News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

April 28, 2011

B-Sides: Taking a ‘heart-breaking, life-changing’ journey to Africa

TERRE HAUTE — People can go looking for heroes in all the wrong places. A chosen “role model” may spout demanding standards for others but actually disregard those same principles personally.

Dave Frey met some genuine heroes in war-torn central Africa. That trip — made in December with fellow members of his chart-topping, Nashville-based, faith-rock band Sidewalk Prophets — won’t be far from Frey’s thoughts when the group performs Friday night at his alma mater, Terre Haute South Vigo High School. Of the journey to The Democratic Republic of the Congo and neighboring Rwanda, Frey said, “Even though it was heart-breaking, it was life-changing.”

The bandmates met an optimistic Catholic nun who ran an orphanage for children born of a brutal war tactic in The Congo — systematic rape.

They met a Protestant woman supervising another orphanage for 300 similar kids, and her husband who humbly works alongside his wife and shrugs off being “looked down upon” in that nation’s male-dominated culture.

They met a French doctor who sings hymns as he performs surgery on Congolese women and young girls raped by warring militia men and then abandoned as their society’s outcasts.

And they met survivors of those atrocities who somehow hadn’t lost courage or hope.

“We learned a lot from these people,” Frey said.

He, fellow Sidewalk Prophets co-founder and guitarist Ben McDonald, lead guitarist Shawn Tomczak, bassist Cal Joslin, drummer Justin Nace and five representatives of the American Bible Society spent a week in Kigali (the Rwandan capital) and then the nearby city of Goma in The Congo. The region copes with daily consequences of lingering violence that has killed more than 5 million people since the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when refugees and war spilled into The Congo, which was already in turmoil. Soldiers in the conflict use rape to assert power over conquered locals. In 2010, the United Nations Children’s Fund treated 16,000 rape victims in The Congo, according to the Voice of America.

Nearly half were children.

The Congo has been called “the worst place in the world to be a woman.”

Amid that atmosphere, inspiration and heroism exists. At a shelter in Goma, Frey encountered a woman who’d been attacked so ruthlessly she could not walk. Yet, amazingly, she managed to smile. “She said, ‘My legs are broken, but my heart is well,’” Frey recalled.

Frey and his friends stayed in a fenced, heavily guarded Goma hotel, a stark contrast from their life in America. The Sidewalk Prophets grew from a fun diversion in Frey’s and McDonald’s college days at Anderson University into one of the hottest acts in popular Christian music. As part of the Winter Jam Tour Spectacular, a series of concerts featuring faith-music artists such as Newsboys, Francesca Battistelli and Kutless, the tour drew 524,239 people to shows in 46 markets in the first quarter of 2011. That turnout exceeded tours by Bon Jovi, U2, Lady Gaga and Brad Paisley, according to Pollstar.com. The Sidewalk Prophets’ debut album, “These Simple Truths,” has sold 115,000 copies and earned two Dove Awards (Christian music’s top honor) in 2010 and two more Dove nominations in 2011, including for Group of the Year. They have a major-label recording contract with Fervent Records, a division of Warner Bros.

Life is good.

Frey, the lead vocalist and songwriter, got his start singing with his dad at Maryland Community Church in Terre Haute, his hometown. The comforts of home in the U.S. were fresh in mind while Frey and the band settled in to their hotel in Africa. “Just to have a safe place to sleep and enough to eat, we didn’t take it for granted,” Frey said, “maybe for the first time in our lives.”

They trekked to central Africa to share their religious faith rather than perform, but music gave them a connection with the African people in a few unplanned moments. In one, Frey sang two-part harmony on “Amazing Grace” with a Rwandan pastor (captured on video on the band’s website). At one of orphanages in Goma, the American musicians and the Congolese kids traded impromptu songs, in spirited fashion. “They were full-out, belting it out,” Frey said. “The kids were dancing. They were so excited to see us.”

Such signs of hope and determination stood out. When the band visited the Catholic nun’s orphanage, she let Frey hold a 6-month-old baby, born from a rape victim. “She said, ‘I named him Moses, because when I look in his eyes, I see a man who will lead people to Christ in The Congo,’” Frey recalled the woman saying.

In the weeks ahead, the band intends to launch a phone-text-based She’s My Sister campaign to raise funds for the Congo Bible Society. They want to return to Rwanda and The Congo within the next year. Memories of their first visit won’t fade soon, particularly Frey’s talk with the French surgeon who treats women scarred by rape.

Frey asked the doctor, “How do you do this every day?” Singing hymns helps, the man responded. “I know God has called me to do this work, and it is very hard,” the surgeon told him, “but he fills me with gospel songs, and I hear his music as I fix these women. I can help fix them, but only God can heal.”

Frey left The Congo impressed.

“I can truly say I met a hero on that trip,” he said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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