Who is my neighbor?
This is a question we’ve all asked at some point. Jesus was asked this question in the book of Luke. Is your neighbor the family who lives next door, or is it the woman who checks you out at the grocery store? Is the person in the pew next to you your neighbor? What about the people in line at the post office, or the client you met for lunch? Jesus would say that each one of these people is your neighbor.
So what does it look like to faithfully love our neighbors as ourselves, as Jesus commands? This is the question The Porter’s Gate explores throughout their sophomore release, Neighbor Songs, a multi-artist project that celebrates what it looks like to love our neighbors across lines of difference.
Following the model of the ancient medieval monastic porters, The Porter’s Gate co-directors, Isaac and Megan Wardell, founded the sacred arts collective to serve as a welcoming beacon of light to those both inside and outside the Church, mirroring each project’s theme after Saint Benedict’s values of hospitality in the Christian life.
“These porters became known for the way they served sojourners and strangers and refugees,” Isaac offers. “So at the heart of that image of the porter is this notion of missionary hospitality, the hospitality of a Christian community.”
In a similar spirit of hospitality, in 2017, the Wardells invited a group of friends from many church backgrounds to New York City for a conversation surrounding calling and vocation, resulting in The Porter’s Gate debut album, Work Songs. They hosted a second gathering in Nashville in January 2019; but this time, they intentionally curated a select group of greater diversity boasting more than 50 songwriters, theologians, pastors and worship leaders from a variety of cultures and worship traditions. The intent was to cross lines of difference in order to facilitate healthy conversations.
“It was our desire that we would really, with some intentionality, reach across denominational lines, reach across some theological lines, reach across racial and cultural lines,” Isaac shares. “People experience church differently based on whether they’re male or female, whether they’re single or married, whether they’re divorced or widowed. How do we live in community across those kinds of lines?”
While the discussions that came out of this gathering shed new light on differing perspectives and important issues, admittedly, these conversations were challenging at times.
“Obviously, we had a lot in common, but there really was a tension,” Megan says. “It was about wrestling through the hard questions. I feel like we’ve really learned a lot through this process about the way we see the world and the times we often don’t affirm that there are other ways to see the world. Isaac and I have had to apologize to people because of misunderstandings and assumptions. There was a lot of learning involved.”
“Sometimes these are actually painful and awkward conversations to navigate, but at the end of these conversations, it’s our hope that people actually know something more deeply about God and the Church,” Isaac adds. “The posture has to constantly be that of being a learner and never the posture of being an expert. Around these tables, as we learn each other’s stories we grow in humility, not in mastery.”
Coming to this event with an open mind and an open heart was key for those who gathered to work on Neighbor Songs. The eclectic range of thought, ethnicity and belief helped shape the diverse musicality of the resulting 13-track project that showcases everything from Gospel and modern worship to neo-classical and Mexican Ranchero—the distinct outcome of pairing unlikely collaborators.
“We wanted to involve the people who are really dealing with the pressing questions and issues of our times—the people who are coming face-to-face in a daily way with people’s doubts and struggles and questions about the Christian faith—and put those people in the room with songwriters and worship leaders. In many cases, we actually paired theologians and songwriters together in the songwriting process,” Isaac explains. “We had a lot of beautiful, surprising moments of really coming up with things that could not have been written any other way except having that group of people in the room.”
From cornerstone track “He Is Among Us (The Least of These),” which draws attention to the marginalized, to lead single “Nothing To Fear” to a closing Spanish-language cut, Neighbor Songs draws on the expertise of professional songwriters and the biblical grounding of pastors in the trenches to create music that’s both artistically unique and theologically sound. Artists featured on the project include Josh Garrels, Audrey Assad, Casey J, Leslie Jordan (from All Sons & Daughters), Zach Bolen (of the band Citizens), Urban Doxology, Diana Gameros, Latifah Alattas, Lauren Goans, and Paul Zach, among others.
If the collection’s 13 tracks don’t feel sonically cohesive at first listen, that’s intentional. The Porter’s Gate desires to provide a resource for churches of every denomination, style and tradition. Every single song isn’t meant for one specific body of believers.
“I really believe that any church in America could find a song on this record that could be done in their church,” Isaac asserts. “This project has emerged out of a local congregation. These creative ideas have flowed out of conversations with real church leaders and pastors and worship leaders. We hope this project actually lands back in the pews and in the hymnals and in the choir lofts of real churches all around America.”
This sentiment brings it full circle to where The Porter’s Gate originated—in the local church. Isaac serves as the Director of Worship Arts at Trinity Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. The vision for The Porter’s Gate came out of a sermon series. The themes of each project align with the themes his church is exploring. Thus, Neighbor Songs begins and ends with the local expression of faith.
“There would be no Porter’s Gate if Isaac wasn’t directing worship at a church,” Megan admits. “In our cultural moment, many churches are succumbing to this terrible temptation to pit us against our neighbors and to talk about them in terms of ‘us against them,’ we have experienced The Porter’s Gate as really being a place where we can all come together, celebrate what God is doing throughout His church, and celebrate the hope that we have in Him.”
If they’ve learned anything through the creative process for Neighbor Songs, the Wardells acknowledge that we have more to learn from our neighbors than we might think. As we move from a posture of criticism to a posture of listening, we can begin to discover the journey that God has placed people on, and we can walk with them more faithfully and humbly.
“More and more of our friends and loved ones, for very legitimate reasons, are becoming disenfranchised with the Church and are looking to be spiritually nurtured other places outside of the Church,” Isaac contends. “We want to double down on our commitment that God is at work in the worship of the Church, and we want this project to be just one of the thousands of things going on in the world that are all about the renewal of worship in the Church.”
Maybe that renewal starts with you and me…one neighbor at a time.
A Deeper Look into Neighbor Songs:
“Nothing To Fear”
Theme: Welcoming Others Of Difference vs. Fearing Them
This song is meant represent us being a community of welcome and not a community of fear. It’s specifically written in mind of refugees, people who don’t speak English as their first language, people who are perceived as “different” in any way, shape, or form etc. We have nothing to fear from people who are different than us, we can all learn from and love one another.
“Daughters of Zion”
Theme: Empowering Women In The Church vs. Silencing Them
This song poses the question, “How Long? When will the Daughters of Zion Rejoice in the house of the Lord?” It recounts the struggles of women in the church (and in general) in regards to being silenced, being pushed away from leadership, being thought of as subordinate or less than, being abused, and any other struggles women face today. This song is an anthemic cry to recognize the hardships of women in the church and the need for women empowerment within church walls – to create a place of welcome and love.
“He Is Among Us (The Least of These)”
Theme: Loving The Least Of These As We Love Jesus
This song is written with the perspective of Jesus and his word from Matthew 25:40, ‘And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” It’s addresses our need to specifically love “the least of these” as we love Jesus. Through any person’s disabilities, poverty, homelessness, educational background, imprisonment, or socioeconomic class, we are asked to love them as we love Jesus and invite them in.
“Let Us Be Known” – Spanish (“Por La Gloria”)
Theme: Loving Across Different Languages
This song is both in Spanish and in English. It not only address how we as a church body want to be known by our love, but introduces how to do this across languages. It’s a piece that allows for worship in different languages and how we can do that well.
“Blessed Are the Merciful”
“The Greatest Commandment”
“Love Will Never Fail”
These are all scripture based songs that teach us how to love well…how to love others as Jesus desires and even instructs. The Porter’s Gate wants to help the church reclaim singing scripture together across all ages, races, and nations. Powerful things happen when we sing scripture and even more powerful things can happen as we sing scripture about how to love each other as Jesus intended.