To have experienced Roger’s musical talent, is to have had your mascara run the length of your cheeks, to have had to scoop up your dropped jaw from the floor, to have had to make room for the Holy Spirit who heard the first note and just had to come have a listen.
“I can tell you the moment I fell in love with music.” Roger tells me about being ten and hearing a recording of Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance at his sister’s elementary school graduation. “I came home, dusted off an old keyboard that no one knew how to use, sat down and played that graduation march I’d heard earlier that day. That was a spiritual transference of information right there.”
Plagued by Rheumatoid Arthritis as a young kid, Roger found himself out of school, and at home, a lot. PBS became his lifeline, a portal out of an isolating ailment. “I learned kindness from Mr. Rogers and how to paint from Bob Ross. I remember the first time I saw Riverdance and every time I heard the Boston Pop Symphony.” A life on the stage — he wanted it.
Middle school was a bit of a mixed bag for Roger. Revealing his sexual orientation resulted in a hefty dose of bullying. He lost the feeling of love, lost the feeling of God. But, what Roger could not find in something outside of himself, he was able to find within – the magic seemed to be in the music.
In the sixth grade he joined the school band as a drummer, but soon had established a side hustle. Secretly saving his lunch money, Roger would pay his peers fives bucks in exchange for borrowing their instrument for a week. This went on until he was fluent in thirteen instruments. By the seventh grade, Roger was All State Percussionist and by the eighth grade he had become the youngest person ever to attend Brevard Music Center as a student – a big win for him, his family, and his small hometown.
At Brevard, Roger was making music alongside Timothy Adams, Pittsburgh Symphony Principal Timpanist and the esteemed Mezzo-Soprano, Frederica von Stade. He was conducting ninety piece orchestras, being recognized as a John Philip Sousa Scholar, and had a lot of people asking –What is going on here? “I wasn’t even understanding what was going on,” Roger tells me. “But it was in that lack of understanding that I started thinking this could only be a thing coming from God.”
The thing for Roger – and maybe this is just an artist’s unique timing – is that as he came to know God, he also got himself familiar with drugs and alcohol. “The rush I was chasing on stage became the rush I was looking for in other places.” Although Roger was recognizing the gift of his talent, he was also feeling his ceiling. He started watching what his idols did to knock down their walls to creativity. A lot of them used substances.
Roger made it to Asheville and into the music program at Mars Hill. Immediately, he fell into composing and started a band called Street Grits. But, Roger’s academic and musical goals soon took a back seat to alcohol and heroin. He dropped out of school, fell into depression and began experiencing the effects of unaddressed trauma and mental illness.
“Since college, my experience has been homelessness. I went to the Rescue Mission because I just thought that’s where everybody goes. I’d always heard about Haywood Street, but I couldn’t figure out this place.” Roger picks up one of those Cracker Barrel wooden peg games that’s sitting on the table between us. One of the pegs is significantly taller than the rest. Roger points to all of the smaller pegs. “I’d look over there and see a lot of movement, but I’d wonder—What are they all moving around?” He puts his finger on the tall peg. “Now I get it. Everyone’s over here moving around Jesus.”
“Today my diagnosis is Schizoeffective Disorder. I have been hospitalized over 30 times since the age of 22. But, that does not define who I am. Those [hospitalizations] were all just stepping stones. Neil Dobbins has saved my life a number of times, but this is my first time at Respite. And it’s funny, because people keep saying, ‘How did you get in there?’… ‘It’s so hard’. All I know is something worked out for me.”
“So you’re wondering how the Respite has changed me? The staff; how they’re creating this level playing field. It’s like we’re all playing Quidditch, but everyone is winning. I didn’t realize it could be done that way.”
Roger goes on, “I believe it is from Respite that one can get stronger. I believe it is from Respite that one can be noticed. Respite realized who I was and brought it out. All I had to do was surrender to the process. My story of homelessness tells the story of brokenness, but it also tells the story of a church I could attend with that brokenness. This church is some real come as you are stuff. And that’s a church I can serve. And that is a God I can serve. And this is a Respite I can serve. I have a vision of personal healing. I have a vision of leadership – leading a youth choir, leading the homeless into music. People say, ‘You’re crazy, Roger.’ But you know what? Sometimes you just gotta be – to do the things I’ve done. To do the things I want to do.”
Roger shifts to a place of reflection. “I look at musicians who are striving for the top and I think—you’re aspiring to be the best, but are you ready to accept that the best will take a part of you with it?” Music has been my mental illness and my mental health. My praise is the product of pain, but praise be – because how can you know joy without it?”
“I feel like I’m on the cusp of greatness,” Brook. “Not because of the prospect of fame—I’ve never been interested in that. I feel I’m on the cusp of greatness because I’m on the cusp of experiencing true relationship.”
I tell Roger he’s in the right place. And he has a very neat brain. I tell him he is loved. And I am happy he is here. These are painfully simple statements. But truth is painfully simple.
When reading Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, I relate more to the burning temple than the exiles. And I wonder if Roger might too. As a creative, you learn about fire — how to get close without being consumed. You learn when to temper it, and when it’s time to let the whole city burn. So you can start over. So you can plant seeds in a wasteland and remember how little life requires to live. Sometimes, the temple just needs to come down, and with it, any illusion that creativity, God, or heaven on earth were ever confined to a place outside of our selves.