A new CD titled “Songs for the Promised Land” resulted from a meeting between a musician nominated for a Grammy and a priest concerned with people living in garbage.
In July of 2000, Father James E. Hewes read an article about dozens of people who were killed when a garbage dump collapsed outside of Manila, Philippines. The victims had been scavenging the dump, searching for items to sell. The collapsing garbage flattened squatters’ homes, according to several reports, and the trash itself burst into flames.
“I just can’t imagine somebody living in a garbage dump,” Father Hewes said. “It just devastated me that somebody would actually be living there.”
Father Hewes researched the dump and found out that it was called Payatas, or Promised Land, and that more than 140,000 Filipinos lived amidst its squalor. He eventually learned that a women’s order, the Religious of the Virgin Mary Mother Social Apostolate Center, was working with the poor there. In turn, the order’s work was sponsored by Catholic Social Services/Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and he contacted the agency to see what he could do to help.
Marc Barylo, vice president of Edmonton CSS/CC, said his agency sponsors 10 self-help projects that serve about 10,000 people in Payatas. The projects range from a trade school for teenagers to a loan program for small businesses, he said. The unemployment rate in the Philippines hovers around 40 percent, he said, and the Payatas squatters have been driven from land all around Manila.
“(Payatas) is the only place where the government isn’t kicking them out because the government has no use for the land,” he said.
Through the parishes he pastors, St. John the Evangelist in Clyde and St. Patrick’s in Savannah, Father Hewes began organizing donations drives on behalf of the Canadian agency’s work. Other parishes and individuals chipped in as well, he said, including St. Louis and Transfiguration, both in Pittsford; St. Mary in Canandaigua; Assumption in Fairport; St. Joseph in Penfield; and Guardian Angels in Henrietta. Monies raised were used by Edmonton Catholic Charities to purchase two water trucks to deliver clean water to several hundred families in Payatas, Barylo said.
Father Hewes is now raising money for a third water truck, and to do so, he’s worked with Nancy Bryan, a Grammy-nominated musician, and her husband, John Bryan, a producer and musician in his own right. Along with several other people, the trio worked to create “Songs for the Promised Land,” an 11-song CD that reveals country blues, folk, Appalachian and Latin influences.
Unlike much contemporary Christian pop, which seems to want to cheerlead the listener into loving the Lord, “Songs for the Promised Land” sounds like something one would hear from a lonesome troubadour, gently hearkening the listener to consider a more spiritual way of looking at life.
“The Lord said to Abraham, come follow me,” begins the CD’s first song, the country blues “A Call.” “Foxes have dens and birds have their nest, but the Son of Man, he has nowhere to rest.”
Much of the CD’s delightful sound has to do with the Bryans, who moved to the Clyde area a few years back and are parishioners at St. John’s. They’ve shared the stage with such stars as Emmylou Harris and Billy Joel. Nancy has written for Walt Disney Records and penned songs for such characters as Winnie the Pooh and The Little Mermaid. She’s also written for MTV’s “The Real World” and “Road Rules” as well as such TV shows as “Roswell,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The Guardian.” Meanwhile, John has worked as a studio guitarist in Los Angeles and Nashville and also has played for Disney as well as Sire Records and JVC.
Nancy wrote four of the CD’s pieces, and Glenn McClure, an adjunct professor at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and internationally acclaimed composer, contributed two songs. In addition to the spiritual “Put Your Hand On The Rock,” McClure, who combines ethnic and classical music, contributed an arrangement of the traditional song “Bright Morning Stars are Rising.” McClure maintains a Web site at artforbrains.com, and his compositions include “The Guadalupe Magnificat,” Christian prayers set to Latin American music and “St. Francis in the Americas: A Caribbean Mass.”
But the CD’s real surprise is the fact that it showcases five songs by none other than Father Hewes himself. A guitar and banjo player, Father Hewes gave the songs to the Bryans to record but does not actually play on the album.
“People said, ‘Why didn’t you sing?’ I said it was because I wanted it to be a quality CD,” he said with a laugh.
However, both the Bryans said they were impressed with Father Hewes’ songs. Nancy said she liked Father Hewes’ brightness and emotion.
“I thought he was really, really graceful with his lyrics, and the melodies were really strong,” she said.
“I think he’s really an excellent lyricist,” John added, noting he was impressed with the “unusual” chord changes the priest uses in his writing.
As for Father Hewes, he noted that while he’s pleased with the positive response the CD has received from parishioners and friends who’ve purchased it, he’s not letting the good reviews go to his head.
“It’s not a project,” he said of the recording. “It’s helping people and kids.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: “Songs for the Promised Land” is available for a suggested donation of $12 at the bookstore in Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester, as well as in the Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard. The CD is also available at such churches as St. Mary, Canandaigua; St. Helen, Gates; St. Jerome, East Rochester; St. Francis DeSales and St. Stephen, Geneva; St. Anne, Rochester; St. Mark, Greece; and St. John’s, Clyde.