In all my years of voting, I have never once cried about it. I am extraordinarily grateful to live in a country and a time in history where I am allowed – and encouraged – to vote. But I admit I cried when I took up my mail-in ballot earlier this month. I cried for our nation. I cried for my children. I cried because I am just so exhausted by the moral wasteland that is current American politics.
Once I stopped crying, I ate two cookies, even though I wanted to eat 10 cookies, because old habits (emotional eating) die hard.
With sugar from the chocolate chip cookies still surging through my veins, I wiped the tears from my eyes and the crumbs from my mouth and I decided to do the only genuinely constructive thing I felt I could do: I decided to pray.
While many newlyweds spend their first few months experiencing the joys and challenges of married life, Musician Stephen Sylvester and his wife, Afton, were struggling with a surprising and potentially devastating medical diagnosis. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Stephen to chat about life, faith, and Sylvester Band’s campaign to record music borne from that difficult yet inspiring time. While the fabulous Ignitum Today posted the ready-for-his-closeup version of our interview, the following is the uncut, loosely edited “Rolling Stones” -esque (aka LONG) version of our conversation, complete with The Essential Stephen Sylvester, seen at the end. Enjoy!
RCM:Okay – so let’s get to know you – the man, the myth, the legend. Who, exactly, is Stephen Sylvester? Where do you come from, and what was your faith life like when you were growing up?
SS:(laughing) Oh, Lord … well, Stephen the Catholic musician started as an Alabama native who grew up listening to his parents sing. I’m the oldest of 10 children, and the Catholic faith and music are probably the two things that my family is most recognized for. I started playing for the youth Mass at my old parish in Mobile, Alabama when I was in high school, and by the time I graduated college and started working, I was an accomplished worship musician.
RCM:So, faith and music was a pretty strong undercurrent during your formative years, huh?
SS: For sure; it was everywhere.
RCM:And, for our readers, maybe you can share a little bit about your family life during those years. I understand you come from a line of ministry-types.
RCM: I sure do! My dad has been a youth minster and music minister for as long as I can remember. I think all of the Sylvester kids were influenced in a positive way by growing up around the Church. It was like our second home. Now that we’re older, both my sister and I work in youth ministry – the whole “apples and trees” thing.
RCM:Absolutely. Must’ve been a good tree! (laughs)
SS: I’d like to think it was. Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t perfect, but as I get older, I realize how truly blessed I am to have grown up in a devout Catholic family.
RCM:It must not have been too traumatic, since you’re a) still Catholic and b) serving the Church.
SS:(laughing) I guess not!
RCM: Let’s talk about that – you’re one of those “slash” people, right? I mean, you’re a youth minister-slash-musician? How did that come to pass?
SS: It was sort of forced upon me at first – one of those, “Oh, you play guitar and sing? Here’s a youth Mass you’re now responsible for,” situations. I really enjoy doing both, although it can start to consume your weekends.
RCM:Oh, definitely! My parents were folk musicians at Mass when I was growing up, and I can’t count the hours we spent at church! (laughs) But at a certain point, Stephen, it must have become something you owned – that YOU wanted to do?
SS: It definitely was. I think the first time I really started treating the music as a prayer was while I was leading music for a Sunday night Mass. I just sort of lost myself in praising God, and I found that I could still fully concentrate on what I was doing. After that, I knew I had been given this amazing gift, and I knew it was important for me to continue to share it with everybody.
RCM: Wow, that’s amazing! When was that? Do you remember?
SS: It was during the spring of last year, actually, so not that long ago. I had been leading liturgical music for a while, but it just “clicked” at that point. It wasn’t really easy after that per se – that’s not the right word – but the music felt much more authentic. I didn’t ever feel like I was distracted from Mass by the music I was playing after that; it was more like it helped me enter into the liturgy. And, in turn, I think it helped everyone else do the same thing.
RCM:What a gift! That’s great!
SS: It was a blessing, for sure.
RCM: Well, then, it’s been a remarkable year for you, right? You got married not that long ago, too?
SS: Yeah! My wife and I got hitched on July 19th of last year, and marriage has been wonderful thus far. It’s been a crazy roller coaster, but still wonderful.
RCM: You just celebrated your first anniversary – congratulations!
SS: Oh, thank you. Thank you. Yeah; we actually went through some pretty tough stuff at the very beginning.
RCM:Tell me a little bit about that.
SS: Well, about a month after our wedding day, my wife’s parents split up, which was really hard on her, as I’m sure you can imagine. And about a week later, we found out that Afton had leukemia.
RCM: Oh, Lord, have mercy! That’s a whoooole lot for newlyweds to handle on top of getting used to married life! How did you cope? And … is Afton okay now?
SS: I know, right? I’d like to say we prayed a lot, but honestly, it was just a lot of nights comforting each other as we got used to the new normal. Afton cleaned the house from top to bottom when we got home, because that’s her de-stress method, and I wrote songs, which is mine. And now she’s just fine!
SS: She’s actually due to have our first baby at the end of October, and her doctors think that there’s a very good chance that she will make basically a full recovery. So, even if she doesn’t go into total remission, she will still have a normal length and quality of life.
RCM: Praise the Lord! That is incredible! You must have had a bunch of prayer warriors going to bat for y’all on the regular, man!
SS: I know for a fact we had, like, a prayer army! We’ve actually heard from a lot of folks that the way we handled the whole situation inspired some people to return to their faith. I didn’t think at the time we were doing anything spectacular, but I guess God was working through us the whole time.
RCM: Amen. Sometimes just walking with one foot in front of the other can be so inspiring to someone else. You just never know.
SS: It’s true!
RCM:So, you said that when all this craziness was happening, you turned to music as a stress reliever. Were you playing, like, Metallica, or Lamentations, or the Book of Job, or what?
SS:(laughs) It was a lot of folk rock and really sad, melancholic stuff at first. That was a literal translation of what I was feeling, which really isn’t a good way to write a song. Then I sort of moved into more of an “honest confessional” style of lyrics, which is what I’ve been sticking with ever since. As far as what I was listening to, it was Mumford and Sons on repeat, pretty much.
RCM:Oh – so you actually starting writing your own stuff at that point? And, Mumford and Sons is rad, by the way. Love them.
SS: Yeah, that was my coping mechanism. And – I know, right? Afton and I went to see them in concert while we were dating. BEST. CONCERT. EVER. (beams)
But yes, writing down what I was feeling became how I would figure out what I was feeling. I’d tried my hand at writing songs before, and they all sucked. But what was coming out of this really difficult experience was actually pretty beautiful.
RCM:Wow – like, God was turning a nightmare situation into something that was beautiful and could glorify Him?
SS: Probably. I wasn’t writing lyrics that were explicitly Christian, but there was definitely a desire in me to communicate hope and beauty with the words.
RCM:Maybe you were clinging to the hope that something beautiful was gonna come out of this whole painful process in the end.
SS: That’s it! I wanted to look back on it and not remember how awful it was, but how much Afton and I have changed for the better since then.
RCM:Well, again, praise God, and you’re even a Dad, too! Congrats, man!
SS: Thank you!
RCM:But … whatever shall become of those songs? I heard a rumor that you’re doing something, like, BIG with them.
SS:(laughs) Well, over the summer, I felt really compelled to record the songs I had written. And almost as if to confirm that I should, some friends of mine who are amazing musicians jumped on board to help make it happen.
RCM:That is so cool! Did it almost feel like a Holy Spirit thing? I mean, with everyone being on board so quickly?
SS: It really did, and I sort of asked God to let me know if now was a good time. On paper, it really doesn’t seem like it, but everything falling into place so quickly seemed to me to be a pretty clear sign.
RCM:As a busy person with lots of distractions, I love it when the signs are clear. Love it. So, when do you begin recording, or have you already?
SS: Not yet; we have to raise some money first. We wanted to do this thing right, so we’re going to a legit studio in Fairhope, Alabama, and we’re going to have everything professionally mixed and mastered. The total cost is going to be about $7,000.
RCM:Aha. Yes. It does take money, doesn’t it? (laughs)
SS: Yup; that’s the catch. We started a crowdfunding campaign to help, though. And it seems like a lot of people want to help.
RCM: Very cool! Maybe you can tell our readers about some of the incentives – and do you have a deadline? What’s the website? Man – I am just full of questions – I am excited for this album!
SS: Okay – if you go to kickstarter.com and search for Sylvester Band it’s the first thing that come up. The incentives range from a digital single to stickers to a copy of the finished album to a house concert; it just depends on how much you want to donate. And the campaign is only going until October 1st, so we have to raise the full 7K before then, or else the project gets halted for awhile.
RCM: Ooh! So people need to get on it, then, yeah?
SS: Please! I’ve been bombarding social media all week asking for folks to share the link to the Kickstarter [campaign]. That’s what will really help us, getting the word out. And, of course, prayers! Those help!
RCM:Awesome! What do you think listeners have to look forward to? How would you describe Sylvester Band’s sound?
SS: Well, I think we have a message of truth and beauty that is not explicitly Christian, so we have the potential to reach a much broader audience than just Christian music listeners, although I’m sure everyone will enjoy our sound. We’re a mix of roots rock, bluegrass, folk, and 60’s R & B, plus some blues influence. We actually have a demo up on soundcloud that is a hint of what we sound like. You can check it out here: https://soundcloud.com/sylvesterbandofficial
RCM:Okay, when the record is done, what are the plans? A concert? A tour? World domination?
SS: World domination, but don’t blow our cover!
RCM:Crud. Sorry! (laughing)
SS:(Laughs) We’re planning some local concerts for now. If we suddenly explode into popularity, then we will definitely tour the parts of the U.S. where folks want us to come. One of the potential extra things we will do if we raise more than our 7K goal is to do a release party here in Fairhope.
RCM: That sounds like fun. For those who don’t know, where, exactly, is Fairhope?
SS: It’s nearly the southernmost part of Alabama, on the Eastern side of Mobile Bay. My whole family lives there.
SS: The main thing is that we will make the EP available on formats like iTunes and Spotify so everybody can hear us. We really want everybody to hear us!
RCM: Well, I think everybody should hear you, too, for what it’s worth.
SS: Thank you! I really appreciate that. I hope people decide to support us both because they like the message and they dig the music
RCM:Amen. Music with a message. I like it. Will folks be able to dance to it? Or play spoons to the beat? (laughs)
SS: Ha! Well, we’ve got some variety. It’s about half dance songs and half folky, bluesy numbers. It’s definitely like nothing anyone’s heard before.
RCM:Let’s get everybody over to the Kickstarter to make this puppy happen!
SS: Let’s do it!
RCM:Thank you so much for your time, Stephen, and for what you’re doing to build up the Kingdom of God. Blessings to you and your family!
SS: And thank you for interviewing me, Heather! It was a pleasure talking to you, and may God bless your family as well.
THE ESSENTIAL STEPHEN SYLVESTER
Occupation: Youth Minister / Sylvester Band frontman.
Favorite Color: Green.
Favorite Sports Team: Crimson Tide football – RTR, baby!
What is your quest? To seek the Holy Grail.
What are you listening to right now? Right now, Gungor. It’s kind of spacey for my taste, but I enjoy it. Wait, did you mean right this second?
Like, what is on your ipod? Ooh. Well I dig this band called Jamestown Revival. They’re modern poets, and great performers to boot
What’s your favorite dessert? Single Malt Scotch. Just kidding, just kidding. Butter Pecan Ice Cream.
Is that Blue Bell or something else? There is only one ice cream brand worth my time, and that’s Blue Bell.
What’s the best part about being from / living in the South? The food! The food is better here than anywhere else I’ve lived or visited, in my opinion. My wife is an amazing cook!
What was the last good movie you saw? The Railway Man with Colin Firth. [It] made me cry.
If you could see any performer, past or present, LIVE, who would it be and why? Guns ‘n’ Roses original lineup. They were the last stadium-filling American rock band, and it would be amazing.
Wow! Didn’t see that coming.(Laughs) I have a reaaalllly wide range of musical tastes.
Best way to relax? Playing my guitar at the beach with a cold one and good friends.
And, finally, who’s your go-to Saint when times get tough? St. John Vianney. He’s my confirmation saint and was a huge part of my spiritual formation when I was a teenager.
Confession: I haven’t always lived the shiniest life ever. As Freddie Mercury so emphatically sang, ” … and bad mistakes/I’ve made a few.” Or five hundred.
But since my reversion process began, with many starts and pauses along the way, I’ve really tried to walk as a child of the light, and part of that walk, for me, means taking care of myself by not smoking, not drinking to excess, not using illicit drugs, and staying true to my marriage vows.
Am I perfect? Excuse me while I go laugh myself completely off the page. No. I am absolutely not perfect. Just ask my husband and my children. But I keep trying. And trying. And trying. Ad nauseum. My Mom used to tell me growing up that saints keep trying while sinners give up. Well, I haven’t completely given up yet. I surely have a long way to go, but I hope it’s a shorter climb than it was when I was living as a agnostic hedonist 20 years ago.
And there are plenty of temptations, even as a mostly clean-living person. That used to surprise me: “I’m doing the right things! I love Jesus! I pray! I go to Mass every Sunday! I go to Confession! Why am I still being tempted?!” After some prayerful reflection, however, the ongoing temptations made so much sense: Of course I’m being tempted. Usually the enemy will try to get you where he’s gotten you before, and if you aren’t vigilant, BOOM! You’re taken completely off-guard by temptation that you thought you’d conquered years (or months or days) ago. The enemy of our souls doesn’t want us in the game of life at all, and especially not a life surrendered to Jesus, so he’ll use whatever he possibly can to take us out of the game.
Usually any desire I have to backslide is eventually trumped by my desire for Heaven.
Except. I still struggle. For several years now – maybe even for most of my life – the devil has been doing whatever he can to keep me out of the game using something that we all need to survive: food.
It’s not like there’s something morally wrong with food, as can be argued with other addictions. If someone handed me a bottle of vodka, I could graciously decline by saying, “No thanks, I’m cool.” I don’t NEED alcohol to survive, although after long days with lotsa kids, it surely can feel like it! 😉 But with food, man, it’s hard. We need food to survive. Granted, do I need mint M&Ms and pork rinds and chocolate cake to survive? No. But the stuff that nourishes always seems to be right next to the stuff that doesn’t on the buffet table. And so I take some. And eat it. And then I want more, so I eat more. And then I feel badly. So I eat more again. And on and on it goes.
Not only do I have a hard time with self-control and food choices, I really don’t care for exercise. Like, I hate it. That’s not a good combination. After five pregnancies in nine years, I think I probably could stand to lose about 75 pounds. The extra weight I carry contributes to feelings of depression, anxiety, fatigue, worthlessness … so many things. And yet, I continue to struggle.
For some reason, I especially struggle with keeping sugar at bay. It’s like my kryptonite or something. Seemingly, a pattern was established from early childhood: I remember the neighbor girl taking me across the street to buy sweets at the corner store. I remember using my garage sale money to buy ungodly amounts of candy. I remember my grandmother greeting me with a box of Red Vines whenever we’d visit. I remember going out for ice cream after each band concert, piano recital, play performance …
Last summer, I really and honestly rallied to make a permanent lifestyle change. After the cloud of post-partum depression from my fifth pregnancy finally lifted, I decided I was tired of being a food zombie, mindlessly eating whatever, whenever, and joined a national weight loss program. I lost weight. I stuck to my guns and lost more. I felt really, really good about my progress. Then we were hit by a cloud of stress including a surprising cross-country move and some other really tough things, and the weight started creeping – and then leaping – back on. I tried to go to meetings, but my previous resolve seemed so very far away and outside my ability.
I don’t know if my attachment to food – specifically to sugar – could be classified as an addiction, but maybe? I sometimes feel powerless to its allure. I have all the resolve in the world … until I don’t. I feel empowered … until I don’t. I exercise amazing self-control … until something like this happens on the day I have a Mother’s helper and am supposed to be working on 5,000 words for my end-of-the-month deadline:
And then I want to drink all the sugary coffee drinks in the world to make myself feel better.
Yet … I only feel better for a tiny window of space and time, and then … I don’t. I feel awful. I’ve fallen. Again. It makes me feel so dumb and helpless. I’m a smart person! I love Jesus! I have overcome so. many. things! Why can’t I overcome this??!
I spoke with my Spiritual Director about self-control the other day. It was interesting, because as I lamented how I frequently don’t feel like I have the power within me to say,”no,” he sagely suggested: “Perhaps, Heather, you need to do this for someone other than yourself.” What he was suggesting was that I offer up my cravings and self-discipline in food choices and exercise as a sacrificial prayer for other people, causes, and intentions. He was encouraging me, in essence to nail my temptation to the Cross.
Bottom line? Perhaps, dear readers, it is time for me to pick up my cross and try yet again. Will you please, please pray for me? I would very much like to know how I may pray for you as I’m on this journey. Maybe you’re struggling with something that’s really tough for you, too, and just don’t know how you’re going to overcome it. Maybe you just need to know that you’re not alone. Feel free to be specific or just say “special intention” in the comments. Thank you, thank you, thank you! <3
Oh, and by the way – yes, I did buy that gorgeously blended coffee drink (above) today. But it is sugar-free, half-caffeinated, with non-fat milk. Baby steps, y’all.
It’s most definitely almost summer in Oregon, and Mother Nature is just plain showing off. It’s days like these that just make me praise the Lord!! Perhaps it’s my Franciscan background. Annnnyway – here’s some stuff I want to share with you this week. Yes, indeed-y.
1. Hey! They haven’t kicked us off the air yet! LISTEN to yet another new episode of The Visitation Project THIS SUNDAY on the all-new Mater Dei Radio at 7:30 p.m. PST. I still can’t even believe I have a weekly radio show. But it’s true. If you missed any episodes from previous Sundays, please catch up with the #TVPCrew via podcast here! Also … are you following #TVPRadio on Twitter? Instagram? You should be. Please do. We miss you when you aren’t around. 🙂
2. There’s still time to register for the upcoming Summer hotness that is Catholic Women Rejoice featuring Jennifer Fulwiler of Conversion Diary + the Edel Gathering, Catholic Evangelist Kelly Wahlquist, and yours truly. Seriously – this is a no-brainer, West Coast ladies (and Idaho/Nevada/Montana gals, too!). For less than the cost of dinner and a movie, you will enjoy a FABULOUSLY refreshing and inspiring time with other Catholic women. And I hear Edel is on hiatus 2016, so if you want to get your party on with Jen, register today. Seriously. You will thank me. I promise.
3. Lots of interesting things happening around the web these days. Here’s the best article on the web right now (IMHO) about the Caitlyn/Bruce Jenner situation. Written by Jenny Uebbing, it’s compassionate, smart, and 100% Catholic. Read on, friend. Oh, and speaking of brilliant, this week Simcha Fisher reminded me (yet again) why I love reading her articles with this piece at the National Catholic Register about why Church teaching will not – indeed, cannot – change. “Humanae Vitae. BOOM,” she writes. Boomshakalaka. The other thing you need to know about is the #WhyIRemainCatholic project … please check it out and participate when you can. I really, really want to. I am trying to come up with all the words right now.
4. I know this is, like, light years away in internet time, but I just recorded my first Building Bridges podcast with the unstoppably amazing Jenna Guizar (Blessed is She Guru, all around Queen of Awesome) and the indefatigable sassafrass Cristina Trinidad (Faithfully Social, etc. etc.). They were a blast to chat with, and I look forward to when my episode airs … in 2017. Just kidding. July 20, 2015.
5. What else have I been up to? Oh – my latest article on Keeping the Spirit of the Visitation Alive was over at CatholicMom.com (check), RealCatholicMom was fabulously featured over at Catholic Sistas (check), I submitted my first article for Ignitum Today (not published yet, but check), I submitted my first for New Evangelizers (also not published yet, but check), and am working on my first article for LovesChoice.com (an adoption site), and my second article for Catholic365 (here’s my first). And I haven’t even mentioned the other podcast I need to submit to – STAT! before they “unannounce” my affiliation (gak!) – and the 5,000 words that are due at the end of the month … Woof. like I said: summer’s almost here, and the living is BIZZZZZY.
7. And now, without further ado, the cutest picture I took this week. Where we live, spring can be confusing. It was 88 degrees this day, but the next it was in the high 50s and rainy. Some may call my son silly – I call him a prudent prophet.
Linking up with the super cool Kelly at This Ain’t the Lyceum. I would challenge her to a dance-off, but I’d totally lose.