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The paintings of Caravaggio. The high school shootings in Parkland. The grace of a family’s love in caring for a disabled child. All these influences led singer-songwriter PJ Anderson to create a new album that addresses the struggles of our society, while also affirming the love of God. It’s called “Light and Dark.”
During a “Christopher Closeup” interview, PJ explained that the title stems from observing the world we’re living in right now, but also from his appreciation of Caravaggio. The Italian painter mastered the style of chiaroscuro, which strongly contrasts light and dark in a picture. “[His paintings] are dark,” said PJ, “but they’re being lit up by some source outside the [frame.]”
As dark as our world often is, PJ still sees the light of God shining through.
One place in which that light was evident was on the Instagram page of acclaimed photographer Eric Brown, which PJ stumbled across one day.
Instead of pictures of musicians, which Brown is known for, PJ found a photo of Brown’s third child, a daughter named Pearl Joy, who was born with a rare neural disease called alobar holoprosencephaly. Along with the picture was a letter that read, “Dear Doctor, you probably don’t remember us, but five years ago you recommended that my wife and I abort our baby. I’m writing to tell you that you were wrong. You said she wouldn’t live more than a few seconds, and she just turned five years old.”
PJ was moved to tears looking through Brown’s page, witnessing the powerful love this family practiced in caring for Pearl Joy despite the hardships: “I always saw the hope that they still had in the Lord. That’s what inspired my song ‘I Will Sing Forever.’ It’s about praising God always. Not just in good times, not just when we need something…but singing forever…through the darkest of dark to the brightest part of our lives…Say a prayer for Pearl Joy’s family. She passed away a couple of months ago. I can only imagine what the family’s going through now. They inspired me to realize that you always need to have hope in the Lord.”
A day in which hope seemed in short supply occurred in February 2018, when a shooter killed 17 students and staff members at Parkland, Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School. PJ was horrified, especially as a father himself, and felt inspired to write the song “Made For More,” which includes the lyrics, “We are made for love / Not tears and blood. / These tired eyes don’t want to cry anymore.”
PJ says, “As Christians, we need to rise up and bring about the light in that darkness. That’s the goal with these songs: to remind all of us – and remind myself – that even in these dark times, the light will never be overcome. Jesus tells us that…there’s no darkness that can put out the light.”
That hopeful attitude is one of the reasons that PJ’s song “Wood of a Cross” features an upbeat tone rather than a somber one. “While Good Friday is a reality,” he says, “[the story] didn’t end with Jesus on the cross. He sets us free through the cross and resurrection. That’s what gave us life.”
The message of “Wood of a Cross” is one that especially resonates with the young people PJ encounters when he performs at retreats and Catholic Heart Work Camps. The song deals with falling down and failing, but being saved and set free by Jesus.
PJ says, “First, it resonates with me. I fall all the time – as a person, as a dad, as a husband. Then, at a lot of these youth events…the thing I hear most about from high school kids is the pressure that they feel to be the best at everything. When I was in high school, you went to summer school if you needed a little extra help. But now it’s like you go to summer school so you can get extra credit so you can get AP credit so you can go to college early so you can graduate college early so you can go to a job that you end up really not even liking that much. It’s all this pressure to always be the best in academics, the best in sports. I hear that a lot.
“But not everybody can be the best,” continues PJ. “So with that comes a lot of feelings of failure from high school kids and even younger. I think that is something that does resonate: the idea that we are enough with Jesus, with our Creator, with God. We need to do our best to be close to Him. But He doesn’t call us to be busy and the best. He calls us to be holy and to keep Him close. That’s why I think these songs resonate.”
PJ is doing his best to help young people grow in holiness not just through his music, but other projects like a service pilgrimage he led last year in association with Catholic Heart Work Camp. Young people traveled to Rome to volunteer in a soup kitchen that serves 600 for lunch and dinner.
They also went to another soup kitchen called Casa Scalabrini, named after an Italian priest who was dedicated to caring for refugees and immigrants. Residents at the facility came from Africa, Tibet, Senegal, and several other countries.
PJs group met with the refugees and found that they took great pride in their new home. The refugees also cooked foods from their homelands and served the retreat group because it made them feel good to be of service themselves.
And though some of the refugees didn’t speak English, PJ called their time together “a community building event. We did it on the very first day. We’d just landed in Rome. [We got the kids] out of their comfort zone right from day one, [telling them], ‘Let’s go talk.’ A smile is a smile in whatever language.”
PJ saw barriers between different peoples break down that day, creating a new experience of unity. He hopes that the songs on “Light and Dark” can help do the same for listeners.
He says, “We’re living in a crazy world right now, with lots of hatred and violence…We need to unite our voices as one in love. Not in hate, not in being angry. But let that feeling of anger turn into love so we can drive out hate with love.”
(To listen to my full interview with PJ Anderson, click the podcast link):