Freedom Singers, Cont’d

Since I posted about the Freedom Singers a few days ago, I’ve gotten a few emails and at least one comment in the vein of this reader’s sentiments:

I saw the Freedom Singers at the Gaither Family Fest in May. And anyone with a heart will sympathize with them. Their story is very compelling. And when they sing Because He Lives in Romanian, the whole place stands in praise of religious freedom.

But here’s what nobody is saying: these boys illegally entered Canada on a barge. They were using a sort of “black market” deal … basically like the coyotes that smuggle folks across the US/Mexico border. Yet the Fox News crowds that stand and applaud the Freedom Singers for their courage would be all for sending a Mexican who did the same thing packing. So, the Romanian refugees get a break because they love Gaither? Oh, and they’re white. But the latino maids and leaf blowers MUST GO!

AND, they can’t sing worth a crap!

We’ll return to the quality of singing in a bit. For now, let’s stick with the immigration angle.

I get what the reader is saying, and doubtlessly there is some element of hypocrisy and/or a certain blindness to the double standard that may be in play here in some instances. But my guess is if you pressed many – maybe most? – of the conservative Christians who stand and clap for undocumented immigrants when it’s two guys from Romania on stage with Bill Gaither but who also insist on the deportation of all “illegal aliens” from Mexico and South America, they’d say that there’s a difference: namely, that the Freedom Singers were defacto asylum-seekers, in flight from religious persecution (and after reading Janet’s comment, I’m assuming here that they’ve sense received proper documentation from the Canadian government, which would explain their ability to travel and work in the United States*). (I don’t have any hard data to back this up, but my gut feeling is, whether intentionally or not, “illegal alien” is pretty much synonymous with latino/hispanic immigrants in most discussions of immigrations these days.)

It’s never been clear to me the exact nature of what one of the Freedom Singers refers to in their promo video as “some persecution” they were experiencing in Romania (a lot of the details of the backstory remain fuzzy, I gather, from the stage, though it is evidently explained in their book).

But whatever the exact details here, the Freedom Singers’ situation still seems an awfully lot like most immigration stories: people willing to undergo expensive, illegal, life-threatening hardship in search of a better life in North America.

Now, I’m sure there are plenty of folks who would value people immigrating for religious (or at least Protestant Christian) reasons of any sort over those mainly trying to improve the material conditions of their existence. And given all the human, legal, and social complexity of the immigration issue, I also think I get why a story like this one is so popular: it doesn’t look or feel like the typical south-of-the-border immigration stories we’ve become so desensitized to, and so it lets audiences tell themselves and others that they’re not against immigration (see I support these nice young men up there singing that Bill Gaither song), just the bad kinds. And then, too, there’s the singing-in-times-of-great-trial dimension to the story that provides an easy-to-grasp evangelical element to boot (Paul and Silas singing in prison etc).

The fact that many people who applaud the Freedom Singers’ story also support a zero-tolerance immigration policy in the U.S. doesn’t necessarily mean that all Christians are ethnocentric xenophobes who only want to keep out brown people, any more than all immigrants are system-gaming scofflaws here to mooch, scam, and exploit. The most we can say based on the evidence in both cases is that this is sometimes true.

What the Freedom Singers ought to remind us is that undocumented immigration has as many faces and stories as there are immigrants, and these stories complicate any one-dimensional view of immigration (what, for instance, is a term like “illegal aliens” but a rhetorical attempt to leach the human element out of the conversation?), even if we don’t hear about those stories from the Homecoming stage set to the tune of “Because He Lives.”

So much for the immigration question. Now: Does it matter if the Freedom Singers can’t really sing? David Bruce Murray says, not really. “If this trio can find a way to effectively communicate their story, people will want to hear them sing as well.”

Ah yes, … “if.” And there’s the rub. They’ve only just gotten started, but at this point, it’s still almost entirely a novelty act rather than a fully formed brand of any sort. And to some extent, a certain unpolished quality to the performance may actually help. Here, there’s not only the poor singing skills, but the amateur showmanship. On the video up at their site, watch the way the guy on the right stabs at his eyes with a fist in a far too conspicuous, stagey manner to be entirely believable right near the end of the song. He’s choked up enough to stop and dab his eyes … but manages to get right back in to the mix in time for the big finish. It’s transparent but the transparency is so earnest that it’s mildly endearing … a young Tony Greene does almost the exact same thing in that “When I Knelt” clip.

DBM compares the Freedom Singers to David Ring, who has made a sustainable gig out of his disability. Of course the Freedom Singers share some parallels insofar as their story of hardship is the organizing element of their appeal. But unlike Ring’s story, which is not anchored to a one-time event but evolves as his life unfolds before him and us, the Freedom Singers have a story of being locked in a container for Christ. Now that’s a powerful narrative, no doubt. But they’re here now … they’re free, and it’s not exactly clear where the energy for their story comes from after people hear and experience the group’s retelling of their original ordeal.

*See longtime (Canadian) reader NG’s helpful rundown of both some context and some relevant aspects of Canada’s immigration laws.

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  1. Bones wrote:

    Isn’t there freedom of worship in Romania now? You know that Gaither will milk a storey. They could go back to Romania and witness for Christ.

  2. Janet B wrote:

    I’m not sure what a “storey” is, or how one would go about milking it…but, whatever.

    Persecution - much like immigration - is not one-dimensional. Just because a country/government/regime proclaims that its people enjoy religious freedom doesn’t necessarily make it so. Read a report from Voice of the Martyrs sometime.

    And, IF the Freedom Singers have entered NA illegally, then why have they not been deported? It’s not like they’re hiding somewhere under assumed names. Just sayin’…

  3. NG wrote:

    I assume that the original two stowaways obtained refugee status in Canada after arriving in 1999 as they claimed they were objectors to forced military service because of their religious beliefs. They don’t state on their website what those beliefs are but at the time Romania was apparently tough on such denominations as Jehovah Witnesses, Baptists and Mormons. About 87 per cent of the population lists themselves as Christian (mainly Eastern Orthodox). Another Freedom Singer member came to Canada on a work visa and the fourth is a student in Canada. Romania has since eliminated the military draft and claims to allow religious freedom.

    Persecution covers a wide area in the refugee claims Canada (and probably other nations) sees today. People have filed claims because their countries don’t protect gays or women abused by spouses. We have claims from US soldiers (unsuccessful thus far) saying they are being persecuted by being forced to fight in an unjust war (Iraq).

  4. jim wrote:

    Wow, here we go again with that broad brush stroke. It is my experience that gospel audiences are no different that any other large gathering. About 50/50 on the democrat/republican split. About 50/50 on the conservative/liberal split - especially at a Gaither event. Nothing like a little hate baiting controversy to get the hit # up after a long lull here at averyfineline!

  5. Dixie D wrote:

    They are wonderful genuine men who left Romania to avoid religious persecution in the army. Read their book and you will understand. They have an amazing, inspiring story. Their singing has really improved over the past year. If any one of you spent five minutes talking to them you would realize that they are about the most genuine men you will ever meet. Also, they have gone back to Romania to help the poor there.

  6. Auke wrote:

    Romania is a secular state, and it has no state religion. However, an overwhelming majority of the country’s citizens are Christian. 86.7% of the country’s population identified as Eastern Orthodox in the 2002 census (see also: History of Christianity in Romania). Other Christian denominations include Roman Catholicism (4.7%), Calvinism (3.7%), Pentecostal denominations (1.5%) and the Romanian Greek-Catholic Church (0.9%). Romania also has a small but historically significant Muslim minority, concentrated in Dobrogea, who are mostly of Turkish ethnicity and number 67,500 people. Based on the 2002 census data, there are also approximately 6,000 Jews and 23,105 people who are of no religion or atheist (source;wikipedia)

    My dad visited the east-european countries during the coldwar years frequently. All i remember as a kid is that of all the countries he visited, Romania was by far the most depressing and desolate one. Now however the communist days are gone since december 1989 president Nicolae Ceauşescu was executed alongside with his wife it’s been 21 years.
    There is religious freedom in Romania…so i’m sceptical about the Freedom Singers asylum urgency.
    I didn’t hear them sing…but what i’ve read isn’t promising.

  7. Dixie D wrote:

    They will be at the NQC Sept 15/2010 , 1030-1130. Don’t miss it.

  8. Simon wrote:

    It is very interesting to read all the comments that some of you have.
    I am one of the guys who were locked in that container. Most of you are soo quick to judge and give your opinion even though you have no details of what really happened. It would be a lot more uplifting if half of you would actually pray for the Freedom Singers and their ministry… Obviously God is using us to bless thousands of people.
    Do you actually believe that One day i decided to get locked in a container, not knowing where it was going, running out of air, water and food, just because i had no better things to do? Give me a brake.
    And as far as singing goes, we do our best… you should listen our newest CD, you may get blessed

    If God can use a bunch of Romanian guys with a broken english, He will use you if only you will allow Him to do so.
    This gossip will not uplift God in any way…

  9. Pam wrote:

    I heard the testimony of the Freedom
    Singers on XM radio just tonight and their story and singing sound very inspirational and I agree if they are over here with U.S. and God’s approval and they have all of their immigration papers that God is just blessing them because they searched Him out with all their heart and would not give up their faith in Him and we can all experience the same blessings no matter what kind of box we are in be it financial, alcoholism, cigarettes, sex or drugs. The list could go on and on. My advice is pick up a bible, break out of your box and find out what kind of blessings He has for your life and go for it. I am glad that Simon stood up for his voice as a Christian. I am all for spiritual freedom. May God bless all that come to the understanding that Jesus is Lord and use their talents to serve Him. We will all have to bow before Him someday but for now I thank Him for His mercy and grace.

  10. Teresa K. wrote:

    Do not judge. I have read the book…. I seen them preform tonight with a standing ovation at the end of the concert in Spruce Grove, Alberta… They can sing and do the best that they or any preformer could do! They are here for a reason, that is to spread the word… Their message is the faith, because without faith they would have died. They are an inspiration. … The faith that they have is more than many have… Simon, Wesley and Stefan, keep spreading the word! You have inspired me and I am sure many more… God Bless you all and yes, Simon as you posted, I will keep you all in my prayers!

  11. Vi wrote:

    How arrogant! How superior we feel! How quick to sit in judgement we North Americans are!! SHAME ON US!! I have lived In Europe for a couple of decades and have come to know just some of the hardships and the persecution that takes place in these closed countries (Romania being one of the worst). I have read the boys’ book, heard their testimony, heard them sing. Theirs is a message of faith and hope where all hope seemed in vain. Bill and Gloria Gaither (God bless their ministry) were not born stars. Yes, God gave them the gift of singing, but it took much faith, prayer and hard work to get them to the point they are at now. God gave the same gift to Simon, Wesley and Steven. The only difference, up until they came to Canada they did not have to same opportunities the Gaithers and most of us have had. The singing and testimony of the boys is very touching, heart-warming, sincere, and a great blessing, very refreshing and enjoyable, an inspiration and challenge to live a life of faith regardless of the odds!! Lets take hold of the positive, thank God for what we have, and leave the judging to God!!
    God bless you boys!! You have been a source of encouragement and blessing to many. Continue your ministry entrusted to you BY GOD!!

  12. Elaine wrote:

    I just read the book last weekend and plan to read it again. It is a remarkable account with twists and turns in it that portray situations that appear absolutely hopeless. But God saw these young men through it all and provided miracle upon miracle to bring the story to a wonderful conclusion as He willed it to be. And all the glorify is given to Him, making it a wonderful testimony of faith in Him.

    The little music that I’ve seen on the internet has been a huge blessing to me.

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