the forgiveness offered to me by a God who loves me unconditionally? These are the questions that we all must answer, and in doing so, we discover that forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door to true freedom in our lives.”

As he’s collected more than 20,000 stories now and turned many of them into songs of hope and inspiration, West has decided to take the entire endeavor a step further. He’s started a nonprofit organization called Population We.

“My dad’s been a minister for 38 years and a counselor. He’s just loved on people in the Chicago area his whole life,” West said. “He’s joining Population We as our full-time counselor. He’s going to be able to help us follow up and follow through with the stories that come across our paths that need help. We’re going to be able to plug them into the counseling that they need or addiction recovery program that they need to go to or the safe house that they need to find. We’re going to be building this network of resources to help become a conduit and to connect these hurting people to the help they need so that they can begin to heal.

“It’s changing everything about what I’m doing, not just the way I write music, but how we’re going to go about caring for this community of people that are connected.”

Now in its eighth year, Providence Academy’s Christian Storytelling Festival is a fundraiser, a “friend raiser” and also a chance to celebrate storytelling with a Christian worldview. All proceeds go to support the Providence’s need-based Annual Scholarship Fund, which supports approximately 25 percent of the school’s students who would not be able to receive a Christ-centered and classical education without community support. The 2013-2014 goal of the Annual Scholarship Fund is to raise $240,000.

For more information, call Director of Development Mark Koscak at (423) 854-9819.

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