Singing Minister Preaches Freedom
Inside a 117-year-old Gothic Revival church in the shadow of Philadelphia City Hall, nearly 70 of the faithful gather for the Sunday afternoon service of the Broad Street Ministry. The congregants sit on folding chairs set up on three sides of the makeshift altar, behind which looms a towering, riotous rainbow of stained glass. They are young and old, black and white, teenagers in high school sweatshirts, pensioners leaning on canes, all united under the banner of the ministry’s mission statement: “We transform our city, our institutions, and ourselves when we embrace the individual needs of our most vulnerable sisters and brothers.” A line at the top of the three-page program proclaims: “You belong here no matter what.”
John Francis Maher, MDiv ’17, most certainly belongs here. Dressed in blue jeans, short-sleeve black shirt, waist-length black leather jacket, motorcycle boots, and acoustic guitar, Maher leads the five-piece band assembled behind the altar. A medallion of Saint Christopher hangs around his neck, and a small silver earring sits snugly in his left lobe. Halfway through the service, Maher sings, solo, his song “Walking in Babylon.”
Ravaged masses drum the beat
A long parade of deferred dreams
If you can’t breathe, I can’t breathe
I hear Elvis sing the war crime blues
Blood spilled on his blue suede shoes
Angels quake in their fives and dimes
Another brother layin’ in a chalk outline
Maher’s presence in this setting seems a fairly perfect rendering of his past and future lives—that of the itinerant folk-country-soul singer and award-winning songwriter, the outspoken advocate for social justice, who perambulated across the United States and Europe for 13 years, and that of the aspiring minister, just a year removed from Princeton Theological Seminary and just two months from his ordination as an Episcopal deacon. As a musician, Maher has always viewed his work as ministerial, and as a minister his work seems destined to be flavored by his music. “From the stage I made an invitation toward beauty and empathy and justice and dignity and humanity,” Maher says, “but what I was really after, what I’m still after now, is to invite people to participate with the author of those things in their own lives and in the world around them.”
John Francis Maher III—for professional purposes, he’s taken to using O’Mara, a Gaelic spelling of his last name—was born in Harlem in 1977 and grew up as a pastor’s kid. His father, the Rev. John Maher, is the vicar at St. Francis Episcopal Church near Richmond, Virginia. His mother, Carol, raised a Catholic, was ordained as a Pentecostal minister and today works as a counselor and trainer for clergy in the Diocese of Virginia. (This spring Maher earned a second master’s degree, in sacred theology, from General Theological Seminary, in New York City, his father’s alma mater.) Maher’s earliest memories are of him participating in his father’s services. “So, I got the inside scoop,” he says. “The interesting thing, and I’m certain it holds true for a lot of pastors’ kids, is that you kind of have a dual consciousness, in the sense that we’re forever insiders but we’re also outsiders. We know a lot about the way the church works on a very personal level, and therefore can tend to develop a healthy level of ambivalence-slash-critique.”
But Maher says his perspective on church life never created conflict with his parents. So, he wasn’t rebelling?
“Oh, definitely rebelling,” he says, laughing, “and I did it really well. And I still do. I do it all day. I think, because of the creativity of my parents, and that being the nature, the texture, of their faith … there’s a tendency toward being prophetic, which means always kind of ahead of the curve of what the church mainstream is doing.”
Maher recalls the case of the Philadelphia Eleven—the first women to be ordained in the Episcopal Church, in 1974, and the 2003 ordination of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, the first openly gay priest to be named a bishop in a major Christian denomination. “Those sorts of things are very important for me,” Maher says, “because for me they speak to the nature of who Christ is, creating newness and creating life in places that had become stagnant—also creating spectacles of justice and hospitality in places that are otherwise indifferent.”
Although Maher says many family members were “cultural Catholics,” he’s distanced himself from the Catholic church. “I believe the Sacraments are for every baptized Christian, and that the call to the priesthood comes from God to men and women alike,” he says. “I cannot fully participate in a Church that does not allow everyone to fully participate.”
After graduating from Messiah College in Pennsylvania with a literature degree, Maher decided to “give music a go.” He lived first in Philadelphia, then Nashville, but he spent most of his time on the road, performing as many as 250 concerts a year. In Europe he toured frequently in England, Germany, Switzerland, and Ireland, his family’s ancestral home. He returned to Ireland almost annually, sometimes hitchhiking to gigs. “Twenty years ago, three cars would pull up and fight over who gets to give you a ride,” he says. “If you’re carrying a guitar around Ireland, it’s basically you saying to everyone, ‘I dare you to ask me to sing a song.’”
David Black, ’18 MDiv/MA, one of Maher’s best friends at Princeton Theological Seminary, traces Maher’s fealty to Ireland to the country’s long history under British rule. “He has kind of an ancestral memory of that oppression,” Black says. “I think it guides his values, makes him feel a solidarity with people all around him who are oppressed.”
Those values have informed Maher’s lyrics, and with impressive results: He’s received two major songwriting awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. In 2006 he received the Sammy Cahn Award, given to a promising lyricist, for “Love Came to Me Dressed in Red.” Four years later, Maher (using the name John Francis) recorded his second album, “The Better Angels,” at the home studio of Johnny and June Carter Cash in Hendersonville, Tennessee (their son, John Carter Cash, was the producer). The album, released on the Dualtone Music Group label, includes “Who?” a lamentation of lost ideals for which Maher received the Jay Gorney Award for socially conscious lyrics:
Who took the power out of power to the people?
Who took the sting out of Cassius Clay?
Who took the difference between good and evil?
Who took united from the USA?
“Was it you? Or was it me?” Maher asks in the refrain. “I can’t say. Was it everyone who looked the other way?”
In a glowing review of “The Better Angels,” Sojourners Magazine wrote: “When the opening song on a disc is titled ‘The Way the Empire Fell,’ it’s a good bet you’re listening to a singer-songwriter unafraid to show that he’s steeped in the history of American protest music. On ‘The Better Angels,’ John Francis has no qualms about announcing his intentions.”
Maher was deservedly proud of “The Better Angels.” Yet although it received national and international radio play and broadened his fan base, its failure to elevate his career left him feeling disillusioned. He’d been on the road since college, mostly performing solo, and was starting to feel, as he says, “hungry for a community of faith.” In 2014 he enrolled in Princeton Theological Seminary to pursue a Master of Divinity. He took with him his commitment to social justice. And his guitar. “I was excited about doing it,” Maher says. “I love to practice theology. That’s where my head is most of the time, anyway.”
He studied liberation theology with Mark Lewis Taylor and Yolanda Pierce (now the dean of the Howard University School of Divinity) and took courses with Cleophus LaRue in Preaching in the African American Tradition and Sermons from the Civil Rights Movement. LaRue became impressed not only with Maher’s musical talents but with his preaching skills. “You could tell he was preaching from informed insight,” LaRue says, “but he made an effort to put it where people could get it.”
Maher was the rare white student to join the Association of Black Seminarians (ABS). As part of the group, he and others took part in an ABS–led march through Princeton to protest the non-indictment of the New York City police officer responsible in the choking death of a Staten Island man, Eric Garner, who was approached by officers for allegedly selling cigarettes. “It’s not an intellectual or an ideological alignment,” Maher says of his fidelity to the black seminarians. “It’s much more personal. That feeling of outrage or pathos or deep identification with other people suffering in pain—I would say that’s the Holy Spirit.”
When LaRue arranged for 50 students to visit the newly opened Museum of African American History and Culture, Maher brought his guitar, strumming and singing on the bus ride to Washington, D.C. Another day LaRue invited Maher to his home for dinner, suggesting he bring his guitar. (“I was being selfish,” LaRue jokes.) With the professor on piano, the two collaborated in an impromptu gospel jam. “What I’m hoping he will do,” LaRue says, “is bring his music and theology together in some kind of way in his ministry going forward.”
That much is practically ordained. In August, when Maher became the associate rector of missional outreach at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Westfield, New Jersey, he fully expected to carry on the inextricable link between his music and his ministry. “Whether I’m going to be on the altar or on the stage or at the pulpit, my goals would be to create things that are beautiful,” Maher says. “That doesn’t mean I can’t talk about the darkness and ugliness and pain and brutality that people experience all the time all over the world. In fact, it means the opposite: I must sing about those things.”