Earthen Vessel makes a joyful noise

Posted: Thursday, November 26, 2009

Most musical performances are marked by a clear distinction between performer and audience: the musician plays, the audience listens. Not so with the band Earthen Vessel, a local Christian band. They play with the expectation that the audience will join them in song, and share in the powerful experience of making music.

"Anytime you take an action to do something, you're investing something of yourself," said bass player John Schauwecker. "If you're going to sing, you're taking a step. Rather than just listening, it's an act of participation."

In addition to encouraging active participation, singing also provides a vehicle for spiritual connectedness.

"'Singing is like praying twice,'" said singer Lisa Pusich, quoting St. Augustine.

Earthen Vessel, who released their first CD, "Arising," in September, formed as part of the ACTS music ministry. ACTS (which stands for adoration, community, theology, service) began in 1997 in San Antonio, Texas, and has since spread around the country. Local ACTS ministries organize annual nondenominational religious retreats for men, women and teens, providing participants an opportunity to meet their neighbors, share their troubles and express praise to God through music. Though Catholic-based, the retreat is open to everyone, regardless of religious affiliation. Some participants have never been to church.

And many have never sung in public, said keyboardist Vincent Lew, who works in the advertising department of the Empire.

"To be able to come and express themselves like that, it's very uplifting," he said. "It's a very powerful thing for (the band) as well." He said about 1,200 members of the Juneau community are involved in the ACTS ministry.

Several members of Earthen Vessel said that getting involved with ACTS spurred them to reintroduce music into their lives.

"After my first retreat, I picked my instrument up again," Schauwecker said. "It inspired me to use one of my God-given talents again."

"It's the same with me," guitarist Lee Ray Clements said. "My guitar had been in the closet for 15 years."

"(Guitar player) Chris McDowell was ready to sell his guitars," said drummer Ray Thibodeau. "He was done with playing until he went on the retreat."

After playing together at several retreats, the individual musicians got together and decided to make their group official. They formally took the name Earthen Vessel after signing up for a set at the 2004 Alaska Folk Festival. The band consists of four guitar players (Clements, Bill Benning, Winston Smith and Chris McDowell), two lead vocalists (Nathan Parmalee and Pusich, the sole woman in the band), a bass player (Schauwecker), keyboardist (Lew) and drummer (Thibodeau). They play a range of Christian music, from hymns to more contemporary pieces. Songs on the CD include "Amazing Grace" and "I'll Fly Away."

The CD project began partly in response to the ACTS community's demand for a recording of the band's music, Clements said, and so far they've sold about 500 copies. They hope to attract listeners from outside the ACTS community as well.

In addition to playing at retreats, the band plays at local gatherings such as the summertime Concerts in the Park, weddings, funerals and fundraisers. Earlier this month, they played a benefit concert to help raise money for the medical expenses of locals Ray and Bernie Lemons.

A smaller version of the nine-member group also plays at Lemon Creek Correctional Center; Schauwecker said that they've heard that the experience has been uplifting for the prisoners.

"We've gotten feedback from the prison guards and the people working in there that after one of those retreats they feel a positive atmosphere and see some changes," he said. Lyric sheets are passed around at all their shows so that audience members can sing along.

Joining in the music mirrors the broader retreat experience of sharing something private - a spiritual journey - with others. One of the most important parts of the music and the ACTS ministry is creating connections between community members, Thibodeau said.

"Juneau only has 30,000 people. We're small but a lot of us don't know each other," he said. "A lot of it just has to do with getting to know your community and your neighbors."

Lew agreed.

"The broader picture is just bringing people together and looking out for each other," he said. "And building social relationships, giving back to the community, whether it's going to the Glory Hole or helping a fellow brother with his home," he said.

Though band members found it difficult to describe the actual retreat experience in words, they were clear about what it is not.

"It's not like a brainwashing, I can tell you that," said Schauwecker.

"It's not a cult," said Pusich.

It's not intimidating, said Lew.

It is simply a way for participants to re-engage with their own spiritual journey, Schauwecker said, and allows them to draw on the collective, supportive energy of other participants. For some it can be a powerful, life-changing event.

"A retreat is about regrouping - and sometimes people are finding out what's really important in their life," he said.

The ACTS ministry actively seeks to spread the retreats into other communities through an ACTS Missions Board. The local board (which includes Thibodeau, Pusich and Smith), recently organized retreats in Wasilla and one in Kenai. All proceeds from the sales of Earthen Vessel's "Arising" go to the board.

To purchase a CD or hear samples, visit The CD can also be purchased at Martha's Flowers, 789-0760 or 723-7376.

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