Jonathan and Terry Little of Plattsmouth, Neb., form the Catholic music and evangelization ministry team With the Spirit. The father and son released their first joint album, “Journey of Faith,” this year. In addition to playing what they call “Catholic contemporary music” to audiences across the country, they give inspirational talks and witness about their faith. The Littles recently spoke with Register features correspondent Tim Drake.
Drake: Both of you are self-taught musicians. How did each of you get your start in music?
Terry: I grew up in a musical family. My grandfather played a penny whistle in a vaudeville band in England, and my mother always had music playing in our house. As a result I absorbed a lot of good taste in music. During the 1960s I was influenced by the Beatles, folk rock and Bob Dylan. After my conversion to Catholicism in 1971, I took an interest in sharing my talents with congregations. I began to learn and play the songs of Joe Wise, Sebastian Temple, the St. Louis Jesuits and other Catholic musicians. After a powerful Cursillo experience in 1979, I decided to put these talents to use even further by writing songs.
Jonathan: I took piano lessons for three months when I was 8 years old, but didn't have the tolerance for it. The next time I picked up an instrument was as a senior in high school in 1994. It would have been logical for me to take guitar lessons from my father. He challenged me to learn it the same way he had, by sitting with a guitar and listening to the strings. My yearlong experience with the youth outreach group RADIX shaped my stage appearance.
Terry: Jonathan's first live performance was at his high school graduation commencement exercises. He played “Teach Your Children.” That song is a good witness between a parent and a child and it has become one of our staple songs.
What do you enjoy most about your music?
Terry: God has given us the talent to entertain and minister through our music. The best feedback I ever received was after singing at a coffeehouse in Germany. I had been playing plain folk music and in between songs a woman came up to me, pointed at me, and said, “You're a Christian, aren't you?” My songs were not Christian; I had been a witness simply in the way I conducted myself and played my music.
Jonathan: Our music is a tool that helps people open up to us. Recently, at a concert in South Dakota, there were a lot of kids who at first were really closed to us. For the first 20 minutes we hit them with some fun music and got them involved. After that, we shared with them.
Terry: When Jonathan was little he used to come into my music class, sit on my lap, and ask me to sing the old Peter, Paul and Mary song “The Marvelous Toy.” The kids today still love the music of the ‘50s and ‘60s. For example, at the South Dakota concert we used “Help” by the Beatles as a means to tell kids that there is always someone out there that they can speak to.
What is your message?
Jonathan: We let the kids know that just as there is good secular music there is also a lot of music that is dangerous to the soul. We try to impress upon them to pay attention to what they watch and listen to. If it would be offensive to Jesus, we tell them, or if you couldn't listen to it with the Blessed Mother, then it isn't something worth listening to.
Terry: Christ affects every moment of our lives. It is through our music that we witness to this. Most of our songs are about Christ's love in our lives and the lives of other people. We also use our music to teach about the sacraments, confession and the Eucharist. We'll go into a parish on a weekend, sing for three Masses, and do a presentation for a high school youth group or family audience. At a recent all-day retreat in an Iowa parish a mother told us how her daughter had gone to confession for the first time in five years after one of our talks.
Terry, how did you come into the Church?
Terry: I was christened a Methodist, attended the Church of England, at age 10 I attended a Baptist Church, and our Boy Scout troops were sponsored by Presbyterians and Mormons.
I entered the Air Force with no religious preference. After meeting Mary, my wife-to-be, she invited me to attend a Catholic church with her on the first Sunday we were together.
What captured me, as we sat in the back, were the people going forward to receive Communion. I thought that the host signified Jesus, but it wasn't until I asked Mary the question, “What are people doing when they go forward?” that I discovered that the Eucharist was the true body and blood of Jesus.
This sparked my interest in learning more about the faith.
I took instruction from a Catholic chaplain and in February of 1971, I made my profession of faith. Mary once asked if I converted because of her. I told her, “No, I converted because I needed it.” After nine years of being Catholic, I took part in a Cursillo weekend. On this weekend I felt that the Spirit was calling me to do something deeper with my life. Since then I have used my gift of music to minister to myself and others. It sets me sky-high!
What motivated you to form With the Spirit?
Jonathan: My time with RADIX inspired me with the same fire that Cursillo had done for my dad. Realizing how many broken families there are in the U.S. sparked the fire for us to do this together. We realized there was a void and we took a leap to fill it. When we go out, it is a father and his son going out together.
Terry: I had been a solo act for many years and had been a part of a trio or quartet, but my music was not a ministry. Mary, my wife, encouraged me, saying, “You have the potential to do something.” And so, our first performance together was a 90-minute concert for our local parish youth summer camp in 1997. We've always had a good chemistry together. There is a lot of father-son humor and patter that goes back and forth. We have been called the “liturgical Smothers Brothers.”
Who writes the songs?
Terry: It's definitely a LennonMcCartney kind of thing. One of us will write a song and the other might say, “Let's see if this counter melody will work,” or “Let's add some harmony,” or “Let's change this word.”
Jonathan: We definitely write them together. One of us has an idea and the other one finishes it off. On “Savior of Souls,” for example, I had the song and the words. Dad added the tambourine and the harmony. It's a lot like my relationship with my wife. She completes me. It is part of our relationship that says we need each other.
What has singing together done for your relationship with one another?
Jonathan: Like any relationship it is something we have to work on. I look forward to jumping in the Jeep and traveling together. Everyone is called to use their gifts. Ours is music. All we need to evangelize is our guitars and our voices. It's a blast!
Terry: Every father-and-son relationship has a wide gap and a narrow gap. When a youngster is growing up as a teen-ager, sometimes they go their own radical ways. A parent becomes much wiser as a child grows out of his teen-age years. With the Spirit has brought us closer together as a father and son. There has been both laughter and tears.
Jonathan, you and your wife, Trish, miscarried your first child, Maximillian, in August. How has that loss affected your music?
Jonathan: The first month or two after the loss of Maximillian, I felt afraid to go out and minister. There are so many harms done against innocent children and my child never even saw the light of day. I felt that if I were to give a pro-life talk I would come off with anger instead of love. Through the loss I've come to realize that life is too short, and this has encouraged me all the more to go out. I know that eventually the loss will be expressed in my music, but it is still too recent.
Terry: When Jonathan and Trish lost their baby it was hard on the whole family. It was hard for us to stand behind our children and see them grieving the loss of a child. We had six children and had never lost a child. So their loss is something we couldn't experience. We are encouraged that we have a young angel in heaven we can look up to. He got there before we did. Hopefully, we can use our life experiences to save souls.
Lincoln, Neb., Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz is featured in one of the songs on your CD. How did that come about?
Terry: I was a parish delegate to the 1996 Lincoln, Neb., diocesan synod conducted by Bishop Bruskewitz. As I listened to the proceedings I started writing things down and realized that what was being said could be put into prose about our faith journey.
The day before the conclusion of the synod I shared my poem with one of the facilitators in charge of the proceedings. I was fortunate to be able to share the music with the group as part of the closing session.
I had listened to a recording of Bishop Bruskewitz's episcopal ordination and found this quote that was an exact fit into an instrumental inter-lude I had in the recorded version of the song.
Bishop Bruskewitz gave us his permission and blessing and told us he was honored to be on the recording. The song talks about our journey of faith leading up to and into the new millennium. It speaks about our faith as one body of Christ and how we are all in it together. As such, it is a fitting last song for our album.
What do you do when you're not singing?
Jonathan: A longtime friend and I are owners of Tri-Web Development, a computer Web design and consulting business in Lincoln, Neb. I am the director of marketing. In spite of this work, I've never turned down the opportunity to do a [music] presentation — and never will.
Terry: I've been retired from the Air Force for 10 years. I am currently a man with two parishes in two states. I serve as the director of liturgical music at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Plattsmouth, Neb., and as music coordinator for Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Glenwood, Iowa. I also teach guitar out of my home studio.
What's next for With the Spirit?
Terry: The “Journey of Faith” album was all original music. By request, the next album may feature more of other people's music, such as “Teach Your Children” and “Holy Ground.”
Jonathan: We'll be guests on EWTN's “Life on the Rock” Jan. 20. We're excited about the opportunity and the exposure that will give us.
Tim Drake (email@example.com) writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.
For more information on With the Spirit, bookings, or to order their album, visit their Web site at http://www.withthespirit.com or call (402) 296-6099.