USING HER VOICE TO HELP OTHERS FIND THEIRS
She has been dubbed, “The Voice,” and rightfully so. Sandi Patty has released over thirty albums and is the most awarded female vocalist in contemporary Christian music history. Over the past thirty years, she has won forty Dove Awards, five Grammy awards, four Billboard Music Awards, had three platinum records, five gold records, and sold eleven million units. In addition to her successful music career, Patty also uses her voice as an accomplished speaker and author, traveling with Women of Faith conferences. Her latest book The Voice: Listening for God’s Voice and Finding Your Own. In it she shares about her public divorce, being sexually abused as a child and struggles with self-image. Risen caught up with Patty to talk about a performance she became famous for, how she regained her voice after being sexually abused as a child, and how she hopes sharing her story will help others regain their voice.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: You grew up in a musical family, your father was a minister of music and your mom was the church pianist. When you were younger did you grow up thinking that you were going to be a musician or did you have other hopes and dreams?
Sandi Patty: I actually wanted to teach school. I knew that I would be involved in music, but I thought it would be from a teaching standpoint. I never really had any thoughts or desires to travel and sing at the time; but that was sort of the path. Doors began to open and I just said, “God if you are opening these doors, I just want to honor you and walk through them.” I wanted to be a teacher ever since I was in elementary school. I was that kid that would ask for a chalkboard for Christmas. I wanted to play school in my bedroom. I would write on my chalkboard and have imaginary students. It was always a dream of mine. The older I got I really began to appreciate teachers more and more.
RM: You are a five-time Grammy winner, forty-time Dove Award winner, 11 million units sold and were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Looking back on your career, what has been your favorite moment or accomplishment?
SP: There’s really two things that come to my mind. One of them was my season with Women of Faith. I got to be a part of the Women of Faith women’s conferences for over ten years. It was just so special to be a part of a group of women that were so real and so authentic and were willing to share the hard seasons in their life and not try to pretend that they were perfect. It had a profound impact on me and on our family as well. One of my other favorite things I have gotten to do over the years has been a Christmas concert that I have done ten times over the past twenty years with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in their production of “Yuletide Celebration.” I’ve always wanted to do something on Broadway, but I’ve never wanted to give up or sacrifice my family or friends to do that. So, getting to do the “Yuletide Celebration,” with the same performance thirty-five times over a period of twenty-five days, gave me a sense of what it might be like to do something on Broadway. That is absolutely one of my favorite things I have gotten to do.
RM: Your rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner at the rededication of the Statue of Liberty in 1986 propelled you into an overnight success. You became synonymous with patriotic celebrations and performances. What was running through your head before you performed?
SP: Here’s a really funny story. I recorded the Star-Spangled Banner. Unbeknownst to me, the record company was owned by ABC at the time, and ABC chose to use that at the very end of the Statue of Liberty celebration in 1986. I was at home watching it with everybody else. This music comes on and I start thinking, “That sounds sort of familiar.” You know when you hear something out of context, it takes you a minute. Then my phone started ringing. My mom called and asked, “Are you watching ABC right now?” I often refer to that as the best gig I ever had because it really began to open a lot of doors and yet, I got to be at home during that whole thing. It was one of those very sweet, unexpected moments along the way.
There was something really powerful that happens when you really begin to take in god’s word, because that truth begins to crowd out some of the other things you might have let seep in. The lies had to find someplace else to go.
RM: In your book, The Voice: Listening for God’s Voice and Finding Your Own, you reveal some of the things that you have experienced that have shaped your voice. At six years old, you share about how a family friend sexually abused you. She would go on to threaten you by saying “If you tell your parents what happened while you were here, they won’t believe you. And I’ll come find you and do this to you again.” Many have experienced similar hardships that have taken away their voice. What did you do to regain your voice?
SP: It has definitely been a journey. In a lot of ways, it continues to be so. I feel like I am on the other side of learning to find my voice, to speak up and speak out. It has been a journey of a lot of things. It has been a journey of finding a group of girlfriends who I would hear talk about stuff that had happened to them when they were growing up. It made me pause a minute to think, “How can they be so honest?” But their honesty about their journeys, gave me the courage and set a stage in our friendships that I knew it would be safe to share my journey. I didn’t have that early on in my career; just girlfriends that I could be honest and real with, so that definitely was and continues to be an important part of my life in finding my voice. I also began really seriously studying the Bible.
I started Bible Study Fellowship (BSF) when I was in my early 30s. There was something really powerful that happens when you really begin to take in God’s Word, because that truth begins to crowd out some of the other things you might have let seep in. The lies had to find someplace else to go. I began to have more confidence to speak the truth out loud which led me to a really great Christian counseling season in my life. I still go to a counselor because it is great to have a safe space. But Christian counseling, my girlfriends and studying God’s Word helped the situation. I also had to own the mistakes of my own life and understanding how someone else’s brokenness broke mine. I also asked God, “Can you take these broken pieces and try to mend them together?” And somewhere along the way He said, “You know what baby girl? That’s what I do the best.” It is always a journey. Because sexual abuse rips the sacred innocence out of a child. It’s a journey to recover that innocence and take those upside-down messages you get from the abuser and put those messages through the light of God’s Word and how much He loves us and begin to sort of let those truths define who I say I am. The reason I am open to share it is because it may help someone else find their voice sooner than I did; because there is such joy in walking in freedom of the truth. Even though it can be very hard to bear, there is such freedom. I wish that freedom for others.
RM: The “Me Too” movement has made us more aware of how prevalent sexual abuse is in our culture. What would you say to encourage someone to regain their voice who has had similar experiences?
SP: You have to begin by owning the truth of your story. It is so hard to find the words for that. One of the first places I went to was to journal. I just wrote it down. I couldn’t even say it, but I would write it. To write it, there’s something about getting the truth out of us that we don’t have to hold it in or push it down with food or numb it with any type of addiction. There’s something really powerful about getting it outside of us. Even if we don’t have words yet, journaling can be a great place to do that. Then I would say really listen to the people around you. I don’t think it’s something that you want to share with the first person you meet. Sharing with the wrong person can result in some trauma as well.
Begin to listen to the people around you and not the people who are saying they’ve got it “all together.” You want to listen to the people who are willing to say what they have struggled with in their own life and how God has walked them through it step-by-step. Those are the people that you want to say, “Hey can I grab coffee with you sometime?” Celebrate Recovery has a tremendous track record for helping others. Churches will often host a Celebrate Recovery. It is a 12-step [program] with Christian theology. It is a wonderful place to seek truth. One of the things that keeps us bound is believing the lie that no one will understand. No one has been through this before, I am by myself. This is a lonesome journey. When you listen carefully to those around you and speak it out, you begin to realize you are not alone. There is such power to that. We are seeing it in the “Me Too” movement. It is really important to have that personal connection with someone who is going to walk alongside you.
RM: You went through a very public divorce full of infidelity, affairs and accusations. Was there ever a point where you wanted to quit your career? What made you keep going?
SP: Absolutely! As I began to realize that I’ve got to make amends, I need to ask for forgiveness. I have some work to do. I knew and understood that the church may not be the place for me anymore. There was never an expectation that I would ever be back with the church. I knew that was a consequence. I have never been angry at the church, ever. I understand that if I were to go to a medical professional or an attorney or someone who carries certain words with their title, there is an expectation, that I have a right to expect. When those standards are not met, I have a right to be angry and expect for them to be on leave for a period of time or be disbarred. When you carry Christian artist in your name, there is a certain standard of behavior that people should expect. So, I always understood there was a price to pay. Consequences aren’t the same as unforgiveness because I know that God has forgiven me and I have gone to the people that I needed to go to. But I also understand there are consequences involved. I felt that by me being honest and being right before the Lord, there was nothing more important than that. I knew in that moment I would never sing in the church again. I would never make a record again, but none of that mattered to me more than being right and clean before the Lord. I think that sometimes you can get into a deep dark hole with social media. One of my mentors used to say about the media, and I think it stands true with social media as well, “You are never as good as they say you are and you are never as bad as you say they are.” Some of the people that don’t know my journey feel that I have complained because the church never accepted me back. And honestly, part of me wants to tweet back and say, “You know I can read this right?” But they don’t know my journey. They just don’t know. It gets me pretty emotional. I have never, ever taken it for granted that I have had the opportunity to be with Women of Faith and now have an opportunity as an artist in residence at my church. It never escapes my intention how grateful I am for that.
RM: Kathie Lee Gifford inspired your voice of encouragement and hospitality. So much so that on your 30th birthday, you threw a party for yourself. Share with us what that looked like.
SP: So, when I turned thirty, I threw myself a birthday party. I had read in Kathie Lee’s book, that she had done that. I thought it was the best idea. I invited all of the women who had an impact in my life and in my career including my grandma, my mom, very dear family friends, Lori Gauthier was among them, and some of the people I worked with in the studio. I went around the table and I said to them how much they had meant to me and I gave them a gift. It was just a very sweet time. I’ve often thought about when I turn sixty-five that I might do the same thing.
When you carry Christian artist in your name, there is a certain standard of behavior that people should expect. So, I always understood there was a price to pay.
RM: From Demi Lovato and Brittney Spears to Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston our headlines are filled with talented singers who struggle with inner battles and addictions. For many, their careers have been damaged and some have even lost their lives. If you could pass anything on to them what would it be?
SP: It would simply be this, and I know it might sound unbelievably trite, “You are so recklessly and passionately loved by the God of the universe.” I say that to say the older I get, the more that I have learned, but the more that I have learned, the less that I know. But what I know, I really, really know, and that is that God loves me and is for me. Here’s how I wonder if it plays out if we really knew how much we mattered and we woke up in the morning knowing that, how would that change how we feel about who we are? How would that change how we go about our day? I have to think that some of the names that you mentioned, if there wasn’t that torment of [not feeling] deeply and passionately loved, would that have changed some of those outcomes? I think it would have.
RM: As you look ahead in the next few years, what are some of the things that you would like to accomplish to further your legacy?
SP: Two things come to mind. I love being able to speak into the culture of what worship really is. It is so much more than music. Worship is how we live out our lives. Sometimes I will say it to groups, “It is how we act with a group of people or how we act in bad traffic.” People respond and say, “You’re just meddling now.” But it is the truth. It’s who we are every second of the day. That’s really worship. That’s Romans 12:1-2. And the other thing is that I am determined to hug those who don’t feel like they deserve a hug. I am determined to do that the rest of my days.
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