To Touch Eternity

Scott MacLeod left behind a successful music career to reach the poor.

Now this Nashville pastor leads a multifaceted church community that’s changing an inner city through divine service.

Scott MacLeod never thought this moment would come: All these years later, talking to a guy who runs a Christian music label and distribution company about a business idea. But that’s what he’s doing on a Thursday afternoon in January. He’s sitting in a plastic chair in a nondescript room. There are CDs spread across a table.

This is strange because MacLeod, 43, spurned the Christian music world more than 15 years ago, which is how this whole thing started—the warehouse across the street full of goods for the poor; the old brick foundry, with its wheezing furnace and exposed ductwork, where MacLeod’s service-oriented church of 120 people meets.

In the early ’90s, MacLeod was a Christian musician and songwriter in Nashville, Tenn., touring with some of the biggest names in music. It was everything he wanted—the reason he packed up his car and moved from Canada to Nashville in 1986—but it wasn’t everything he thought it would be. MacLeod saw the hypocrisy and mixed motives of people in the Christian music industry; he saw Jesus for sale, which led him to re-examine the words of Christ. What else was he to do?

Upon reading the Gospels with fresh eyes, there was something disquieting about Jesus’ words, something that soured MacLeod on playing music only for the clean, baptized people. After all, didn’t Jesus open His ministry by quoting Isaiah 61 (“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” NIV)?

MacLeod soon found himself in a Bible study with other disillusioned musicians. They weren’t there to gripe, but to talk openly about these things. And these sessions weren’t all talk. A small contingent started a grass-roots street ministry. MacLeod, a drummer, brought bongos; others brought guitars. The idea was to play music and feed the poor in the worst parts of Nashville, but it was debatable as to who benefited most from the exchange: the served or the servants. MacLeod felt more alive than he ever had, that he had, in his words, “touched eternity.” Two years later, he was ministering full-time to the marginalized and homeless, long before social justice became a buzzword in conservative evangelical circles.

I know almost none of this as I sit in the plain room off the sanctuary of MacLeod’s industrial-looking church, listening to MacLeod and two other staff members discuss distribution ideas for their church’s music CDs with the music executive. “You have to tell your story—a lot—before it ever gets in Christian bookstores,” the executive says as MacLeod holds up an album with the words “FOUNDRY SONGS” on the front. MacLeod, who I met only moments before, looks at me in the corner and smiles. “We’ve got a story guy right here,” he says. I grimace, wondering if this is going to be the same old story: a tale of corporate principles brought to bear on ministry, of well-intentioned people distracted from a kingdom of descent by a kingdom of self-promotion.

But after the music executive leaves and the staff members file out, everything looks different. I notice the thin, ugly carpet; the plain walls with only a whiteboard and a bulletin board—a few lonely sheets of paper tacked up, including one that says, “MORNING DEVOS!!!” in black marker. I notice how plain MacLeod’s green sweater is, and that he’s wearing white athletic socks with black shoes. Suddenly, MacLeod is reaching for his laptop and pulling up a Bible verse he wants me to see. He moves closer and turns the screen in my direction. It’s Matthew 25, the parable of the sheep and the goats:

“The King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’” (vv. 34-40, NIV).

MacLeod looks at me and smiles: “‘You wrote songs for me’ wasn’t on the list.”

Rebuilding the Walls

To get to MacLeod’s church—The Foundry—and its nearby brick warehouse, which serves a variety of ministry purposes, I drive past upscale coffee shops, trendy bars and a series of condo high-rises that are being marketed to Nashville’s young professionals. But as I follow 11th Avenue, as my directions indicate I should, I find myself veering away from the trendy parts of downtown and headed underneath an overpass and down what appears to be a narrow service drive lined with old brick buildings. It looks like a movie set for a gangster film in 19th-century New York. Cars are clumsily parked on chipped sidewalks. With exception of an occasional jackhammer and the dull roar of cars humming across the overpass a few blocks away, all is strangely quiet.

But this area is no longer ground zero for Nashville’s war on poverty. In fact, the neighborhood has undergone something of a renaissance of late. The dilapidated public housing that once existed a stone’s throw from The Foundry is gone, replaced by impressive new row houses and new requirements for the low-income residents who live there. About 50 percent of the old residents are gone.

Down the street is a well-known independent radio station and a popular local beer-maker. Farther down, what was an auto plant in the early 1900s is now being marketed as lofts. The real estate company of record is calling the area “the coolest neighborhood in Nashville.” It’s clearly a bit of hyperbole, but it’s not too difficult to imagine that moniker being true five years from now.

After the meeting with the music executive, MacLeod walks with me down the street, sounding almost apologetic about the gentrification that’s taking place in what was once the most dangerous part of town. “That corner used to be a drug corner,” MacLeod says. “We occupy that all summer.”

Yet his enthusiasm for the least of these doesn’t waver, and moments later we’re walking through the 30,000 square feet of warehouse space his ministry occupies across the street, breezing past the kitchen where volunteers prepare weekly meals for the homeless, past a long table loaded with groceries that will soon be bagged and given away, past a cavernous and incredibly sparse bunk room where students who come to volunteer stay—a room that looks a bit like a bomb shelter.

We end the tour in an unimpressive sanctuary that’s more like a gymnasium with pews. It is several times the size of The Foundry’s sanctuary and it’s where meals are served during warmer months, when the biggest crowds turn out. It’s also where monthly Friday night worship services are held for teenagers, in which they are encouraged to participate in a day of community service and ministry the following Saturday. This is even where a three-times-per-year worship music camp for “musicianaries”—usually 20-somethings more interested in reaching the lost than scoring a record deal—is held.

MacLeod uses a variety of names for all of these ministries, and I tease him about it, noting that he might want to make things a bit easier for the journalists who have to write about all of this. MacLeod is surprisingly sensitive to my joke, and 10 minutes later, we’re back in the nondescript room across the street. He’s trying to explain the different ministry names, which are written out on the whiteboard with notes scribbled underneath each.

“It’s pretty simple,” he tells me, and then proceeds to go through each: Thunder School (a three-monthlong music camp for “musicianaries” taught by music industry professionals); Rolling Thunder (a tour slated for this summer during which “musicianaries” will play impoverished Native American reservations); Meltdown (the monthly teen rally); and Eagle’s Landing (a camp for inner-city kids on 70 acres of land that the ministry owns outside of Nashville).

That doesn’t include the prison ministry, or the Kidz Club that MacLeod has become famous for in the neighborhood (volunteers go door to door on Saturday mornings in the summer, bringing neighborhood kids in for a sort of Vacation Bible School). Nor does this include the weekly homeless meal (Meal of Hope) that is being held in about an hour, or any number of other ministries that MacLeod, with a quiet enthusiasm, occasionally mentions as an afterthought. MacLeod gets excited about ministries the way some people get excited about vacations and holidays.

These ministries fall under the umbrella of MacLeod’s nonprofit, Provision International, which subscribes to the motto: “Alleviating suffering and abolishing poverty.” What’s interesting, though, is that there’s little distinction between these ministries, this nonprofit and MacLeod’s church. Regardless of job title, MacLeod’s seven-person staff has its hands in everything. For example, Marco Villalobos, a 28-year-old musician who heads up Thunder School, helps with the Meal of Hope and is also involved in Sunday worship. Yet I’m still curious how this really works, where the volunteers come from. After all, churches five times the size of The Foundry don’t do this much community outreach.

“So you still preach every Sunday at The Foundry?” I ask. “Yes,” he replies. “How do you do it? And are your volunteers all church members?”

“When you’re here, you serve—it’s what we do,” he answers. “We have around 100, 120 people, but we’re kind of like the Special Forces; we’re not for everyone.” But MacLeod’s train of thought keeps getting interrupted. A father and son knock on the door. “We wanted to help tonight,” the dad says, ducking his head in the room. MacLeod’s cell phone is constantly ringing, and each time he looks at it to decide whether to answer. Eventually he gets a call that he just has to take. “Just a second—this is Brazil. My wife and I are adopting a child from the slums,” he tells me as he hurriedly puts the phone to his ear. Three dropped calls from Brazil later the storm is over long enough for a few answers. But the Meal of Hope starts soon; I need to hurry.

I learn that the man who just ducked his head in isn’t a church member but a longtime supporter who has donated significant amounts of time and money to the ministry. MacLeod says he never knows who will show up for various outreaches and events, but somehow people always show up. He also has a handful of “musicianaries” from Thunder School who stay on as interns and live in an old, stand-alone apartment building next to The Foundry. And when Thunder School is in session, another 30 or 40 volunteers are available, along with anyone else who wants to help.

MacLeod is used to walking this sort of tightrope, living on faith. He got the seed money for the warehouse more than a decade ago by marching into the office of the president of Gaylord Entertainment—a publicly traded hotel and entertainment chain that owns the iconic Grand Ole Opry—and sketching out his vision for The Foundry campus on a piece of paper. Amazingly, MacLeod walked out with a $30,000 check. “When Nehemiah was building something, he went straight to the king,” MacLeod says. “Everything down here’s a miracle. We didn’t have a penny.”

Without intending to disparage him, I confess that I’m perplexed. MacLeod is fond of saying “I heard God say” or “God spoke to me,” but his isn’t like the charismatic ministries seen on television—the grandiose churches and pastors with finely tailored clothes. Nor is MacLeod an overwhelming personality like many charismatic leaders I’ve observed. MacLeod, I learn, doesn’t even have an office, which is why we’ve spent so much time in this uninspiring room with the whiteboard.

“So much of church in America can be a ‘bless-me club,’ but once you’ve been blessed, touched, inspired, healed, what will you do with it?” MacLeod asks. “How can we think we have good church when our inner cities are rotting, when our kids are going to jail? My main concern is the reformation of the church. It was moving the wrong direction, but I felt the Lord telling me that during my time, it would shift direction.”

Roots of Action

If it’s true that the change we want to see in the world starts with us, MacLeod is positioned to see the church transform from an inward-looking, self-centered organization to a community of radical service and hospitality.

He comes by it naturally: Growing up in London, Ontario, his father was head of Compassion International in Canada, a large Christian humanitarian organization. That planted the concept of “faith in action” in the younger MacLeod. “And I’m wired for action; I grew up playing with GI Joes,” says MacLeod, who came from a conservative Baptist background but became more interested in the Holy Spirit after attending Belmont Church in Nashville—a renowned charismatic outpost.

Today MacLeod says his heroes of the faith include everyone from William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, to Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century Catholic monastic. And his theological training? “I went to music school in Canada. My seminary is the ‘hood.”

It’s the ‘hood that has welcomed this Canadian father of two who is married to a woman from India and in the process of adopting a child from Brazil. As we walk out of the small room and into The Foundry’s sanctuary, transformed with tables adorned with fake flowers and plastic tablecloths, a large African-American woman yells, “Pastor Scott!” and throws her arms around him. I watch MacLeod—who is white, bald and missing eyebrows because of an overactive immune system that two years ago resulted in a rare form of alopecia—hug the woman and smile. He proceeds to walk around the room and greet the homeless guests and the volunteers in a comfortable, easy way.

About 20 minutes into the meal—there’s a small stage at the front of the room where a young “musicianary” from Switzerland has been singing English praise songs with an accent—MacLeod gets up to speak.

“2009 is going to be just fine,” he says into a microphone in a way that is both authoritative and unassuming. “If you’re all about Jesus, you’re in a good place.”

A few “amens” echo throughout the room of about 50 people. I look around and see worn faces hovering over enormous plates of food—ribs, chicken, steaming vegetables. Some people have three plates in front of them. One man is talking to himself; the person next to him is telling him to be quiet.

As I take notes and MacLeod speaks, a man who smells of liquor stumbles up to me in the back and asks for cigarettes. Before I can tell him I don’t have any, he wanders off, aimlessly.

All of this reminds me that homeless ministry is much less glamorous than it sounds, and much more intimidating than it’s often made out to be, which makes it all the more fascinating how calm and relaxed MacLeod seems. I’m aware that his laptop is in the small room off the sanctuary, and from time to time I actually see someone who isn’t a volunteer walk in there. I’m worried. But something tells me Pastor Scott hasn’t even thought twice about it.

After testimonies from two of the young volunteers, MacLeod gets back up to deliver a message. He talks about a second birth, a second chance.

“You’re not too far down, you’re not too far gone,” MacLeod says calmly. “In fact, I think God’s going to release outreach from Meal of Hope this year. I think God could do something like that this year, where all of us in this room become a blessing to the community.”

MacLeod is at it again: not just talking about blessing and redemption, but about what we should do after we’ve been blessed and redeemed.

After the meal, as volunteers fold up tables and put food away, I look around and think about how MacLeod gave up a glamorous music career for this. And then I remember something he said in that small room, his non-office: “If you let go of what you love the most, you’re free. I had to lay my Isaac down on the altar, but God eventually brought him back.”

It makes sense now: The meeting with the music executive; the CD MacLeod held up that said FOUNDRY SONGS. And I hope, for MacLeod’s sake, that someone is interested in the music. But even if no one is, one thing is clear: Scott MacLeod is free.

Cameron Conant is the author of With or Without You and The Year I Got Everything I Wanted. A regular contributor to several magazines, he lives in Nashville, Tenn.

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