Started long before the global pandemic, Thomas Johnson’s long-neglected composition found new life and added meaning during COVID-19 outbreak. The resulting music mirrors this time of world-wide chaos and offers hope for the future.
Johnson, a master of music in church music student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, began working on his major composition about a year ago. But long before the pandemic changed his world, Johnson had pushed the piece aside.
Called to music ministry as a teenager, Johnson studied music at Truett McConnell University. Before following God’s call to New Orleans, Johnson completed a bachelor of arts degree in music and a master of arts degree in theology. During that time, Johnson was called to his first position in ministry. First, Johnson served as music minister and youth pastor at Baldwin Baptist Church in Baldwin, Ga. Later he served as the church’s interim pastor just before moving to NOBTS in 2018.
“I have always had a longing in my heart to be a songwriter,” Johnson said. “Studying theology helped my lyrics become much, much better, but I knew God wanted me to develop my musicianship. God used that to call me and my wife to NOBTS.”
In addition to being a student, Johnson currently serves as minister of administration at Grace Community Church in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans. The church is a North American Mission Board church plant and is part of the Mosaic Church Network. His wife, Abby, is also a student at NOBTS, working on a master of arts in counseling degree.
Started as the center-piece of his upcoming master’s recital, Johnson began working on “A Walk through City Park” with Jason Waggoner. Waggoner, an adjunct professor at NOBTS at the time, challenged him to write something unique that Johnson himself would be passionate about. Though Johnson and Abby had not lived in New Orleans long, they had already developed a love for City Park. The beautiful sprawling park is an oasis of nature in the city less than five miles from the seminary campus.
Johnson wanted to evoke the idea of a walk through the park. The composition started with a peaceful section (‘A’ section) that came together rather quickly for Johnson.
“I wanted to write the ‘B’ section as if a storm came through,” Johnson said. “In New Orleans we have some crazy storms from time to time, so I wanted to capture this idea of a storm coming on you as you are on a walk.”
As other class projects and finals pressed in on Johnson, he never got to the second section. The piece was put on hold. Later, Waggoner left the seminary to pursue resort ministry. “A Walk through City Park,” remained on the shelf as Johnson worked on other compositions with another professor – Ed Steele.
Early this semester, Johnson hoped to give the composition another try and received encouragement from Steele. Still, Johnson found it difficult to complete – until COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were issued. But it wasn’t because Johnson had extra time on his hands. COVID-19 made his life much busier.
With so many churches struggling to stream worship services, Johnson’s personal business, Centered Audio, was suddenly in demand. During the first week of the outbreak, Johnson helped 12 churches develop live streaming plans for their churches. Additional requests followed.
“It became a really intense season. I started falling behind in classes,” Johnson said. “It was a turbulent time, as it was for everyone.”
In the middle of this struggle and busyness, Johnson returned to his composition. Writing music became therapeutic during this time of global uncertainty.
“I was at the point in the song that I needed to write about the storm,” Johnson said. “It came very naturally.”
As Johnson wrote music designed to emulate the sound of a physical storm in City Park, he realized he was expressing his emotions related to COVID-19. The storm in his piece reflected the current “storm” in his life.
“A Walk through City Park” includes a sonata rondo form – a movement that returns to a modified version earlier sections. The sonata rondo or recapitulation draws from the peaceful ‘A’ section and is reminiscent of it, but it includes some elements of the stormy ‘B’ section. Johnson immediately saw a correlation with COVID-19.
“Things are going to settle down and there is hope that things will go back to some kind of normal,” Johnson said. “But the world has changed and will never be exactly like it was before COVID-19. And that’s okay.”
“Some of the most beautiful things will come from seeing the results of that ‘storm’ in a different light,” he said. “As we look back on this time, we are going to see all the ways that God brought the church and believers back to a focus on what’s important.”
Johnson sees evidence of a shift in focus in the longing of church members to regather for corporate worship and in the ways families are spending time together. He believes that God will bring beauty out of the COVID-19 chaos.