Love and loss are the two most common themes in music. Song after song laments finding love only to lose love. But for the band Eleven22, the loss is not only of love, but also of a life; the life of a fifteen-year-old girl, who became the central inspiration of their sophomore album “The Reason.”
Frontman Ben Williams had the desire to begin a new album, “I felt like I really connected with the Lord through the last [album] and so in the Spring I was kind of searching for some language and searching for some hope because I really didn’t have any inspiration.” As the worship pastor of Beach United Methodist in Florida, Ben also has the opportunity to do hospital visitations. In 2010 Williams and his Senior Pastor visited McKenzie Wilson one Sunday in early August, only days after she was diagnosed with a rare brain disease. Ben explains, “She died on August 17th, which was a Tuesday, and shortly after that we planned her funeral and her memorial. Fifty-two people gave their lives to the Lord at the memorial.” During the memorial planning, McKenzie’s father gave Ben her bible, while reflecting on her life Ben explained, “I realized that this girl did not have it all together, but she really was trying to honor God with her life even at fifteen years old. It was like the inspiration [for the album] just started coming.”
Many of the songs that Ben wrote were inspired by words that McKenzie had written in her bible, in journals or through the journey that her family and friends faced with her loss. The song “I Belong to You” came from a line written on the side of her bible. “She really sparked the creative energy and the initial energy to really just start going deeper.” McKenzie’s bible contained thoughts like “I found a love greater, none can compare,” “I’d leverage it all for the sake of the kingdom” and “My heart is yours.” These phrases inspired choruses, themes and entire songs on the album. One statement that really caught Williams’ attention was about how McKenzie desperately wanted to follow God, but she was afraid of losing her friends. “I thought that was really honest,” exclaims Ben.
Williams contemplated her writings and her story while reflecting on his own life. “It’s the first time I realized how fragile life is and just how much sustenance Christ has. He really shines bright when people just reveal their pain to him. It’s amazing to watch how God responds when people just take their pain to him, their brokenness. I’ve been honored to see that. That’s really strengthened my walk because I got to see him at work,” explains William.
The inspiration for the title track “The Reason” came from the strength of McKenzie’s family. The bridge is “really the climax of the song where it says ‘when I go and I tell You that I’m angry, I tell You that I think You’re wrong.” It’s hard to grasp why God would allow death to come to a fifteen year old, so it became critical for Eleven22 to “communicate through worship that it’s ok to go to God with that stuff, He turns that into love.” Williams wanted to spotlight that “it’s ok to not be ok, it’s just not ok to stay there.” Ben says, “[God] wants us to have a very honest conversation with Him and pray these prayers because they’re authentic and not fake. He’s approachable that way,” states Williams. With death comes sorrow, questions and frustration, but for the community impacted by McKenzie’s death, worship became the primary response. “Our community’s grieving – and the only way we thought would honor God – was to turn that [pain] into worship and take it to the Lord.” When Eleven22 and McKenzie’s family and friends took their brokenness to God it allowed Him to move them toward a greater love after the loss.
I think all that Christ’s asking us to do is take our eyes off ourselves and start serving other people and let the God that’s inside of us be translated to other people.
The Wilson family found healing through living out the life that McKenzie started to live. “They didn’t respond with coldness, they responded with humility and honor to serve the poor,” Williams affirms. The response from her friends was similar, “They just picked up where she left off.” Williams explains, “They did it in small things.” The family started the McKenzie Noelle Foundation (www.caregivegrow.org) where they build orphanages and support kids throughout the world. Many of McKenzie’s friends tutor underprivileged kids, raise money for the foundation and become active in the community through various avenues. “I think all that Christ’s asking us to do is take our eyes off ourselves and start serving other people and let the God that’s inside of us be translated to other people. He’s not asking us to go out and be some kind of person that we might not be. I think we can have influence in the very small details [and that’s the] things McKenzie was about,” says Williams. “I’m kind of on a personal mission to… challenge people to be the hands and feet of Jesus. And really take the gospel around the world and let’s get this thing done. I really think that it’s kind of my mission to change the view of worship. How do I take this heartbeat and just keep going? That’s my world,” states Williams. 100% of the proceeds from the album go toward building orphanages through McKenzie’s foundation. “If I can build like a handful of orphanages I think that’s a start for me,” says Williams who desires for the band’s musical outreach to not only make an impact in the hearts who hear the music but also intend for change to be made throughout the world.