It doesn't take much convincing this day in age to see that we live in a pretty divided nation. From politics to race to religion, there are many battlefields in our society, with plenty of soldiers lining up behind their viewpoint, ready to fight.
Worship leader Mike Sonderegger looked at the social landscape and his heart was broken. The divide between people was a deep gash in his heart, but rather than despair, he decided to do something about it. Using his musical connections and giftings, he formed a new band dedicated to rallying cries around love, unity and peace.
The mission is right in the name: The Love Your Neighbor Project
. And if you missed it the first time, the band's debut album is called The Love Your Neighbor Project
. And there's even a title track with the name, you guessed it, "Love Your Neighbor."
What does one band's voice hope to contribute to a dialogue that's more about shouting than listening? Sonderegger shares his heart and his hopes.
What is The Love Your Neighbor Project?
We are a more than a band; we are a musical movement that aims to share love, inspire others and bring people together through our music. The Love Your Neighbor Project is made up of a pretty large, diverse group of my friends both new and old.
You formed this group at around one of the most divisive times in our country's history, in November 2016. What did you feel led to do with this music, and how do you feel you can help?
It was heartbreaking to see our country terribly divided. Living in the St. Louis region we were already experiencing divisiveness from the Michael Brown shooting and the verdict of that case. The 2016 election pushed us over the top. I saw friendships end, families torn apart, people antagonizing and bullying people they didn't even know on social media, TV, and radio.
Personally what made it more heartbreaking was to see many Christians contribute to this by putting politics before Jesus. That was and still is very frustrating. That is when I began writing "Love Your Neighbor" and "Love The Ones You Love." When I saw people who were not Christians, who were Christians, Democrats, Republicans, black and white, people of many ethnicities, people of different sexual orientations, respond positively and enthusiastically to these songs based around Jesus's command to "love your neighbor," we realized that we might be able to be part of the solution.
What an awesome name that says what you're all about. How does your music lend itself to this theme of loving your neighbor?
Thank you! I can't take credit for that name. God gave me that name one morning when I was getting ready for work. I jumped out of the shower and shouted "YES! That's it GOD!" I would like to think that our music offers a sound of hope and love that will inspire, make people feel good, challenge us all to see others created and loved by God.
You've got a definite soulful, Southern rock vibe. Who are some artists that have inspired you? Who are some artists that are similar to your sound for people who've never heard you?
I grew up on such a wide variety of music and to this day so many artists and genres inspire me. For some reason the soulful, Southern rock influences played a big part in this album. Some of the influences you might hear are The Black Crowes, Alabama, Johnny Cash, Bob Seger, NEEDTOBREATHE, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Alabama Shakes, Jerry Lee Lewis, Matt Maher, Lady Gaga and Bon Jovi. They definitely inspired me musically, lyrically and conceptually. Many people are saying that our sound is similar to Chris Stapleton, Black Crowes, Zach Williams. I'm definitely cool with that.
Your self-titled project was produced by Third Day's Scotty Wilbanks. How did you get connected with him, and what did he bring to your music?
Oh, I did just what works for everybody else I suppose. I messaged him on Twitter and he responded. How crazy is that?! I sent him some songs and he didn't respond for several days so I thought that he wasn't interested.
After leading worship at church on a Sunday I got a message from Scotty saying he really likes the music that I am writing and wants to talk. I was STOKED! The next day we talked for an hour and hit it off instantly. Similar musical influences, the need for love and unity in our country, in the Church and a desire to make some good music with a purpose.
Scotty brought SO MUCH to this project. We spent a lot of time together in Georgia, along with guitarist and songwriter Brian Bunn--from Decemberadio, Third Day, and the Thomas Rhett Band--co-writing, arranging, and creating music. Scotty put a lot of hard work, heart and soul into this project.
We also had creative freedom with the sound of this album. There was nobody limiting us. We wanted this to be an act of worship to the God that cannot be put in a box. Scotty and I were talking about that a few months ago about how crazy and awesome it was how God brought us all together. I'm thankful for the friendship that we have and for what God did and for what He is doing with what we created.
Describe your live show. How often do you tour, where do you go, what is the experience like?
Whether it is just myself or the full band featuring 6-8 extremely talented friends of mine, the live experience is high energy, it rocks hard, and it's fun. We are there to share love, inspire and bring people together. I love interacting with a crowd, getting them to sing, dance, them getting to know each other. We want to make sure that the audience is the main focus and that they get to know and love their neighbor. Currently we are not on tour but are set for some big summer shows lined up around the St. Louis area. We are also in talks with another artist to support them in the near future.
Assuming this isn't the full-time gig just yet, what do you do outside of the band?
I am the worship director at Metro Community Church in Edwardsville, Illinois. I have served on the worship team since 2010 and joined the staff in November 2012. I also am a dueling piano entertainer who performs shows for fundraisers, corporate events, theatres, weddings, festivals, kids shows--you name it!
What other musical pursuits have you participated in?
I was a full time dueling piano entertainer for 16 years, 1996-2012. During that time I played at Keys Piano Bar St. Louis, Howl At The Moon in San Antonio, Baltimore and Milwaukee, and The Big Bang in St. Louis. In 2008 I played keys for Universal Republic artist Shannon Nicole. In 2009 I performed live on keys for Canadian Blues Artist Anthony Gomes. In 2016 I played the part of L.M. in "Pump Boys and Dinettes" at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Summer Showbiz. And in 2016 I played keys and sang with the legendary country group The Well Hungarians
What do you think it takes to truly have unity in our communities, our churches, our country?
It's pretty simple. For Christians it is to love like Jesus: no conditions, no litmus test, just love. When we choose to love others and kindness we find common ground. That common ground whoever you are on this big planet is that we are all in this together. Start where you are and love spreads like wildfire.
What's next for you guys? How can people be praying?
We are looking for more opportunities to share our music and our message in our community, region, country and world. We have loved the opportunity to team up with others in the community such as Edwardsville Neighbors, a local non-profit that aspires to ease the financial burdens of local families with various needs, while inspiring generosity and goodwill among the residents of the community.
Their heartbeat for loving people is contagious and we hit it off right off the bat. They even adopted our first single "Love Your Neighbor" as their theme song! There is a need in this country for us to inspire and be examples of God's love. Please be praying that we continue to do just that, to rely on God, to be patient and to remember that it's not about us: it's about people.