Steve Bell is a seasoned, Juno Award winning song-writer / musician based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. In recent years, his thoughtful folk messages have caught the notice of symphony crowds with touring performances backed by a variety of city orchestras. But behind and beyond the pristine quality of his musicianship and lyrics, Steve stands in the tradition of Canadian artists with a heart for integrating spirituality and justice (Bruce Cockburn for example). He is involved in humanitarian work both locally and nationally. In a recent interview with Bell, I asked him to share the backstory to his social concern. Two items from his childhood especially caught my attention.
First, he described his father's involvement with the Canadian prison system, where as a Baptist pastor he would take Steve for chapel sessions with inmates. Early on, Steve took note of the disproportionate number of First Nations people who had been incarcerated. When he asked why this was so, Steve's dad replied that this was a question he should pursue for the rest of his life. When I heard this story, the vibe I got was that even as a boy, Bell was taught to look for the underlying justice issues lurking within the system, to ask tough 'why' questions the our society would rather avoid addressing, and to be salt and light in dark places.
Steve also shared with me about the time when the Canadian Catholic philosopher and l'Arche founder, Jean Vanier, visited their home. Normally life around the supper table was lively but with Vanier there, things were more subdued. After supper, Steve left the adults at the table to go play outside. At some point, he felt a tangible shift in the atmosphere and knew that something had very obviously had happened. Turning around, he saw Vanier sitting on the porch with a look of rapture on his face. Clearly he was gazing at something absolutely wonderful. Steve looked over his shoulder to see what this marvel could be, but when he did, he saw nothing behind him. He suddenly realized that Vanier had been looking at him. It was Bell's first experience of consciously 'being seen' and had a profound impact on his identity.
A few weeks later, he asked his father how one can know what to do with his life. His dad wisely responded by offering a better question: not 'what we are to do' but 'who we are to be.' He suggested thinking about someone whose qualities he admired and finding out what they had done to nurture those traits. Steve asked, 'What if that person is a Roman Catholic?' (a loaded question for Baptists in those days). His dad knew immediately that Steve was referring to Vanier and responded, 'Then so be it.'
However different Bell's extroverted temperament might be from that of a Vanier, along with his musical gifts he strikes me as a philosopher-activist in his own right. I was delighted to discover his familiarity with thinkers such as Hans Urs Von Balthasar, George Grant, and Simone Weil. He brings together personal faith and public life in heart-felt lyrics such as 'Lament for a Nation' (after Grant's book title from 1965) in response to Canada's free trade agreement in the Mulroney era. Hardly a shallow diddy for privatized pietism!
Bell is back with a new album, 'Kin-dness', the title track emphasizing 'kin' as the root of 'kindness'. The album will be launched with a tour starting Feb. 10 at Little Trinity Anglican Church in Toronto (see tour dates), a Christian fellowship known for its history and heart for community social service among the impoverished in Toronto.
The sounds of this new album are typically fresh and beautiful--the questions challenging and prophetic. He asks for example, 'Borders have their place, no doubt, But who gives the orders to abandon hope for common ground?' While I was still asking myself what that means, Bell comes to his punchline, 'It's always been about love. It's only ever been about love.' He reminds us in 'Kindness' that 'Christ has no body here but ours ...Through our touch, our smile, our listening ear, embodied in us, Jesus is living here... let us go into this world with kindness.'
In the album notes, we find Bell pushing theo-political buttons about the tone of public discourse and the environment. He says,
Socially, we’ve seen great change. South of our border the Bush years have given way to the Obama years with an accelerated and alarming degradation of public discourse. Among other things, it seems we have thoroughly abandoned thoughtful, public debate for vitriol and smug insult. Canada may have some vestige of decorum left but among other indicators, recent mayoral elections across the country have perhaps shown a trend otherwise – exposing a people who have “forgotten how to blush.”
Environmentally, the changes being demanded of us are enormous while collectively we are perhaps experiencing a failure of nerve to address decisively a crisis we will no doubt pass on to our beloved children. We may yet come to find the shame more crippling than the crisis itself. Heaven forbid.
This is what we get with Bell: a musical approach that leads us to contemplative openness and in that space, the prophetic voice comes to invite transformation of our lives, community and nation. Yet as hard as the truth can be (cf. his song, 'Stubble and Hay') I don't find Bell--whether personally, or in his albums, or in his concerts--to be condemning or pessimistic. At the end of the day he is a minister of good news. He sings, 'We are not alone ... There is good work to do'. Indeed, he is doing it.