I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier: Teri DeSario Heeds The Call
How did Teri DeSario's anti-imperialist message make its way into Contemporary Christian Music?
The eighties were a bit of a tug of war for contemporary Christian music. There was a contingency of artists who were focused on breaking down the barriers that restricted their music to the church and church-related audiences, while others doubled down and focused on making music, in their words, “for the body of Christ.” Amy Grant, obviously, was a forerunner in taking the music outside of the church, with her 1985 release Unguarded achieving unprecedented notoriety and success in the pop world (More on that album here).
Those focused on nurturing audiences within the four walls of the church wrote songs with an unabashedly political bent, blending with the church’s alignment with the Religious Right. While most of the artists wanted the appearance of being more progressive than, say, Jerry Falwell, the notion of progressivism typically didn’t go much further than troubling the establishment with their spandex pants or the distortion of their electric guitars. There was a party line to be towed and, in interviews, most of the artists played the game. Abortion, homosexuality and feminism were all hot topics that artists were quizzed about and their responses (at least the ones that got printed) never ventured outside of what you would expect a Christian (sans Republican) to say.
And then there was Teri DeSario.
In the fall of 1986, while another CCM artist named Morgan Cryar was promoting a single called “Pray in the USA” which predicted the restriction of prayer country-wide, and an anti-abortion single called “Fight the Fight” was starting to fall from the Top 10, Teri DeSario hit the airwaves with a different kind of message.
I don’t wanna be a soldier
Marching off to war
Justified by a man-made cause
All in the name of the Lord
And I won’t carry any banner
Or step out proudly to the drum
Or ravage others when I disagree
Just to win and overcome
All in the name of the Lord
See him in the barrio, in the inner city
Surrounded in an alley way, shot down dead for stealin’ money
See him on the reservation now, drunk on stinging water
Tryin’ hard to drown the memory of his people’s slaughter
See him in the Nazi camps, a child at the gallows
Offered as a sacrifice, her mother stabbed with sorrow
See him in El Salvador, raped and murdered at the roadside
We don’t ever recognize the holy one and so
We kill him again and again and again and again and again
No, I will never a soldier
But I am willing and desire to be
A simple flute made from a hollow reed
Fashioned by the hand of the divine
To pray for all created kind
A haunting universal melody
One that’s ringing out the theme of peace
Though I may be slapped upon the cheek
I pray to love my enemy
All in the name of the Lord
“I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier” did not sit unplayed by Christian radio. It served as the fourth charting single from her late 1985 release, Voices In The Wind. The prior three singles had landed in CCM’s Top 10, establishing her place as a bona fide CCM success. In a world where artists were highly scrutinized and vetted before gaining access to the distribution channels and airwaves, how did an artist with this perspective manage to not only get her album released but achieve success as well? Good question.
Her prior pop career at Casablanca Records (also home to Donna Summer, KISS and Village People) had brought her immediate success in 1978 with the Barry Gibb (of the Bee Gees) produced disco smash, “Ain’t Nothing Gonna Keep Me From You.” She had a second hit with a Barbara Mason remake, “Yes I’m Ready,” recorded with KC (of KC & The Sunshine Band) but personnel changes at the label left her lacking both internal and external support. When her final album for the label, Relationships, was shelved, she made some life changing decisions. “I felt like a piece of meat,” she remembers. “I went to see my managers and said to them, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. For the next two weeks, I often walked the streets in my neighborhood and found myself sitting on a street corner sobbing. I felt I had been inauthentic in my life. I can’t really think of one song in those albums that I could say I had a deep relationship [with]. I was desperate and I didn’t know what to do.” One Sunday, she stumbled into a Foursquare church. “I sat in the very back in the last row because I was embarrassed to be there…and that’s when I experienced a conversion and it was through music.”
Teri remained in the Foursquare church for a year and a half. The denomination, founded by Aimee Semple McPherson in 1923, created a tradition for women in ministry that defied the more patriarchal model of the mainstream church. “The first theological book I read, which would influence my spirituality from then on, was Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels. She wrote of the full empowerment of women in the early church. I happened to have found a church where the women were pretty much in full empowerment. I didn’t hear a lot about women being ‘covered’ by their men and that sort of thing.” Pagels’ writings stood counter to what William Tighe describes as “the orthodox reliance on external authority, revelation, dogma and the sacraments.” Instead, he says, the Gnostic emphasis was on “individual spiritual autonomy and self-sufficiency, a functional equality of community roles, including equality between men and women…and a primacy of individual experience over rules.”
Teri’s musical gift began to re-emerge, but it wasn’t connected to having a career. “Songs began pouring out of me, lyrics. I found a church in Manhattan Beach. I would drive an hour and a half each way to attend church there. Soon, they invited me to lead worship. One thing led to another. I’ve often said that when I entered into Christianity at 31 or so, I entered a mighty stream and I went with the flow and the flow was unobstructed.” Shortly thereafter, Teri met executives from the Word Records office in Los Angeles and became a staff songwriter, introducing her to the world of Contemporary Christian Music.
Teri’s beginnings in CCM occurred during a period of time when a number of other mainstream artists who had also embraced Christianity and began either recording or performing within the Christian market. Donna Summer, Bob Dylan, Barbara Mandrell, Maria Muldaur, Deniece Williams, Joe English (of Paul McCartney’s Wings), Bonnie Bramlett, Leon Patillo (of Santana), Dan Peek (of America), Philip Bailey (of Earth, Wind & Fire) were just a few of the artists who contributed to the rising profile of CCM to an audience that had never heard of it.
Teri’s first placement, “Run That Race” was on best-selling artist Joni Eareckson’s 1982 sophomore album, Spirit Wings, which would become one of Billboard’s Top Inspirational Albums in 1983. She also won the 1982 Songsearch contest in the Gospel category for her composition, “Jesus Call Your Lambs.” “I was finally writing out of my own strengths. I felt I had been set free and I could have a new beginning. I was more excited about becoming a staff writer than I was about having had a hit record. I was grateful that they loved what I had to say, what I was thinking about and what my heart was experiencing.”
Teri progressed quickly at Word and was offered a recording contract in 1983. She enrolled in seminary, to prepare herself for the path ahead. She was already, however, navigating a path unlike most of her peers within the genre. As she began writing material for the first album, she made a transition out of the Protestant church into the Catholic church. “I didn’t like what I was finding in the evangelical Protestant church as I entered that work more deeply. I was very uncomfortable with much of the theology and I started reading the mystics and theologians like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Simone Weil.” Desario’s move into the Catholic church was also at odds with the evangelical norms. Some even perceived being Catholic within CCM as bearing the same stigma of being gay, pro-choice or politically liberal. “My earliest experiences of the Christ…I experienced firsthand a love that knew no bounds. There was no judgement. There was no law…only an all-encompassing love, and I found that described in The Gnostic Gospels [by] Elaine Pagels. And then slowly, they [the executives] said to me ‘You know, you can’t quite believe that.’ I was already perceived as subversive just by who I am.”
Teri’s first album for Word’s DaySpring imprint, A Call To Us All, managed to be recorded, however, without interference. “The label executives loved it and, truthfully, the people that were working in the Los Angeles office where I was signed were so very receptive to the themes I was taking on and the lyrics I was writing.” Pre-release copies had been sent to radio and the album itself was at the printing plant when DeSario received a call from the vice president of the label, troubled by a letter from someone who had received the album.
“The label’s vice president called and said, ‘You know, we received a letter from a person that listened to the album and they had a scriptural difference with your lyrics.’ I said ‘Really? What was it?’ ‘Well, you know, where you state that we are all the children of God…this person quotes scripture which contradicts you. Scripture says we are not all the children of God. You’re the child of the devil unless you’re a Christian.’ And I said, ‘Well, no. This is also in the Bible.’ We began to kind of debate. He said ‘I take this letter seriously because one letter represents one hundred listeners. I think you might want to consider changing the lyrics.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not changing the lyrics. I stand by these lyrics.’ He said ‘Well, if you don’t change the lyrics, we’re not putting the album out.’ That was the very beginning of my artistry. Out of fear of not seeing my work reach out into the world, I capitulated. I changed the lyrics. That feeling became a cloud which hung over my head for the rest of my Christian career. I had been censored and was now being watched.”
The lyric in question was from the album's title track, a seven minute tour de force that celebrates the range of faith expressions under the umbrella of God. “A Call To Us All” did not see Christianity as a religion superior to other faiths or as the only true faith, but rather as one of many that all hold equal value.
There’s a call to us all to love all humanity
Every race on the face of earth come to unity
Reach a hand to your Hindu sister
And a hand to your Buddhist brother in love
Hold the hands of a Muslim baby
And you’ll see we’re all the children of God
She went back in the studio and modified “your” to “the,” “sister” to “mother,” “brother” to “father” and the last line “we’re all the children of God,” to “we’re all created by God,” but sang her original lyric in live performances in both churches and concert venues.
When DeSario arrived at the Christian Artists Seminar in Estes Park, Colorado that year to showcase the album, executives from the label “put me in a room with three male pastors who ‘interviewed’ me, to discern if I was a heretic. It quickly developed into more of an interrogation than an interview. I don’t think they would have talked to me like that if I’d been a man. I thought to myself, ‘How dare they do that to me? How dare they think they can talk to me and test me in that manner?’ It felt like a witch hunt.”
While some pastors and executives may have had qualms with Teri’s lyrics, Christian press and radio did not. The album landed on both Billboard’s Inspirational LPs chart and Cash Box’s Top 15 Albums chart.Radio stations played “Battleline” and “I Dedicate All My Love to You,” both charting in the Top 10 of CCM’s Adult Contemporary Chart.Audiences were equally as responsive in concert to Teri’s distinct message. “When I would sing ‘A Call to Us All,’ they would jump up, cry and applaud and they wouldn’t sit down. They were not applauding for me…they registered the true message.” The ultra-conservative Charisma Magazine seemed to miss DeSario’s controversial message, deeming the album as “packed with magnificent, moody praise and thanks,” noting the title track, in particular, as “one of the best heard in recent weeks.” They wrote that “it’s easy to return to this album, to listen to the whole thing multiple times in one sitting. There’s a depth that is refreshing.”
Throughout 1984, Teri became an in-demand songwriter, landing tracks on Sheila Walsh’s Triumph in The Air, The Imperials’ Grammy-nominated Let the Wind Blow and the gospel debut for Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey, The Wonders of His Love. She also appeared on label mate Billy Crockett’s album Carrier. In addition to her CCM work, she recorded a non-gospel project, Overnight Success, with Joey Carbone and Richie Zito for Epic’s Japanese division. The title track cracked Billboard’s Top 20 airplay chart in Japan.
As Teri began preparing for her second album for the label, she became more involved in the Catholic church, which she says meant that “I had to start dealing with the idea of a patriarchal institution. I had begun reading about women mystics and about a kind of mysticism that’s open to all people. I found vibrant, progressive models of feminine leadership. I began to meet feminist nuns and alternative priests who were working and living in opposition to church doctrine.”
Voices in the Wind, released in late 1985, was “very influenced by feminism and by feminine spirituality,” she says. “It was during that time that I really became enamored with Hildegard of Bingen.” Bingen was a twelfth century theologian, musician, poet, herbologist, pharmacist, visual artist, playwright and community founder. “If there really is reincarnation, I could imagine I belonged to her order.” She also credits thirteenth century theologian Meister Eckhart and contemporary theologian Matthew Fox as being influential to her process in writing the album.
Radio, once again, enthusiastically supported the album, scoring Teri four chart hits: “Tapestry,” “Celebrate,” “Attitude of Gratitude” and, yes, “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier.” “Tapestry” was the highest charting, peaking at #2 on CCM’s Adult Contemporary chart. Voices surpassed the sales of her DaySpring debut, peaking at #5 on Cash Box’s Top 30 Inspirational Albums chart, just behind establishment favorites Sandi Patty and Carman.
That “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier” would be the last single from the album and the last in her career as a CCM artist has its own irony. The song was born from DeSario’s observations as a traveling artist. It spoke directly to the infiltration of the Religious Right in the establishment church. “I was looking at songs like ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and documenting how much of Christianity is militarized. I began to see how what poses as Christianity is really about gaining power and dominion over others.”
“I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier” was lightyears away from the doctrine being taught in most evangelical churches. By 1985 many churches were knee-deep in spiritual warfare teachings and Dominion Theology, which taught that Christians should be ruling the world, exercising, as Larry Bensky observed in an article in The Nation, “social influence …on domestic issues such as reproductive freedom and gay rights” and “foreign questions such as who should govern Nicaragua, the Philippines and a score of other countries.” Teri remembers, “During my travels, I observed the Religious Right organizing. I would go from church to church and I would increasingly hear more and more political messages portrayed as family values. I would come home and warn my friends, ‘The Religious Right is gathering and they’re going to run the government.’ And they’d say ‘Oh, you’re paranoid.' And that’s exactly what happened.”
Despite being perceived as progressive or liberal by traditionalists, one record executive at A&M Records, told Billboard that “Contemporary gospel falls right in line with the conservative state of the union.” DeSario, however, shattered that perception. Billboard’s Gospel Lectern columnist Bob Darden noted in his May 24, 1986 column that “if Teri DeSario doesn’t sound like the typical evangelical contemporary Christian artist, it’s because she isn’t.” She told him, “I like to write above myself. That way I learn something as well.”
Despite such groundbreaking content that countered much of the theological rhetoric in Contemporary Christian Music, Voices was a resounding success in both retail sales and airplay, not unlike the surprising acceptance her heroine Hildegard had experienced in the eleventh century. Billboard’s review of the album calls Teri “one of the most talented female vocalists on vinyl” and that the songs “show a talent ready to burst wide open.” Contemporary Christian Magazine said that the album “reflects her deepening relationship with the Lord in songs which offer an expanded vision.” The album was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Gospel Performance, Female.
“By this time, I was getting weary. I was so tired of how narrowing the institutional church was—both Protestant and Catholic, in their own ways.” In 1987, she called her label and asked to be released from her contract. She enrolled in a women’s Catholic college, majoring in Women’s Studies. “I went out of Christian music directly into feminism. My faith began to die, so I didn’t trust the interpretations anymore. I didn’t trust the church.”
Her feminist studies also, eventually, led her out of feminism. “In order to remain authentic, I was forced to confront Christianity as a system and, eventually, also, feminism as a system. Finally, I sought to integrate what I learned in feminism and, also, in my faith experience. That’s when I was able to join the two.”
Today, she teaches voice both privately and in educational institutions, performing the range of musical forms she has mastered in a wide spectrum of locations ranging from disco balls to spiritual gatherings. She recorded her first full-length album since 1985 in 2013 when she released a jazz album, Dream Wandering, in collaboration with German guitarist Fred Wulff. Her CCM albums have been out of print since the late eighties and are not available physically or digitally.
Today, she prefers to think of herself as, instead of a seeker, a finder. “Direct experience of the divine,” she says, “is never against anything. It’s always for everything. Our daily lives become important—full of purpose and meaning. Souls are tempered and healed in that kind of light and love. You don’t have to talk about camps in any way…that’s the world I’m waiting and working for…that’s the world I’m hoping to see.”
If there’s a foremother of deconstruction and inclusion in CCM, Teri DeSario should be considered to be it. While those in the mainline of Christianity see ‘deconstruction’ as an abandonment of faith, Teri’s work proves that summation to be false. At the core of her songwriting is a deep, deep faith. What these compositions challenge, question and respond to is the legislating of the gatekeepers, those who attempt to validate or invalidate the faith(s) of others. I raise her here as someone the new generation of deconstuctionists, exvangelicals and seekers can refer back to as a thread of connection to the past—our past—in the church. There were, for certain, glitches in the matrix, people that troubled the monolithic history of sameness that those in power would attempt to convince us is true. Those of us whom history excludes. The ones who never wanted to be soldiers.
When I launched the Have You Ever Heard... ? series, I knew, immediately, that I needed to begin with Teri’s work. I asked my friend, an affirming pastor and spiritual director, Matt Nightingale, to join me, as we both share a long history of studying these albums. To hear more about Teri’s songs and our own stories with them, here’s our conversation!
Author’s note: Quotes from Teri DeSario are taken from a 2016 interview I conducted with her for my undergraduate thesis, “Voices In The Wind: Experiences of Women in Contemporary Christian Music.” That research was supported by the Undergraduate Research Endowed Fellowship, made possible through the generosity of the Clyde ‘28 and Virginia Roosa ‘32 Slocum Fund at the State University of New York, University at Albany.