First Published by SGM Radio in November 2008
Life with Jimmy McMillan
By Lorraine Walker
Jimmy McMillan, lead singer extraordinaire, has a diverse resume with names such as George Amon Webster and the Heartland Boys, The Wilburns, and the legendary Toney Brothers. Two years ago, Jimmy felt the call to leave the comfort of the established group life and strike out with his own new trio. McMillan and Life was born, and Jimmy along with his wife Liz and Josh Arnett began to make a new mark in Southern Gospel. SGM Radio recently had the privilege to chat with Jimmy about McMillan and Life and his personal life experiences.
“My wife was singing with The Lesters and I was singing with the Toney Brothers,” Jimmy shares. “The Toney Brothers were her cousins and they introduced us. That was a big mistake on their part because not long after that we were married and we decided it was time for us to start a ministry of our own. It has been incredible and God has really blessed.”
“We have a brand new project out, called ‘No Storm Wasted’”, says Jimmy. “The idea for the title came from a song on the album, ‘Don’t Let This Storm Go To Waste’, a great song by Gina Vera and Twila LaBarre. When we pick songs to record, we ask God for songs that tell what the heart-cry of our ministry is. Across the board, all of the tunes on this recording do that. The whole CD is a message of a God of second chances, a God Who will hold your hand, and a God Who will pick you up and carry you when things just get too tough.”
“My absolute favorite song on the album is probably the most Southern Gospel song on the album, called, ‘I’m Gonna Reach Heaven’. It’s a song I sang years ago when I filled in with Ernie Dawson and Heirline. It will be our next radio release, hitting the air the first week of January.”
McMillan and Life exhibit this musical versatility in their latest CD, and this has attracted a variety of fans. Most artists eventually find their ‘niche audience’, the group of repeat listeners that are drawn to their style of music. Some might define their fan base by age or denomination. Jimmy has a different way of describing the people that are drawn to the ministry of McMillan and Life.
“The vast majority of the people we see in our audience are hurting people,” Jimmy explains. “The heart of our ministry is that God is a God of second chances. We share so many personal things about how He picks you up when you are down. I do the majority of the MC work, and I share several stories. Almost every night I talk about my battle with depression and there is not a night that goes by that I don’t council with at least four or five – sometimes ten – people. It’s a side of the church that is very much covered up and for a long time has been looked down upon. It is not recognized for what it is: an illness, like cancer or diabetes or heart disease or anything else.”
Jimmy continues, “I don’t think that the church has looked at it as a disease, where God can say, ‘Take up your bed and walk’, or He can say, ‘Go to a doctor’, or ‘Go to a Pastor’, or He can lead you to a friend or a family member or whatever the case may be. He may have any one of a hundred different ways that He has to help you through that. Like any other disease, it doesn’t need to go untreated.”
“Overall in the Church, depression has been treated as something that you are to be ashamed of having to deal with,” Jimmy says. “We are just very honest about that in concert. When people come up to me afterward, I’ve been amazed at the things God has given me to tell them. So many times, what He’s given me to tell them is something that He has given me to tell myself.”
Jimmy has faced personal and family battles with mental illness for several years. He shares, “Eleven years ago, I got a call on a Saturday morning that my Dad had committed suicide. He was a manic-depressive and I’d never had any compassion for his illness, or any understanding of it. I was almost heartless about it. A lot of times I would tell him, ‘You know, if you would just pray more, seek the Lord more, if you would just…’ this or that.”
“When my Dad died, everything that I’d been taught told me that he did not go to Heaven. I called a friend of mine that was a Chaplain in the U.S. Senate, who had been a friend of the family’s for years. I said, ‘You know, it breaks my heart that after all the years Dad spent serving the Lord, that he is now in Hell’. The Chaplain said, ‘What are you talking about?’ That’s the first time that I began to understand a little bit about what Dad had been going through. This gentleman said, ‘You know, your Dad had a disease and the Lord knew his heart’.”
Jimmy continues, “Six weeks after the final memorial service for my father, I crashed into a very deep depression. I went on medication and I went to counseling and kind of ebbed my way back out of it. Over the next ten years I suffered three more major depressions. The fourth one came about two months after McMillan and Life started, right when everything was what I’d always wanted. I was singing with my wife, we had a great ministry; we were doing what we loved to do the most for the One that we loved the most. What else could anyone ask for? And there I was again, cycling into depression.”
“I praise God because this time, for the first time, they diagnosed this as ‘clinical depression’ and they worked on balancing my medication. The doctors have gotten me to where life is pretty good. But through all of this, I have come to a more compassionate place and a greater understanding of how desperately the Church as a whole needs to reach out to people that are suffering with this disease. The Church shouldn’t react as I did with my Dad, ‘If you would just try harder, if you would just do this or that’. That is not the truth and not the way of God.”
How should the Body of Christ treat those who are dealing with mental illness? “The Church should be reaching out in love,” says Jimmy. “There are so many things that God can do through an ‘I love you’, or through ‘Can I help you?’ or through so many other things that we can do as believers.”
Jimmy shares his journey toward health. “I went through secular counseling. It didn’t do a whole lot of good. I used medication for a period of time. The next two times that I cycled down into depression, I just went to the doctor and said, ‘Look, I’ve dealt with this before and I need you to give me something’. Sometimes it worked and sometimes they had to try something else.”
“This last time, God sent me to Life Care Services out of Nashville, Tennessee. They were amazing. In my situation, it wasn’t so much a matter of needing counseling, it was a matter of needing chemical balancing. Life Care has been fantastic, very caring, understanding and available. If I call and say I’m having a problem with this medication or I don’t like the way I’m responding to it, they will work with me to find a good balance.” Open and transparent, Jimmy has a desire to help others by telling his story, so that more people will seek the help they need.
“I share all of this in concert as well because I want people in the body of Christ to know that there is nothing to be ashamed of,” says Jimmy. “I want people who are not suffering from this illness to stop, look and listen, and reach out. Don’t judge, don’t look at yourself any more highly than anybody else. If someone does share their sorrow and pain with you, have an open mind and an open heart to try to help as much as you can.”
There is research that suggests that some mental illness has genetic links. However, even though Jimmy’s Dad suffered from manic-depression, Jimmy says that genetics are not a factor in his own battle with mental illness. “My father that committed suicide was my adoptive father, so it is not genetic for me. Mental illness is genetic to some degree, however, especially in his family. His mother and possibly two of his sisters suffered with it. Dad’s mother suffered severely with it all of her life. I have a cousin who also suffers with manic-depression. I see signs of it with some of my other relatives. I say that from the bottom of my heart, because although I see the signs, I know they have not gone for help. This could be perhaps from social or religious views, that it is too embarrassing or humiliating, or maybe it’s too scary of a step to take.”
“It is a very scary step to take, to admit that you need help in that area.” Jimmy continues, “But I can say from the bottom of my heart that it can change your life too. I take three little pills a day and believe me, it doesn’t make all the problems go away, but it makes me able to deal with things on a level basis. I’m not saying I don’t have ups and downs, but praise God, He directed me to a place where I could get help to deal with it on somewhat of a decent level.”
Jimmy’s personal struggles have enabled him to connect with many who are hurting and God has used him to share His love with those who are in need. “In my situation, I am talking about a chemical depression, battling a mental illness that you can deal with using medication. In a lot of other situations where people come and talk to me, they are battling with depression or other difficulties, because of things that have happened to them. I almost call it a ‘circumstantial illness’ because the things are that going on their lives are causing them not to function properly.”
“People share with me a lot of different things,” Jimmy continues. “They ask for prayer and often I feel they share perhaps too much because these things are so personal. But sometimes, who else do they have to talk to? If God has put me there at that appointed time, then I know that He is going to give me the right words, the right heart, sometimes even the right smile or the right look for that person that they can’t get anywhere else. Sometimes they just haven’t felt free enough to share with anyone else.”
“When I first went back into depression a year ago this past June, I asked God, ‘Why now? Why, when everything is so great?’ He reminded me then and there, that with all the time I have sung on stage, with the Heartland Boys, Wilburns, Toney Brothers – I would just stand there. When it was my turn to sing, I would just step up and sing and step back. Somebody else always did the MC work. When we started this group, I looked at my wife and I said, ‘Honey, what am I going to do? I’m not a talker. I’m not the person to share, to lead the service’. She said, ‘Just tell them what God lays on your heart’.”
“I tried this for the first couple of months and it never seemed to click, never seemed like I was getting my point across. The words didn’t seem right, like I wasn’t talking about what God really wanted me to talk about. I couldn’t figure out why. Then, when I was laying there in the depths of depression, asking God why I was facing this, it was almost like I heard Him verbally say, ‘Have you forgotten what I brought you from, what I’ve brought you through and where I’ve brought you to? If I have to remind you, I will. Remember this and this is what you are to share with people’.”
“Ever since that day, I’ve never had a problem sharing or knowing what to say. Maybe I just needed to be brought low enough to open up and say to God, ‘Okay, You speak through me, I’m not going to try to speak for myself.’ However it was that He chose to make that change in me, He made that change at that point in time. Now I’m accused of being a preacher!”
“I’ve had people tell me for years that I was going to be a preacher. This is back when I never spoke. I would look at them and think, ‘Really? Because I don’t ever speak, what makes you think I’m going to be a preacher?’ I’ve had people tell me, it’s not a matter of what I think, it is a matter of what God’s told me. I thought those people were crazy. Now I think, ‘I need to call them and get another word from the Lord!’
In the short term, McMillan and Life are looking at another recording soon. Josh Arnett has only been with the group since April, and Jimmy feels that they have molded cohesively in that time. He would like to see the bonding grow stronger and the ministry grow as one unit. “God just seems to be dropping things in our lap lately and laying blessings on us,” Jimmy shares.
“For the vast majority of what we do, I see ourselves as a church or perhaps conference ministry. I’m not sure what all we might do.” Jimmy continues, “ We will continue to be a ministry that interacts with people. If we are in a big concert venue, we won’t share as much because there isn’t the time to do it. But we have the time to do it in a local church or in a smaller venue. That also gives people the opportunity to talk to us and for us to be able to do whatever we can do to be the vessel that I believe God wants the church to be, to help someone to heal. I like to do the big venues, but I see the desperate need for what we are doing in a church setting, or retreat, or conference.”
On a personal note, the Lord has been speaking to Jimmy about the very thing he was avoiding for so long. “In the last two or three weeks, I’ve begun to believe that at some point in the future, I am called to ‘minister in word’, as well as in song. I don’t want to say preach! I’m really beginning to see that there is that side of what I need to do ministry-wise.”
Taking a deep breath, Jimmy continues, “It’s exciting, but it’s scary; just ask anyone who is a preacher or a minister and they will tell you that. With everything that our ministry is about, I can see that we could be so much more effective being able to stay at one church for two or three days or maybe even a week. Not necessarily leading what may be referred to as a ‘revival’, but a ministry session. Just being able to spend the time with people. So many nights I almost feel ripped apart when it is time to tear down the sound system or its time to leave.”
“I’m torn because there are still people sitting there, wanting and needing to talk, wanting advice or direction, or just comfort. And I don’t get the ability to do that because I have to leave. When it’s time to leave, there is nothing I can do about that. I would love to be more in a setting where we could share for longer periods of time.”
Whatever chapter is next in the journey of McMillan and Life, it appears as though the Lord is leading them into higher heights of ministry. As Jimmy and his team reach out to the hurting, God is helping them to ‘…preach good tidings to the poor; heal the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound’. That will surely bring abundant life to the audience of McMillan and Life!
For more information, click on to http://www.mcmillanandlife.com
McMillan and Life are also appearing at The Breakfast Club this month
For current features on Christian artists, click on to http://www.sgmradio.com/