Requiem for a Ragamuffin

Requiem for a Ragamuffin

by April Hefner and Lindy Warren

CCM Magazine November 1997

There is such a thing as glory, and perhaps no one knows it better now than Rich Mullins, Christian music's restless poet.

It seemed an impossible task, one that no one wanted to accept. Late September found family, friends and fans saying goodbye to Christian singer/songwriter Rich Mullins, who was killed in a car accident September 19 in Illinois.

Mullins and band member Mitch McVicker were traveling southbound in Mullins' Jeep on I-39 near Peoria to a benefit concert in Wichita, Kan., when, according to Illinois Highway Patrol Sgt. Gregory Jacobsen, "The Jeep lost control for no apparent reason, causing it to roll and eject the two men." A tractor-trailer, also traveling southbound, approached the accident shortly after it happened and swerved to avoid the Jeep in the middle of the lanes. "The rig then struck Mullins, who died instantly," Jacobsen said. It is not known who was driving or what caused the Jeep to fishtail. "Indications are that the two were not wearing seatbelts," Jacobsen said. The police report cited no witnesses.

McVicker, 24, a vocalist on "Heaven is Waiting" from the independent release Canticle of the Plains, suffered serious head and internal injuries. After 16 days in a Peoria hospital, McVicker was transferred to a rehabilitation facility in Kansas on October 6. He had recently recorded his own debut album with Mullins producing. (Cards can be sent to McVicker at 2728 SE Bennett Dr., Topeka, KS 66605.)

(Mitch and Rich outside one of the Navajo style hogans they built.)

Mullins had recently signed with Myrrh Records and was scheduled to go into the studio in October with producer Rick Elias to deliver an album slated for June 1998. Mullins had already written and recorded the new songs on a rough work tape; a video and book were also anticipated. "Rich told me he had 10 songs about Jesus that really expressed his heart," said Myrrh Vice President Jim Chaffee. "When we've had an opportunity to work through the grieving process, Jim [Dunning, Mullins' current manager] and I will begin to discuss the appropriate way to move ahead with these songs."

Mullins was buried Sept. 25 in his hometown of Richmond, Indiana. The private funeral was attended by 300 family members and friends, including the first artist to cut one of his songs, Amy Grant, who sang "Somewhere Down the Road." Navajo children from the Window Rock, Ariz., reservation where Mullins lived at the time of his death surrounded his grave site, singing a song he taught them--"Jesus Loves Me"--in their native language.

"What we will remember most about Richard Wayne Mullins as the days and years go by is how he loved," said Kathy Sprinkle, a close friend of Mullins since their days together at Cincinnati Bible College. "Loved the children on the reservation, loved Compassion International. Loved his music, his family, his friends and his God. We will tell stories about our experiences, recall his laugh and know that he challenged each of us to a more true Christianity, a more authentic love. That was his mission; it now becomes his legacy."

On Sept. 26, members of Nashville's Christian music community honored Mullins with a two-hour memorial service at Christ Presbyterian Church. Friends recalled a man who was equal parts sinner and saint, a man who had no children of his own yet was responsible for feeding thousands around the world.

Musical tributes of Mullins' songs were offered by Michael W. Smith, who led the congregation in "Awesome God" and "Step by Step," as well as by Ashley Cleveland ("Elijah") and Phil Keaggy ("Hold Me Jesus"). "Man of No Reputation," a favorite song of Mullins', was offered by its writer, Ragamuffin Rick Elias, and Grant sang her own "Somewhere Down the Road."

A three-hour national memorial service in Wichita, Kan., brought more than 5000 people together Sept. 27 in Wichita State University's Henry Levitt Arena to celebrate Mullins' life and music. Music and stories were once again used to portray the patchwork quilt that was Mullins' life.

Dr. Steven Hooks, a favorite professor of Mullins' at Cincinnati Bible College, perhaps summed the evening up best: "The bandstand is dark, and the liturgy has been silenced--forever some are saying--by the demon we call death. Do you really believe that? Let me tell you a little secret. Rich knew it well. He sang it often. It was the truth. It stood at the heart of his 'Creed,' and it stands at the heart of the gospel: 'The dead in Christ shall rise.' ...As we gather tonight to honor Rich's passing over Jordan, some would seek to console us by reminding us that he will live on in his music and in our memories. But I'm here to tell you, he lives on."

Richard Wayne Mullins was born October 21, 1955 in Richmond, Ind., the third of John and Neva Mullins' five children. At the age of 4, he began playing piano, adding other instruments as he grew older, in part, he noted, because of his lack of athletic ability.

"I gravitated toward music [as a child]," Mullins once said in an interview, "but I was always a bit of a nerd. I was terrible at basketball, and in Indiana, you need to be good in basketball to be socially fluent."

He graduated from Northeastern High School in 1974, and that same year Mullins moved to Cincinnati where he attended the conservative Cincinnati Bible College and continued to write and play music that represented his growing faith. When he left his position as a youth minister for a local Methodist church, Mullins joined Zion Ministries and performed with its band at church retreats around the country. In 1981, the group performed at Nashville's Koinonia Coffeehouse, and Reunion Records' Mike Blanton heard a tape. Soon thereafter, he signed Mullins to an exclusive publishing deal, and Amy Grant cut his song "Sing Your Praise to the Lord" on her Age to Age album.

After a few years of solo performances, Mullins put together his own demo and was signed to a recording deal in 1983 with the then Blanton and Dan Harrell-owned Reunion Records. He released his first, self-titled album in 1986. In 1988, and much to the chagrin of his record label, Mullins moved to Wichita to pursue a degree in music education at Friends University and to be discipled by Maurice Howard, a pastor at Central Christian Church who died three months after Mullins arrived.

Nevertheless, Mullins was hooked on Kansas, a state that would turn up often in his songs. He lived with long-time friend and fellow musician Beaker until Beaker's marriage in 1993. Mullins then moved in with Friends' campus chaplain and theology professor Jim Smith and his family.

"You can't imagine how intimidating it is to have Rich Mullins in your theology class," Smith said. "It's a little like having Einstein in your physics class--you want to hand him the chalk and just sit down.... He changed my life, and he became my friend."

Mullins graduated from Friends in 1995 and moved to Window Rock to teach music to children on the Navajo reservation. For the past nine years, Mullins had devoted much of his time to Compassion International and within the last three, had focused strictly on ministry to Native Americans in the Southwest.

In lieu of cards and flowers the Mullins' family has asked for donations to Compassion International. Contact 800/334-KIDS or Rich Mullins Memorial, Compassion International--USA Program, P.O. Box 7000, Colorado Springs, CO 80933.