NOTE: A photograph of the Rev. Jim Newton is available with this story.
By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Rev. Jim Newton is a United Methodist pastor and founder of Celebration
Shop Inc., a Texas-based organization providing healing experiences
through the performing arts for children with special needs. Since 1983,
he has produced numerous recordings and has been recognized worldwide
for his transforming ministry. A UMNS photo courtesy of Jim Newton.
Photo number 03-110, Accompanies UMNS #188, 3/31/03
No Long Caption Available for this Story
UMC.org, the official Web site of the United
Methodist Church, is spotlighting the Rev. Jim Newton, United Methodist
pastor and founder of Celebration Shop Inc., a Texas-based organization
providing healing experiences through the performing arts for children
with special needs. Since 1983, Newton has produced numerous recordings
and has been recognized worldwide for his transforming ministry. Click
on www.umc.org to hear the audio interview.
Q: Were you raised in
the United Methodist Church? What are some of your earliest memories of
attending or participating in church?
A: Yes, I was. I was born
in Marshall, Texas, and my family went to First United Methodist Church
in Marshall. Then when I was about, I think, 2 or 2Â½, we moved to west
Texas and lived in a bunch of little towns: Andrews, Midland,
Brownfield. From the time I was in about the fourth grade until I
graduated from high school we were in Brownfield at First United
Methodist Church. I was just always a part of the church ever since I
Q: How has the church shaped your faith life?
Well, I'd say in addition to the content and the spiritual direction
that I've gotten from sermons and things that I've heard, the most
important thing has been the people that I've met who, through the
church, have shaped my life.
I was thinking about that over the
last couple of days. Mrs. Carpenter was a Sunday school teacher in
Brownfield at our First United Methodist Church there when I was in
elementary school. And she just really made the Bible come alive. Even
us guys that would try to cut up a little bit would be quiet when Mrs.
Carpenter began to talk about the Bible.
Then when I was in high
school at that same church, coach Charlie Keith was (a) very powerful
(influence). He was a big, massive man, and yet he was a very committed,
faithful person. That was at a time in my life when I really respected
sports-related people. He was a coach and had been a great football
player in college. But he was a real man of faith, and he had a profound
impact on me just because of the way he lived and by what he said and
how he taught the Bible.
Q: You have a master's degree in theology. What led you in that direction?
A: Yes. I went to Perkins School of Theology at SMU (Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas).
think I just always wanted to make a difference. As a matter of fact I
can remember my mother's mother, my grandmother, telling me when I was a
little bitty boy, "One day you're going to do something that's really
going to make a difference in this world. And I'm really proud of you
for doing that." I mean she basically scripted me to expect to make a
difference in the world. And so I kind of was always looking for (a way
to do that). And it came to me when I was in college that maybe the
ministry would be something that I ought to look at. I transferred from
the University of New Mexico where I was going at the time, to McMurry
University, a Methodist-related institution in Abilene, Texas, and began
to take pre-theological studies.
Q: Did you ever feel called to be a pastor?
Yes, I did. Matter of fact, I even did an internship at a United
Methodist church in Wichita Falls, Texas, when I was going to Perkins,
and up until that time I was thinking about being a pastor. I also
really enjoyed pastoral counseling. And so I took all of my elective
courses in pastoral counseling. I thought I would be a counselor. But
I've always had this desire and an aptitude for music and for singing.
And that's really what I couldn't quit doing. I couldn't quit making
music. And so I decided I just had to find a way to be in ministry
Q: When did you start combining music with your ministry?
There was a bit of delay using the music. I guess I just hadn't put it
together, even though music had been something that had been so powerful
for me. It actually helped me lift depression that I had when I was in
college at a young age. It was only later, when I was invited to go into
a children's hospital in Columbus, back in about 1983, that I really
discovered music can be as powerful for other people in lifting their
feelings as it has been for me. And I began to use the guitar then to
sing with kids in hospitals and their families.
Q: Was there a turning point in your life that led to you singing for children?
I had been on a 14-day tour of churches and college campus ministry
groups up in the Ohio area. One of the people who had sponsored me was a
dentist. He and his wife had lost a child to cancer a few years before
at Columbus Children's Hospital. And he said, "You're off tomorrow
afternoon. Would you go and sing for the kids at Columbus Children's
Hospital?" He had helped pay my way to come from Texas, and I couldn't
tell him no. I thought to myself I really wanted an afternoon off and
deserved an afternoon off. And I don't even have children's material. I
had been doing mainly youth and young adult material. But I couldn't say
no, and I went, and it turned out to be a life-changing experience.
know how sometimes you go through a door that God opens and it changes
everything in your life? That's what happened that afternoon. I had an
experience with one little boy and his mom in his room. He was dying of
cancer. He responded to my songs, as feeble an attempt as they were and
as poor an attitude as I had. He began to clap his hands and smile, and
his mom started crying. That got me, and I started crying. It's like
this light bulb went off over my head, and I thought, "Gosh, if I can
come in here with a bad attitude and poor material for kids, and the
need is so great that this little boy responds and his mother responds
anyway and they were so appreciative of what I did, maybe this is where I
belong." So I started to volunteer to go into hospitals, and then over
the years, since 1983, it's become my full time work. That's what I do
for my livelihood now - I sing for kids in hospitals.
Q: Tell me about Celebration Shop. How did it come into existence?
It actually started as a nonprofit organization back in 1981 to help
support youth rallies and college campus ministry concerts and that sort
of thing. And then when I discovered this need in the hospital and how
good it felt to try to help kids with music and families in the hospital
setting, I came back and told my board maybe this is direction we ought
to go. They all liked it, and so I thought, "We'll just go in that
direction for a while and see what happens." And just door after door
after door opened up, and we kept on going.
We produced three
different CDs, tapes, series and what we call our Hugworks series for
kids. We not only do the direct-service sing-along programs, but we also
provide these CDs and tapes that we give to as many kids and families
as possible, so that there's some music to support them when we leave.
Q: Do you also do summer camps?
I do camps in the summertime, especially camps for children with cancer
and for their siblings. Those camps are just a powerful, magical time. I
mean, kids will make a decision, as they do in church camps or any kind
of camp, in a week that they wouldn't make in a year otherwise. Reality
gets suspended, and you're with people who really understand you and
who love you, and there's an unconditional sense of affirmation there
that helps people become whoever they are really called to be.
Q: How did you meet and start working with Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame?
Back when we first started working with kids in hospitals, we wanted to
do an initial recording project. I had recorded four albums up to that
point, but I wasn't really satisfied with the quality level of the
production that we were doing. I didn't feel that our compositions,
especially for children, were of the quality level that I thought they
needed to be. I was looking for a producer-composer-collaborator in
addition to my friend, Paul Hill, who works with me all the time and was
working with me at that time.
He (Stookey) was No. 1 on my list
because of things I had heard about him as a person and as a musician.
And, of course, Peter, Paul and Mary were always folk icons. I just
respected their music and their commitment to caring and making a
difference in the world so much.
It just came to be that another
door opened quite unexpectedly. I got an opportunity to play at a
reception after a concert that he did with his BodyWorks contemporary
Christian band over in east Texas. This was about, I guess, in 1985 or
'86. Whenever he came over to me at the end of this reception â€¦ all
this little spiel that I had memorized rolled out. He ended up giving me
another meeting in about three or four months after that. And he became
just as fascinated by it and as caught up in doing something for
children in hospitals as I have been. And he's been a mainstay on our
team ever since.
He is a tremendous adviser and a great composer
and a tremendous producer in the studio. So he's helped our quality
level. He's been a great mentor.
Q: Describe what happens when you perform for children in a hospital.
Well, first of all, it's a very humbling and inspiring situation. I
have friends who say, "Gosh, how can you do it? I mean, how can you look
at a child who's near death or a child who's dealing with cancer?" But
it's so much, you know, just seeing a child who's willing to continue to
have a great attitude and give back to life, even though they're
getting the pretty short end of the stick at the time. It is just
inspiring to me and those of us who get to go and sing at hospitals.
kind of party time when we get there. The kids really respond to the
music because music is just something that opens those emotional and
spiritual doors. When you sing a song like "I'm a Little Frog" you give
them a chance to fill in their feeling. The music kind of gently invites
them out. And before you know it, they're shaking a shaker and perhaps
singing along or dancing a little bit if they feel good enough to do
that. And it's just amazing to watch it happen. It's a miracle.
Q: Describe some of your songs.
Well, one of the chief ones that we do that we wrote in the very
beginning is called, "I Can Be the Best I Can Be." The bridge of it
says, "If there are things I can't do, if there are things I can't be,
I'm still the very best at being me." I think that's a message that I
learned in the church via the unconditional love that I was shown by
people and the scriptures. I just think that's a message that we all
need. That's a very central song for us.
We have one called "The
Hospital Rap" that we wrote with teens who wanted to do a rap-type
song. For old fogies like me, that was a real stretch. It says, "Doctor,
doctor, I know you want to help, but sometimes it hurts." We wanted the
kids to have permission to say how they feel, even at the same time
that they affirm the medical establishment for trying to do what they
can. What they have to go through hurts, and they need a place to
express that and permission to say how they really feel.
Q: Do you get a lot of feedback from the children, their parents?
Yeah, we really do. We get a lot of e-mails from moms and dads and
grandparents and friends. And there's just a lot of affirmation when
we're there because if a child is very severely ill, as many of the kids
are that we see, the parents are very stressed and very worn out. You
can watch the children actually watch their parents or grandparents or
older family members, and the kids begin to loosen up as those adults
begin to loosen up. It's just good for everyone. The staff really
appreciates it too because they're very stressed. They're having to put
kids and family members through things they would rather not have to do.
But they have to help the kids get physically well. And, you know, the
songs give them a chance to let their feelings go a little bit and just
be a little silly or cry a tear when they need to.
Q: What have been the highlights and low points in your career?
It's so ironic that you asked that because probably I would say that a
number of experiences that I've had with children, at their death or
near their death, are both the high points and the low points. Because
you're certainly sad when a child dies, and yet the children show such
fantastic faith and a tendency to continue to give back to life in spite
of the hand they've been dealt.
I had an 11-year-old boy tell
me one time at camp: "You know I'm going to die, don't you?" And I said,
"Are you?" And he said, "Yeah." And he said, "But it's OK. I'm pretty
much settled with it. But don't talk to my mom and dad. They can't
handle it." And we had a long conversation about the fact that he was
ready to die and that he knew he was going to be with God, and I mean,
it was incredible. He was like a man of 80 or 90 or 100 years old in
terms of wisdom of a lifetime, but he was 11. Just to have the privilege
of being there with those kids and sharing a song and hearing what they
have to say and listening to the unique way that they respond to the
music and the singing and just the spirit of music. It's incredible.
It's an incredible gift. It's low, but it's high.
I have lots of
good friends, you know, who are kids. And I've got lots of fond memories
of good friends who are children who have died. I'll never forget
Q: In difficult times, who or what do you turn to for support?
Just the Spirit of God that I call upon in quiet sometimes, just silent
moments or in prayer. I've found a real key for me is to remember the
serenity prayer because there are so many situations that I encounter
that I can't control at all. And all you can do is come and maybe lay
out a little healing balm of music and hope that it makes a difference.
You'd like to do something that would make a difference, but you just
have to say, "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can't change,
the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the
difference." I find myself praying that all throughout the day because I
think it really connects me to that higher power that God is and that
the Spirit of Christ is, that we need to tap into and can if we'll just
stop long enough and either be quiet or ask for help.
Q: Is there anything else you want to add?
If people would like to know more about what we do and about what
various folks do in music and in situations with children who are
severely, chronically or terminally ill, they can check out our Web
I hope that people will support
music therapists in their area and artistic programs, whether it be
music or art therapy or whatever kinds of artistic ways that folks are
doing things with kids with special emotional and medical needs in their
area. Those sorts of things really make a difference. Sometimes kids
can be well physically, and the trauma that they've dealt with during
the time that they've been trying to get well has left them bitter and
sad and lonely and depressed. What we try to do through some of these
artistic means is help kids stay connected to their soul and to come out
the other side of a medical situation, and have retained the connection
with who they really are and the gift that God has given to them. Or,
if necessary, have what I think (John) Wesley would have called "a
triumphant death" and a peaceful death.
I get to get up every day and do what I love to do, and I actually get paid to do it. It's an incredible deal. I am lucky. # # # *Gilbert
is a United Methodist News Service news writer in Nashville, Tenn. The
UMC.org profile was produced by the Internet Services Team at United
Methodist Communications in Nashville.