Heartsong More Than a Memory—A Ministry Legacy

1 Comment » Written on May 13th, 2009     
Filed under: News
By Gustav Skogens

CHICAGO, IL (May 18, 2009) – The paths to professional ministry have been different for Bruce Helgeson, Heidi Wiebe, Paul Lessard, and Rick Carlson—some have been more winding than others. But they all share one thing in common—all began with Covenant Heartsong.

Throughout the 1980s, the performance group—a one-year, volunteer ministry—traveled across the United States. Through music, drama, and puppetry, they spread God’s word at Covenant churches from Minnesota to Texas, and California to Maine. More than 100 individuals served in teams of eight to 10 people over the lifespan of the group.

“I ran from God’s call to ministry for many years because I saw it as being too risky for the lifestyle I desired,” says Bruce Helgeson, drummer for the 1987-88 team. “But the Heartsong adventure changed me because the Lord used it to transform my life and how I viewed ministry.”

Helgeson’s is not the only life the Heartsong experience changed. Heidi Wiebe joined the 1984-85 team as a singer. At the time, she attended graduate school in Boston, but didn’t know what to do with her life.

“I was emotionally fragile from my time in Boston, and Heartsong made me discover what God really wanted me to do,” she remembers. “It pushed me into ministry.”

Lessard played bass and guitar in the 1980-81 and 1981-82 lineups. Early on, he wanted to go into ministry, and Heartsong provided a perfect outlet for his passion to bring God to people.

“It planted the seed for professional ministry,” Lessard says.

Helgeson, Wiebe, and Lessard came to Heartsong in different ways. Helgeson’s teacher at Covenant Bible College recommended him; Wiebe sent in audition tapes; and Paul’s girlfriend at the time, Rebecca, saw the first Heartsong team perform in Bemidji, Minnesota, and put in a good word for him. (The two married following his second Heartsong stint).

“I ran from God’s call to ministry for many years because I saw it as being too risky for the lifestyle I desired.”

However, they all have one man to thank for the opportunity—Rick Carlson.

After graduating from Seattle Pacific University in 1978 with a music education degree, Carlson declined an immediate job offer. “It wasn’t what God wanted me to do,” he recalls.

Instead, he dreamed of starting a traveling music and drama group and sent a letter to David Noreen, then executive secretary of Christian Education.

Known for (according to Rick) being a “visionary kind of guy,” David jumped onboard the project, and 22-year-old Rick moved to Chicago. Equipped with youthful enthusiasm, “I started writing music like crazy,” he says.

Carlson thought, “If God is calling, let’s see where it goes.” He also wrote scripts for Heartsong’s two other components, drama and puppetry.

Noreen did most of the fundraising for the needed sound equipment, puppets, and traveling expenses.

In 1979 following 10 months of preparation, including a nationwide audition tour and a month of rehearsals, Heartsong was born. The first team of 10 people crammed into a single van and hit the road.

After initial skepticism from some churches, Heartsong grew in popularity steadily. Eventually, “They were really excited for us to come,” Rick remembers. Heartsong became more established over the years and had no problem booking engagements.

The teams stayed for up to a week at each church. They performed for youth and children, in nursing homes and did outreach concerts. Usually, congregation members accommodated the groups in their homes.

“During my two years, I probably slept in 150 different homes,” Lessard says.

“The best thing was getting to know people we lived with,” Helgeson says. “It created bonds for life and was extremely rewarding.”

Living and traveling so closely with a group of people for such a long time taught them useful skills for ministry work. “Looking back, Heartsong taught me how to interact, read, and understand people,” Lessard says.

Wiebe agrees, adding, “I learned a lot about myself and inter-personal communication.” She describes Heartsong as a unique, wonderful and self-affirming experience. “I was forced to be very upfront with myself and my faith.”

The performances also gave the teams laughs and memories for life. Bruce remembers a particularly crazy skit at a children’s home in Cromwell, Connecticut, in which he played a rebellious teenager—his team members, Lynn Black and Craig Pinley, portrayed his parents.

”I acted like a goofball and jumped around all over the stage,” Bruce says. Getting disoriented, he slipped off the stage and severely sprained his ankle, which is especially tough if you’re the group’s drummer.

“I was literally crying at the drum set, almost dying,” he says, laughing at the memory.

The last Heartsong team toured in 1988. The ministry was extremely hard to sustain financially, and it also was a good time to move on, Carlson says.

Lessard, however, was sad to see the ministry go. “It provided a vehicle for young adults who, like I did, felt an immediate call to go into ministry.”

He adds that one of the biggest challenges for the denomination is to give those young adults a new opportunity.

After traveling with Heartsong, none of the four went straight into professional ministry. Before attending Bethel Seminary, Carlson pursued his education as a music writer for television and film in Los Angeles. Simultaneously, though, he kept working with Heartsong, writing songs and scripts and training every team.

Heartsong was a good starting point, he says, to hear God’s call and follow through on a dream. Carlson is a well-known musician in the denomination and has 23 songs in The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, including “Be Still,” “Trust in the Lord with All Your Heart,” and “Where Justice Rolls Down,” which he co-wrote with Bob Stromberg and Michael Pearce Donley. For the past 11 years, he served as pastor at Roseville Covenant Church, Minnesota. He recently left the church to pursue other goals.

Following two years on tour with Heartsong, Lessard continued working with Carlson on scriptwriting, recording, and training Heartsong teams. He recently ended more than 20 years of ministry in the Covenant, including as executive vice-president and acting president of Covenant Bible College International. He now works as regional director at Colorado Christian University.

Helgeson earned a degree in mortuary science from the University of Minnesota and then a teaching degree at Utah State University. At the Roseau Covenant Church in Roseau, Minnesota, he also helped lead youth ministry and became an associate pastor in 2000.

“I tried to stay away from ministry, but opportunities kept presenting themselves,” says Helgeson, who now attends North Park Theological Seminary.

Following Heartsong, Wiebe moved to New Mexico and worked outside a church setting for three years. Sensing the call to ministry, she graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. She began her pastoral ministry at Grandview Covenant Church in northwest Iowa in 1992. Last year, she concluded her term as president of the Covenant Ministerium.

She currently is the senior pastor at Brookwood Covenant Church in Topeka, Kansas. She muses about how events can be connected.

While going through a storage room at the church, she found a forgotten poster advertising her Heartsong group’s performance at Brookwood more than 20 years earlier.

(Editor’s note: Gustav Skogens is a North Park University student completing an internship with the Department of Communication.)

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One Response to “Heartsong More Than a Memory—A Ministry Legacy”

Our church hosted Bruce’s group! I was a junior in high school and I remember it as an amazing week! I made a committment to fully accept Jesus that week and they were all so supportive of me. Another member of the group (Dan) bought me my first Bible and all the members of the group wrote me a personal message in it and I still use it. I had a cassette of their songs, which I’ve been looking for for several years, but can’t find. To this day, I still have some of their music just pop into my head at random times, which is why I was searching them today and found this article! I’m sure this endeavor touched more lives than anyone will ever know! God bless them all!

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