Point of Grace has lit up the music charts with twenty-four number one hit songs over their fifteen years together. They have been rewarded with numerous Dove Awards, two Grammies and inducted to the Arkansas Walk of Fame. Recently I had the opportunity to talk with Heather Payne at length and then catch up with the rest of the group when they performed in Toronto, Canada.
One of the things about these ladies that immediately catch your attention is how approachable they have remained. Whether it is that southern charm exuded by Shelley Breen or the down home hospitality of a Denise Jones, Heather Payne or the newest member of the group Leigh Cappillino these ladies checked their egos a long time ago. At the concert I attended they tirelessly signed autographs before and after the show and posed for impromptu photo sessions with their fans. The casual observer might be inclined to pass it all off as well that is their job. True enough but consider this they just came off several months of conducting Girls of Grace conferences for teenage girls across the United States and are preparing to embark on a rigorous nineteen city tour in support of the their Christmas album. What is more all four of them have families at home.
Heather and I immediately spun into a conversation about the Girls Of Grace Conferences this year. Something that “This is the fourth year for Girls of Grace. It has been an amazing, amazing experience for us. To see the response from the girls and the affirmation from their parents when they say to you, ‘thank you so much for doing something like this because our girls really need this especially with the schools that they are in.'” Shelley Breen noted during the concert that they would like to expand the conferences to include Canada.
Heather says girls today are being pushed and pulled in several directions as it relates to their self image. “It is all about how you look and nobody in the world focuses on the inward. Girls are really struggling today with what is going on inside,” she says. Hard liners may shriek in horror when they learn that one way that the Girls of Grace conferences reach out to teenage girls concerning self esteem is by partnering with a cosmetic company. Well go ahead and shriek all you want because when you listen to Heather describe how this unfolds it sounds cool. “It is Madge cosmetics and her name is Meg Thompson. She is a makeup artist out of LA. She said she got tired of things such as the names (being applied to) makeup. They were getting so sexual, ugly and nasty. She (decided to) start Madge Cosmetics. She has a great moisturizer and lip gloss that we (POG) love. She does a little makeover onstage and shows the girls (how to apply) their makeup. We do a draw and pick girls out of the audience Friday night and they come in Saturday morning for her to do their makeover. We do a little before and after.”
Makeovers are only one of the innovative approaches that the Girls of Grace conferences have adopted as Heather explains, “This year we are trying to be very vulnerable with them and just be really honest by saying, ‘We dealt with the same things you are dealing with or we are still dealing with them.’ We want to let them know that they are not the only ones that feel that way. I think that is why it is so great to have girls come (to the conference) together. They get to see that there may even be girls in their own school that are struggling with the same issues. To hear somebody on the platform say I struggled with this when I was in high school or I still struggle with things like self image. These girls want to hear that somebody is struggling with the same thing. We then show them ways that they can come out of that and deal with those feelings and that pain.”
Someone who has first hand experience with walking teen girls through painful experiences is Nancy Alcorn of Mercy Ministries a regular keynote speaker with Girls of Grace. Alcorn says, “Mercy Ministries is so blessed to have Point of Grace (Shelley Breen, Denise Jones, Leigh Cappillino (who replaced the departed Terry Jones) and Heather Payne) as true friends to myself and the young women that pass through our doors. We could not ask for better role models to share this outreach to girls through the Girls of Grace conferences. The honesty, integrity and authenticity of these four women have touched a common chord with audiences around the world, setting a refreshing new standard for role models in today’s society.” Mercy Ministries provides girls who are struggling with issues such as eating disorders, addictions, abuse, self-mutilation and unplanned pregnancy the ability to receive the help they need free-of-charge.
“Mercy Ministries is at our conferences and we (Point of Grace) have worked with them for about twelve years. They have a home for girls that are in trouble and have trained counselors. We have a place to point these girls if they have big issues that they are dealing with. Hopefully they feel encouraged and (come away with) hope,” Heather informs me. In fact staff and girls who have benefited from Mercy Ministries program share their testimonies at the events. An information table concerning the program is also set up at each event.
Heather says the message they want the conference attendees to hear is one of hope that comes from God. “One thing that we try to explain to them all of the time is that it all points back to God. God made us. You are unique and special and we want you to reach that potential that the Lord has for you.”
Thinking that a lot of the girls attending these two day events would come from more sheltered environments I wondered aloud how easy it would be for them to identify with speakers like Nancy Alcorn.
Heather indicated to me, “At every conference there are at least a handful of girls that have issues nobody know about. There may be an eating disorder or maybe they are being abused at home or even there have been things we have had to report to the authorities.”
As for the girls who do come from more challenging environments Alcorn says, “The coolest thing about Mercy Ministries being a part of this is that we have the opportunity to not only reach girls at a young age about these serious issues before they need a place like Mercy, but we are also able to give girls hope who may be in the middle of a life-controlling situation by making them aware of our program.” Heather sadly observes, “There are also girls who are sheltered and may not know about those things that are going on but even more than you would think some of these girls are dealing with things like eating disorders. All girls deal with their image and wanting to be picture perfect. There is one thing that we have been amazed at — at every single conference no matter what region we were in of the United States we have numerous questions asking us if it is okay to cut yourself.” She went on to explain that the questions were anonymously submitted on cards.
For those not familiar with the term cutting it is used to describe an action often undertaken by teen girls to disfigure themselves by cutting their skin with a knife or some other sharp object. Heather continues, “It is an epidemic in teenage girls today. From what we have gathered these girls are experiencing so much pain and turmoil on the inside that they want to do something to take that pain away so they try and hurt themselves on the outside.”
Heather talks about a shock she received recently, “What is so crazy about it is we were at a festival not too long ago and a girl not too much younger than us (POG) approached Denise and said, ‘Thank you for talking about that (cutting) because it is something that I struggle with today.’ It’s not something just affecting teenage girls it is something that even adult women deal with. I never thought about anything like that but I know that there are girls who do.”
Turning her attention to my original question concerning the relevance of Nancy Alcorn’s message to those who come from more sheltered environments she says, “They may not identify exactly with what Nancy Alcorn is talking about but most of them do know of somebody who does. It is an epidemic it really is.”
As I looked around the auditorium the night of the concert I could not but help noticing that at least seventy-five percent of the audience, perhaps more was comprised of young women and teenage girls. Knowing the background to the ministry Point of Grace I was not surprised and could not help but wonder if some of the women in the audience first heard their message as teens. Alcorn for one is grateful of the ministry the group has had over the years, “Mercy Ministries is so blessed to have Point of Grace as true friends to myself and the young women that pass through our doors. We could not ask for better role models to share this outreach to girls through the Girls of Grace conferences. The honesty, integrity and authenticity of these four women have touched a common chord with audiences around the world, setting a refreshing new standard for role models in today’s society.
It is not just women who are firm believers in the message that Girls of Grace are delivering but singer / songwriter Mark Schultz who performed in concert at this year’s conventions says, “I spent almost ten years as a Church Youth Director. I can’t imagine any mom not wanting her daughter to attend a Girls of Grace Conference if it was in the area. In a society that seems to excel at confusing and selling “counterfeit” images to young women, GOG is a safe place where girls can come to get straight, honest talk from Godly Women who encourage the girls to stay pure and get their self-esteem from a loving God who lives to Pursue them.”
Schultz was the only guy performing or speaking at this year’s conferences which were attended by crowds as large as 8,000 teen girls from junior high age to grade twelve. Point of Grace says he was a huge hit and wished that they had included him on all the conferences. (he was only involved with some)
Conversation turned to their new Christmas album Winter Wonderland. Heather affirmed my initial impressions that it sounds like the group had a lot of fun creating the music. With enthusiasm she joyfully says, “I am so glad you said that because I just wrote a newsletter to all of the people on our list and said, ‘I hope that you hear we had fun on this record because we really, really did. It was long and hard to do but we had a good time.’ I am so glad that you said that because we had such a good time. We all got giddy. We are all vocal majors and it was four part harmony. Oh, it was so much fun.” (Score one for the interviewer I hit a hot button!)
Part of the fun the ladies experienced in creating this album came with a rendition of Jingle Bells that is none like you have ever heard before. On stage Point of Grace glams and hams their way through their splendid four part harmonies that take full advantage of a big band swing era styling applied to this old classic. If you still don’t have the picture think of Jingle Bells sung to the beat of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B!
“We wanted that whole Andrew sisters and Lennon sisters (sound).” Then just in case she forgot to tell us, “It really was such a fun album and we had such a good time doing it.” It should be pointed out that this album incorporates a lot of different stylings to the various Christmas songs and this is just one genre that it used.
Still enthusing about the album Heather says,” We had a vocal producer and his name is Ken Davis. He is a master at that kind of music. We worked with him on our last Christmas album on (the song) “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” He is just a master at it. He is funny and fun to record with. We had the best time working with him. I think because we worked with him last time it was so natural. He was so much fun.”
She says Point of Grace really enjoyed the opportunity to sing songs that had four part harmonies. “When you think about four part harmony, there are a lot of things that we sing that are really just three part harmony because in pop music you don’t get that four part stuff so much. You get two of us doubling up on the melody, with one up and one down. It sounded good from the first line.” Those of you familiar with how much time is invested in the studio will be impressed when Heather says that it only took them one day to nail each of the songs.
Michael W Smith guests on Winter Wonderland. He plays the piano on the rendition of “All Is Well” that he reworked with Wayne Kirkpatrick. She was first introduced to the song three years ago while touring with Smith. “At rehearsal it was just Smitty and me and something happened. It just fit my voice perfectly,” she says. When it came time to record the song for this album Heather admits, I was really nervous because a lot of times it (a song) comes off better live than it will record. I was nervous about it translating on a record the way it translated live. Smitty came in and I recorded the vocal while he played the piano. It was a magical thing and I feel like it was inspired. We added orchestra to it. I think everybody feels we pulled off what we hoped we would.” Heather says she hopes the song “All Is Well” will bring peace to the many people who suffered such great loss this year during the hurricane season.
I asked her how challenging it was to create a Christmas CD in the middle of summer. “It isn’t as challenging as you think but it is a little strange to sing Winter Wonderland and walk outside when it is one hundred degrees. We got in there (and lit a scented) candle so it smelled like pine. It got us in that Christmas mode and then we walked back outside and got into the heat of the summer. It wasn’t as hard as you think it would be but it was a little strange.”
Heather shared with me her own memories of Christmases past. “I have so many memories of Christmas. My family used to have so many wonderful Christmases. One of the traditions my parents had every year and that I want to continue my kids is the day after Thanksgiving every year we would go out to a Christmas tree farm as a family and chop down a Christmas tree.”
Other traditions included, “We would go get a new ornament every year that reflected our personalities. Mom would do her magical lights. We would make hot chocolate. We would play (she emphasizes the word old) Christmas records — Perry Como and all that stuff. We would decorate our Christmas tree and at the end we would turn the house lights off and turn the tree lights on. That is such a precious memory for me with our family laughing all of us there. It was wonderful.” Heather looks forward to continuing a lot of the same traditions with her husband Brian along with children Ella and Nate in their Kentucky home.
As if Point of Grace doesn’t have enough on their plate this year they have added (and I might add happily so) the role as spokesperson for Samaritan’s Purse Christmas Child project. “It is such an honor to do. What an amazing thing. It is such a great organization to be a part of and join hands with. We are so excited to be able to do this. I believe we are going to be able to take what we collect to the place — I don’t know where it is yet and we will be able to take the shoe boxes that we have collected and take them to the places (countries).” At the time of the interview details had not yet been finalized but Heather who is expecting her third child had already received clearance from her doctor to make the trip internationally.
As our conversation is drawing to a close I can’t help but pry just a bit and so I ask Heather if she has a Point of Grace ringtone on her cell phone. Utterly aghast I hear her say, “I do not.” I tell her this is scandalous. Playing along she laughs and lets me in on a secret, “I will tell you something even more scandalous is my mother has a ringtone on hers but it is not Point of Grace. She has Nicole C Mullen. I went home and when I heard it I went, ‘Mom what is your ring? What is this?’ She said, ‘I was trying to figure it out and I couldn’t find your song on there and I didn’t know how to do it so I just picked out one I liked.’ I was like, ‘let’s change this. Come on. Where’s the love?’
Point of Grace has blessed us for fifteen years with their performances, ministry and number one songs. Judging by the conversations I had with them and seeing the group on stage I don’t think that is about to change anytime soon.
Copyright © 2005 Joe Montague, exclusive rights reserved. This material may not be redistributed without prior written permission from Joe Montague. Joe Montague is an internationally published freelance journalist / photographer.