I met Pastor Jim Palmer in the fall of 2015 when I was performing and speaking at a revival taking place at Eastside Baptist Church in Sumter, South Carolina. Some twenty years earlier, Pastor Jim had been the pastor at Eastside, but was now pastoring a church in the Summerville area. I was immediately attracted to his character, as well as his smile that seemed to fill his face from ear to ear. When he spoke, he spoke of grace. A grace that our world would never understand, but a grace that would change us all. As he spoke of God’s gift of grace, I had to remind myself to exhale. I had experienced the grace he was speaking of and knew the power it had to heal wounds that no man could touch.
At the conclusion of the service, Pastor Jim asked if I would be interested in bringing my harp and the message and stories of The Sounds of Grace to his church, Miles Road Baptist Church. Little did I know just how God would use the “yes” that I gave to him that evening in a small church on Boulevard Street.
It would only be a week or so before I received a follow up call from Pastor Jim. He described the upcoming event as an evening similar to a Gaither Homecoming. A Gaither Homecoming? I pretended to know what he was referencing and engaged myself more into the conversation. The event would take place the first weekend of December and we concluded our conversation after he informed me that Keith, the church’s music director, would be in touch with me soon. So far, this seemed to fall in line with every other church event that I frequently book. However, once I searched for “Gaither Homecoming”, things changed.
I had heard my husband and parents speak about their affection for the Gaither’s, but to be honest, I never shared in that same affection. If you are in the same place as me, you need to understand that the Gaither Homecoming celebrations began back in the early 1990’s and were birthed by Bill Gaither with the idea of bringing well known gospel singers, comedians and instrumentalists together for a tour that would entertain thousands and bring them closer to Christ. The performances are uplifting and exciting with amazing lineups of the best artists in the business. But, in my research, I never once saw a harpist amongst the lineup of performing artists. With the absence of harpists amongst the other Christian performers on tour with the Gaither’s, I wasn’t sure what Pastor Jim had in mind for my part in his event at Miles Road Baptist.
Keith Wilson, music director at Miles Road Baptist, called a couple of days after I spoke with Pastor Jim to set up all of the much needed details. From the moment I began my conversation with Keith over the telephone that morning, I knew that this congregation was special. He spoke with such enthusiasm when describing the December event. He informed me that the “lineup” was fantastic and that I was going to love sharing the stage with the other performers who were coming in from Nashville and North Carolina. Meanwhile, I’m thinking to myself, “You guys have the wrong girl!” How was I to fit in with this crew?
The accommodations that Keith offered for the weekend were amazing and the compensation was only what musicians, such as myself, find in their dreams. Who are these people and what can I possibly bring to such a lively event? Nonetheless, I agreed to everything he asked of me and began my preparations to perform and share The Sounds of Grace with Miles Road Baptist Church and their Christmas Homecoming Celebration.
The months passed quickly and before I knew it, I found myself traveling down to Summerville for the weekend in preparation for a wonderful performance. You know, I have to be honest, as I am remembering that trip, I find myself pausing and just smiling and shaking my head at the plans God had already orchestrated and how I was unaware of it all. The first page of this chapter in my story was being revealed and I was clinging to every word written by the hand of God himself.
I wish I could have seen the look on my face after I met the other performers. Their acts were big. Big, ya’ll! In fact, Walls and pews trembled with the affects coming through their sound equipment. Yes, their equipment. You know, the equipment that accompanies big names in their RV’s with their picture on the sides? Well, maybe they weren’t that big. But, that was the feeling that was growing from deep within my core.
You have to believe me when I tell you these performers were so big that when they walked up onto the stage excitement followed. Their sound was full. Their personalities were large. This was not their first rodeo. In fact, the comedian in the line up had actually performed on a few of the Gaither Homecoming Tours! Dear sweet, Jesus…help me take my first step on this stage in front of me.
My first set came and went without any hesitation and the congregation jumped to their feet in applause. To their feet, y’all. What was happening? My sound was soft. My stories were somewhat somber with a little humor sprinkled around. I used a simple microphone and I did not have the first backup track. Jesus helped me take my first step onto that stage, but He didn’t leave me there. He stayed. And, the congregation at Miles Road Baptist Church saw Him within the stories that I shared from the hospital rooms and felt His grace resonating from my harp as I played simple melodies. The members of Miles Road were no longer strangers to the ministry of The Sounds of Grace.
Each set following was met with just as much enthusiasm from the congregation as the first and the looks on their faces told me that they wanted to hear more of how God was working through this harp of mine. I wish I could have had just one more set to share, but the evening did have to come to a close. What a blessing it was to have been invited to share in an event where I wasn’t even sure how I was going to fit in the lineup.
My relationship with Miles Road had only just begun that weekend in December of 2015. And, here I am again, shaking my head with a smile on my face, in awe of the master plan of God.
Miles Road Baptist Church is an extremely mission oriented church and it should have been no surprise to me when I received a large donation to The Sounds of Grace from their congregation only days after returning home from Summerville. Never before had I received such financial support from a church. And, The Sounds of Grace doesn’t even minister in their area. The donation was accompanied with these words, “Keep doing God’s work, Kipper.” A gift of grace. God’s grace.
June 2016, I receive a call from Pastor Jim and this time, I can’t wait to say “yes” to another invitation to perform on the lineup for their Homecoming Celebration. But, this time there would only be one other outside performer and he would be coming from Mississippi. This time, I would have one more set to be able to share as many stories and songs as I possibly could with the congregation. December could not come fast enough. I felt like an honorary member of their congregation after just one visit. This time, I truly felt a part of the “homecoming.”
The weekend finally arrived and there I was, back on the front pew at Miles Road with my harp on the stage waiting to be played. Jason Runnels was the other performer joining me in the lineup. We would both share one or two numbers during the morning services and would then return for the big event that same evening. The morning services went well, and then we were taken out to lunch by Keith, his wife, and their children.
Jason, who towered over me by at least a foot and a half, sat beside me at the dinner table and began questioning me about The Sounds of Grace. He was most curious to learn what I needed most in my ministry. So, I hemmed and hawed around, and then I eventually let loose that I was in need of a new pedal harp.
“Well, what do people say when you let them know of your need?”
Let them know? I just can’t tell people I need there help in purchasing a new pedal harp. I tried to raise money for a smaller lever harp, but couldn’t really get any further than enough money for new strings.
“Kipper, you have to let God’s people know what you need, or they will never know how to help.”
Right. That’s it. Just tell them I need a new pedal harp. That would be anywhere between $15,000 and $25,000. All I could think was that they sure do things differently in Mississippi.
The evening came and Jason and I were ready to perform. The church choir opened up the celebration with such enthusiasm you couldn’t help but want to jump up and shout out the name of Jesus. Jason sang a couple of songs and when he opened up and belted out some of his best notes, I promise you that the floor rumbled. I performed a few harp selections and shared one of my favorite stories with the congregation of how I came to play the harp. This, of course, led into my grandfather gifting me with my harp, which led into how I had worn this harp out with The Sounds of Grace. The choir performs, Jason brings the house down, and I play, sing, and share another story. You see how this works, now? The choir sings a few comical selections, and then I go up to perform my final selections and share my final story. I couldn’t wait to share this one since it took place in Charleston at the Medical University of South Carolina, which isn’t too far from the church.
I shared the story. The story left my mouth and penetrated the hearts of this congregation and they stood up, with hands raised, and gave God the glory. The story. No music, no song, no fancy glissandos from the harp. The story brought them to their feet and they praised the One who worked through the strings of my harp. I returned to my seat with so much adoration for the God who picked up my broken pieces and anointed me with this new work. His work. I could barely lift my head.
Jason returns to the stage.
“I think you all like this little lady. I sure do, too, but I am a little disappointed in her right now. I thought for sure she would have shared this need with you all, but I guess I am gonna have to do it for her. Church, she needs a new harp. So, I am gonna take this to the Lord and ask for it. There will be a box in the back of the church, and if you feel led to help, please do so. All donations are tax deductible through her organization. Church, show some love on the way out the door.”
Y’all! They did! Like nothing I had ever seen before. Checks, cash, change, cards, smiles, prayers, business cards, you name it, they came my way. Donations began to roll onto the website before I had loaded the harp into the car that night. And, after receiving another check from the church only three days later, I now had an offering that totaled almost $10,000. Not because I shared the need, but because someone shared it on my behalf. A gift of grace. God’s grace.
Like a kid heading to the candy store, I was preparing to head to the Atlanta Harp Center and make a hefty down payment on a harp that I had been researching that would cost close to $18,000. I felt confident that the Lord would provide the rest over the next couple of years, since even more financial gifts had trickled in over Christmas. Gifts from former students, gifts from family and friends, gifts from complete strangers. However, before I could plan the date to travel, I received a text message from a dear friend asking how much I would need to purchase the harp in full. Truly, I was thinking she was just curious and would join me in prayer asking for God to help provide the remainder in time. But, no.
She and her husband provided the remainder. All of it, y’all. I had no idea how to thank her. It was too much. How does one except all of this abundance of goodness. The only way I can describe it would be to remind you of how it feels to receive true grace from God. Uncommon grace. A grace that this world would not understand and would tell us is wrong. I didn’t deserve His grace and I didn’t deserve this new harp.
The cross tells me something different. The cross tells me I am more precious than gold. The cross tells me that I was made to thrive. How can I tell my Jesus no to a gift as precious as grace?
So, a new harp was gifted. Grace is her name and I picked her up from the Atlanta Harp Center three weeks later and she has been hard at work ever since.
God knew what this chapter would be all about long before I met Pastor Jim and ages before there was a ministry that would be named The Sounds of Grace.