‘Meeting Rich:’ An interview with author Caleb Kruse

(EDITOR’S NOTE: About the writer: Chris Pick is a singer/songwriter, missionary, and advocate for the Persecuted Church and Native Missionary Movement. He has been involved with several mission projects that have included work in South America, Africa, Asia and North America (ministering among the Lakota Sioux at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Allen, South Dakota). As a singer/songwriter, Pick’s music has been heard globally and charted on many continents in both mainstream, adult contemporary and Christian charts. His latest single “Come Back” (featuring Mariah Hostrander) as well as the EP “Tragedies & Miracles” (featuring members of Rich Mullins’ old band “A Ragamuffin Band”) are available on iTunes. You can find out more at www.chrispick.bandcamp.com. Pick lives in Williamsport with his wife, Michelle, a fifth-grade teacher, and their newborn daughter, Erica. Pick can be contacted at chrispick@gfavolunteer.org or follow Pick on Facebook: www.facebook.com/pages/Chris-Pick-fan-page/310118944421, Twitter: www.twitter.com/pickchris, or at Reverb Nation: www.reverbnation.com/chrispick.)

ANS — Fans of Christian music may remember the band Rufus Tree, formed by brothers Peter and Caleb Kruse. Not too many fans knew that the band’s roots were not the result of a garage band jam session with friends, but rather a three-week period in September 1997 in which American contemporary Christian music singer and songwriter Rich Mullins (known for his hit songs “Awesome God” and “Sometimes By Step,” to name a few) stayed at their home. It would be the last three weeks of Mullins’ life.

Mullins (who was living on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico at the time along with fellow touring artist Mitch McVicker, where they taught music to children, died in a car accident in Illinois on Sept. 19, 1997 —  nearing the age of 42. Three weeks prior to the accident, Rich gave a concert in Elgin, Illinois. Shortly after the concert, the Kruse family was notified that band members associated with Mullins were looking for a place to stay so they opened up their home to those in need. Little did the Kruse family know that one of the band members would be Mullins himself.

Caleb Kruse recently released a book about the “untold story” of Mullins’ last three weeks titled: “Meeting Rich: A Liturgy. A Legacy. A man with a guitar in my living room.” I was fortunate to interview Caleb Kruse about the book and asked why he finally decided to pen the events of this three week encounter nearly 20 years later.

“Honestly, I’ve always wanted to write it — ever since 1997, because I knew how bizarre and special the story was,” Kruse explained. “Who ends up with his hero living at his house? You just don’t hear about stuff like that. At least, not in non-fiction. As of about a year or two ago, I realized I wanted to be a writer, and that I wanted to write about significant events in my life. This was the first that came to mind. It’s also the one thing I’ve written about that seems to interest most people. Rich obviously touched a lot of lives, and still continues to.”

The book is about Caleb’s life, his encounter with Mullins, and how events in his life led him to spending three weeks with Rich Mullins.

“I would feel bad if somebody ever picked up this book thinking that it was an account of secrets or unknown facts about Rich Mullins’ life,” Caleb went on to say. “It does talk some about Rich, and might even teach you something new about him. Mostly though, it has to do with my impressions of him, and the fact that I got to witness him living at our house for the last three weeks of his life. It had a huge impact on me. I’ve also heard that others have had an impact by this story, so that makes me happy.”

During Mullins’ stay at the Kruse’s home, Caleb’s mother asked Rich if he could hold a concert at the home. It would be Rich’s final concert. Caleb’s brother Peter uploaded Rich’s last concert on YouTube at the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZLFGZ6zpeI

Concert memories

I asked Caleb about his favorite memory from that concert and he cited how Rich gave special attention to a friend of theirs who had developmental disabilities.

“Rich wanted her to feel special, and drew attention to her during the concert that took place in our living room,” Caleb remembered. “I don’t think too many other people would have been so thoughtful as to do that, but Rich loved ‘the least-of-these,’ as he often spoke of them being who Jesus called us to love.

“Rich didn’t seem concerned about saving face or looking cool, or proving how smart he was. He seemed to be more about elevating other people. In fact, that’s what he was known for. If you read the book, you know that he asked me to play harmonica on his next album. I don’t think it’s because I was that good. I think it’s because he was that cool.”

Rich was full of wisdom when he spoke. Some even thought he was a prophet. He often ruffled feathers in the church and in the Christian music business when he spoke, and he didn’t shy away from the truth.

I had asked Caleb if he had any memorable discussions with Rich and Caleb shared: “At our house he said something about how, over the years, in Christian music, you end up compromising — not just your artistic integrity, but also your faith. At the end of it all, you don’t even have 30 silver pieces to show for it — it’s as corrupt as Judas, but nearly as economically minded.

“I always thought that was a clever quote, and it made me think. Here in my own life, I’ve often found myself being able to relate with it — feeling like work, school and even certain friends have put pressure on me to compromise in various ways. I feel like life in general just gives you less resistance overall if you water down your faith, regardless of where you are. The temptation is always to be less ‘salty,’ so to speak, and the world will simply love you more. I think that’s what Rich was addressing. He was in music, but I don’t think it just applied to music.”

Late on Friday, Sept. 19, 1997, Rich and fellow musician Mitch McVicker left the Kruse home in Illinois, heading to a concert at Wichita State University in Kansas, when they lost control of their vehicle on I-39 north of Bloomington and were thrown from the vehicle. Mullins died at the scene. The following day, Caleb was in his driveway when he got the news.

“I think we’d just gotten back from someplace, and we were walking inside,” remembers Caleb. “I could hear the phone ringing from our garage, which was wide open. The news shocked me. At first, it felt like a sick joke. I didn’t know how to respond. I think I was waiting for a punch line — Rich couldn’t have been dead … we saw him just last night, leaving our house. The thing is, he had already left his legacy before then. I think that the news of him dying may have only strengthened it.

“I know that it solidified his memory with the rest of the world, as radio stations and magazines all over came out of the woodwork to do tributes for him. For the next few weeks, it’s like all you heard on Christian radio was Rich’s songs.

“My brother and I, though, we were inspired. We wanted this experience to count for something, and to not just stay hidden in our hearts. We’re both musicians, and Rich made us believe we could be something bigger. We took that, and I think it’s always been a small candle of inspiration, glowing in the back of our minds. Even when we aren’t sure why we’re still writing songs, we think about that and it gives our current endeavors a sense of purpose.”

After meeting Rich, Peter became inspired to play the hammered dulcimer and he incorporated the dulcimer into a few of the band’s songs including “Angels” and “Dying to Live.”

In looking at Mullins’ life and death, many have come to see it as a testimonial fulfillment of John 12:24, in which Jesus states: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (NIV).

I had asked Caleb if he saw this fulfillment in Mullins’ life.

“Yes and no,” he replied. “Yes, because I think his death definitely caused many people (including me) to grow and to try passing on Rich’s legacy of love and Jesus. But, I say ‘no,’ because I don’t think it needed to come down to Rich dying. I think more of the verse that Paul wrote — ‘for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.’ Either way, Rich would have gone on infecting others with his love, inspiring and changing the world. That’s what I think.”

In the spring of 2014, director David Leo Schultz, with the help of Rich’s brother, David Mullins, produced the biographical film on the life of Rich Mullins titled “Ragamuffin,” which centered on Rich’s struggles with his success and how he learned to accept God’s love through his pain and struggles.

“I watched the movie a couple of times,” Caleb shared, “and thought it was great. My wife actually bought me a copy, knowing how big of a Rich fan I was. I liked how it portrayed Rich’s very human side. I think it gave us a picture of Rich that was more real than any we might get from the media or from a lot of Christian news sources.

“For some reason, the world doesn’t like to hear about the

struggles of life as much as it likes to broadcast the resulting success stories. Rich’s life was loaded with both. Tons of successes, but tons of trials. To leave out all the heartbreak and confusion and emptiness he went through, would have been to tell half the story (and, the part of the story that I think most of us can relate with, and are hurting to know we’re not alone in). Rich obviously struggled in his relationship with his father, and I know a lot of kids out there today can relate. Perhaps now more than ever, in a world where families seem more broken than ever.

“I think the movie actually stayed true to what Rich would have wanted — it’s the story he may have told himself, had he still been alive to tell it.”

Man of kindness

Looking back on Rich’s life, Caleb thinks that what originally made him love Rich was his music. But, what makes him love Rich now was his kindness.

“Few people in such high positions are so kind and noticing of average people like you and me,” Caleb shared with me. “I honestly don’t hear about any other Christian artists being anywhere near this level of humility. Michael W. Smith might be a great guy and all, but I doubt (if) he joins the janitor before his concerts to help pick bubble gum wads off the bathroom stalls. That’s the kind of guy Rich was, and those who knew him knew that about him.

“Of course, I don’t think his mainstream fan-base knew much about that side of him, because it’s not the side that his producers wanted to exploit. It didn’t fit the pretty image they wanted the world to think of him by. And, since Rich wasn’t boastful, he didn’t talk about himself in a bragging way, letting us all know about the good deeds he did that went unseen.

“But for those of you who aren’t sure, that’s the kind of guy he really was. It really is mind-blowing that a person of his humility and heart ever ended up with such high status, because it’s clearly not the kind of thing he ever would have pursued. In fact, once he was making millions, he took a vow of poverty, committing to keep only a small amount of what he made for himself … I think about $35K a year, or whatever the average blue-collar worker made, and give the rest of his money to charity.

“He didn’t brag about this either, but even my atheist friends are blown away by this. They’re shocked that such a person really exists. Rich could have been living the good life. The thing is, he didn’t want everyone else’s good life. He wanted the good life that Jesus spoke about, which wasn’t as popular, and which involved laying down your life to glorify God.”

When asked how he would want others to remember Rich, Caleb said: “I want others to remember Rich as just a man. That’s what he was. Not a flashy, polished golden boy or icon. While he may have been all those things, he wanted us to know that’s not who he really was. He was normal. I think he didn’t want us to idolize him … not then, or now.

“I know that in hindsight, important people can be even more romanticized and glorified. There are a lot of people out there who hear Rich’s quotes and listen to his songs and think of him as some kind of saint or super human. The thing is, Rich didn’t want us to believe any of that. If we think that, we’re missing his point — that we’re all just ragamuffins, like beggars at the foot of God’s door. We all need God, and we all need each other. We keep wanting to elevate Rich. He kept wanting to climb back down from his pedestal, and be with the rest of us. That’s how I will always remember Rich.”

The book Meeting Rich: A Liturgy. A Legacy. A man with a guitar in my living room, by Caleb J. Kruse is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/RICH-MULLINS-Meeting-Liturgy-Legacy-ebook/dp/B01CYLK8WC#nav-subnav.

— Reprinted with permission of ASSIST News Service.