Redemption and Repentance

Fighting suicide, depression and the struggles of youth with a head-on attack, making full use of their 18-year career to fulfill their mission

By

If hell is anything like teenage depression, I thank God all the more for my childhood repentance. The teenage years always seem to give birth to a hopelessness impossible to ignore and difficult to survive. Hundreds of thousands don’t live to see graduation. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death in teenagers. Millions more have either attempted to take their own life. Collectively, the millions feel alone.

Seventh Day Slumber’s vocalist Joseph Rojas is all too familiar with these statistics. As a teenager, he found himself fatherless, addicted to cocaine and contemplating suicide. When he reached the bottom of his despair, he found hope and put it music.

“Once we played in Kansas City,” Rojas remembers. “It was put on by a pretty big church (as) a community outreach, (but) you could tell that it was something to do to keep their name out to the public. The mood was weird. The promoter didn’t seem like he wanted us there, but needed to do some kind of activity with his youth. (He) wanted us to hurry up (and) get done so he could close the doors and get the kids out.

“We decided, alright fine, this guy is going to try and get us off the stage. We went ahead and cut a couple of songs and went straight to my story. We’d rather share the story (than) play more music.

“We got off stage and this kid came up to me and handed me a suicide letter and said, ‘I made the decision I was going to end my life tonight. But I want to hand you this. I’m not going to do it. Thank you for telling your story.’

“Believe it or not,” Rojas concludes, “this has happened several times.”

For some, such a story sounds like a Christian gimmick to manipulate consumer trust into a money-making ministry. In a country where the term “Christian band” can boost sales more than hinder them, or where the word “God” in a movie title causes millions to flock to theaters with their families, people should be somewhat skeptical about a band’s “Christian” motives. As I Lay Dying’s Tim Lambesis recently said in an interview with AltPress Magazine, “We toured with more ‘Christian bands’ who actually aren’t Christians than bands that are. In 12 years of touring with As I Lay Dying, I would say maybe one in 10 Christian bands we toured with were actually Christian bands.” It’s easy to fake church. It’s the fruit that judges the authenticity of the ministry.

For me, Rojas story sounds exactly right. I was in that boy’s place 10 years ago. The first time I saw Seventh Day Slumber was the day I most wanted to end my life. I was a middle school student finding out for the first time that youth can be hell. Earlier in the day, I sat in a chair with a knife in hand as my lips quivered muttering a prayer for mercy. All light escaped me.

I decided to go to a concert that night at my church where I heard Rojas’ story of depression and redemption for the first time. I will never forget when the music stopped and he turned the front of the stage into an altar. Most of all, I will never forget when he knew some people in the audience had thought about suicide that very day.
Every band will say they love their fans, but few connect with their audience like Seventh Day Slumber. For them, communication goes beyond a handshake after the show and the occasional small talk. They want to know what their listeners are going through and then help push them in the right direction.

There’s freedom in our brokenness when we’re broken for Christ. That’s what this record is about. It’s about people that have been hurt but (understand) what it means to be loved. It’s not about chains being wrapped around you; it’s about breaking those chains.

The group shows their concern for their fan base in the writing of their tenth studio album, We are the Broken. The lyrics on this album come from the stories and testimonies fans post on the band’s Facebook page. Each day, people from around the world share their most personal stories with the band via social media. They speak of their struggles and doubts, knowing that the band will listen and reply back. But replying back isn’t enough for the band. On this album, Rojas wanted to write about the issues their audience goes through every day in order to encourage them and show they care. The album serves as an additional response.

Many people try to ignore the dirty, messed up issues people go through. Ignorance is easier and more comfortable. Ignorance isn’t the way of Seventh Day Slumber. The stories on We Are the Broken come from listeners around the world, struggling with everything from addiction to self-harm.

“We don’t shy away from issues like abuse,” Rojas says. “There’s a song on the (new album) called, ‘In Too Deep’ about someone who wrote to us. They were hurting, and the song says, ‘I’m in too deep / As waves crash down / It’s getting harder to breathe.’ There’s no resolve on that song. We did that on purpose because we don’t feel there’s (always) a resolution, even when we’ve given our lives to the Lord. Sometimes, we feel we’re in too deep.”

Despite the dark subject matter, Rojas sees the title We Are the Broken as a beacon. It isn’t meant to be gloomy. On the contrary, he composed each song to help listeners persevere through various obstacles in life, no matter how damaged they feel.

“There’s freedom in our brokenness when we’re broken for Christ,” Rojas says. “That’s what this record is about. It’s about people that have been hurt but (understand) what it means to be loved. It’s not about chains being wrapped around you; it’s about breaking those chains.”

Since Seventh Day Slumber’s conception in 1996, Rojas has seen thousands upon thousands of chains broken on tour. People of all ages have always come to the band’s shows, but recently, a new generation has caught their attention.

“Parents that were listening to us 10 years ago (now) have their 10‑year‑old kid at (our) concerts,” Rojas says. “Some would think that it would make you feel old, but it doesn’t to me. It’s cool. The people that had their lives changed at a Seventh Day Slumber concert now trust our music and our lyrical content with their kids.”

Fan interactions remind Rojas of how beautiful the generational trust can be. Two months ago, a father introduced himself at a concert. He came to the show with his 16-year-old son. One year ago, this family lost their mother to cancer. Hopeless and frustrated, the teen abandoned faith in God and lost all peace in life. For whatever reason, he pinned the blame of his mother’s death on himself. The depression led to cutting and multiple suicide attempts. He became another teenager in and out of the hospital due to self-harm.

The boy who grew up in church wanted nothing to do with God. It was music — not the message — which led him to a Seventh Day Slumber concert with his father. The music sparked a new hope. At the end of the night, he let his dad know he almost went to the altar. They decided to go to the next date on the tour as well. This time, he rededicated his life to Christ. Rojas continues to encourage the teen.

“(What) I read (on his) Facebook last night brought me to tears.” Rojas starts to tell his story: “It was his mom’s birthday yesterday, and he wrote, ‘Mom, I miss you. Happy birthday. I wish I could have saved you.’ The kid is still holding on. The thing that gets him through these tough days is what we had to say at our concert, in our lyrics (and) in our music.”

This story portrays a small glimpse of the ministry Rojas sees each night on tour. Seventh Day Slumber’s set always begins with high energy and pyro to get the audience on their feet before the music stops mid-set for Rojas to share his testimony, riddled with drug addiction. Each night ends with an altar call.

“I will never get used to (seeing) people come to the altar,” Rojas says softly. “Almost every night my eyes fill up with tears as I see these kids and adults come down, saying, ‘I’m struggling. I didn’t feel there was any hope. I came to this concert tonight and you guys told me about Jesus. That I was loved and there was mercy and grace for me. That I’m not too far gone to be restored.’”

These stories show emotional conversions and newfound optimism, but the effects of a one-time event can be short lived or even harmful. Where most missionaries make a mistake isn’t in the message, but in the absent follow-up. No matter how strong of an outreach program may be, it means nothing if it leaves the people with an unsustainable infrastructure. A church team can go to Uganda and spread the Word to several individuals, but without connecting them to others or supplying continued encouragement, the change can wither as swiftly as it grew. The same can be said about evangelical bands. If they offer hope, they need to show their continued care.
This is what Rojas shows best. Everyone who goes to the altar at a show is given a follow-up card so the band can continue watering the seeds they planted.

“We don’t want to fly in, play a concert, sell CDs and leave,” Rojas says. “We care about these people that come to our concerts. Every night when we do altar call, we make sure that we give a copy of the cards that come in to the respective churches in the area and also we keep a copy as well for follow‑up.”

As for the people that can’t see the band on tour, Rojas makes sure they get an outlet as well. Previously, the band used Teen Hope Line to reach out to hurting teenagers both on and off tour. Rojas served as the organization’s President. They trained a staff of workers that could talk anonymously with teenagers and help them through their issues. In his first year as president, they encouraged 55,000 teenagers and listened to their stories of depression, eating disorders, cutting and sexuality.

Today, the band uses an organization called The Hope Line to continue their ministry long after an altar call. The purpose is the same as the purpose of their live show.

“The goal when we leave a concert venue,” Rojas says, “is to make sure that anybody that walked into that place that needed to hear a message of hope got to hear that message. When we leave a venue, (we want) the name of Jesus lifted up, not the name of Seventh Day Slumber.”

If hope is the fruit of their ministry, their harvest is plentiful. But as much as the band loves getting messages from fans and hearing their struggles, the emotional labor can be overwhelming. Sad stories need to be heard, but the burden is too heavy for one listener alone, all the time. Pouring into lives each night becomes draining and can lead to depression.

To lighten the emotional baggage, Rojas talks with a pastor and keeps up with his devotional readings. He also keeps several close friends on the road with him to share in the ministry. Along with his band members, he also finds support from his wife. (The band is fortunate enough to travel with each member’s wife and associated kids.) Rojas’s three boys began touring with their dad by the age of six weeks. Likewise, their guitarist (Rojas’s brother-in-law) also travels with his wife and daughter.

“If I didn’t have my wife and kids on the road, hearing all these sad stories would weigh on me a lot more,” he admits. “Being able to travel with (them) keeps me grounded. My wife and I have been married almost 15 years. She is an amazing woman. She’s an encourager. She prays for me (and) lifts me up no matter what.”

Traveling with such a large group brings the comfort of home at the cost of space. There are 12 people on one bus traveling around the country for months at a time. The fact that they still want to spend time together after living in a crammed vehicle with little-to-no personal space says something about their character.

“It’s tiring going from city to city, but it’s fun,” Rojas laughs. “(When) we’re on that bus, we keep each other lifted up. But when we get off that bus, we’re still all hanging out. Right now we’re in Las Vegas staying in a cool-themed hotel. After this interview, I’m going to take my kids down to the swimming pool and we’re going to get on that water slide and have fun. So will the other band members. We love each other. We’re not a band that’s barely tolerating each other. It’s not like that at all. We have a good time with each other.”

They have been in the music business long enough to see bands fall apart because they lose the joy and trust they had when they first started. Without the intentional effort, it’s easy for a group of touring friends to become nothing more than business partners. Band members can quickly fall from close friends to distant coworkers. After their job ends, they rarely speak. Seventh Day Slumber works to ensure they don’t follow in those footsteps.
Even when a member leaves the band to take on a career or family, they stay in contact. Josh, their previous bass player, left the band after a decade of touring. He left to become a pastor and now lives down the street from Rojas. They talk frequently.

He isn’t the only who left the band to pursue ministry at a church. Their previous drummer, Jamie, also left the band to become a worship pastor in California. “It seems (like) all of our band members end up being pastors,” Rojas laughs. “We’re still friends with those guys. Jamie’s always supporting us, and so is Josh. They’re trying to bring us to their respective churches that they’re now pastoring at.”

Band members aren’t the only thing that Rojas remembers changing in the band’s 18-year existence. Most of all, the way bands tour has changed. The touring industry isn’t what it was in the ’90s. Before bands would plan a fall or spring tour and play summer festivals. Today, the industry is moving towards traveling festivals. Instead of watching three bands on a $15 tour, families can catch 10 on a massive touring festival. This is convenient for the audience, but makes it difficult for the bands that don’t make it on Winter Jam or Warped Tour. The competition eliminates many bands from being able to travel without losing a fortune.

“The reason we’re able to still tour,” Rojas says, “is because Seventh Day Slumber has been around for a while. People know that when they bring in Seventh Day Slumber they’re going to get a ministry outreach, an altar call (and) have cards passed out.”

Most of all, they know when Seventh Day Slumber is in town, the name of Christ will be spoken to those with nowhere else to turn. People just like Rojas.

“I know what it means to feel hopeless,” Rojas says. “Pain is universal. It doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got or what side of the tracks you grew up on, whether you go to church or (not). Pain is universal — we’re all susceptible. Sometimes it hurts so bad we don’t want to live. I’ve felt like that. I was raised without a father, and by 12 years old, I was already thinking about suicide. I was using drugs and alcohol. I know what it means to feel like there’s no hope. I know what it means to feel that there’s no way this will ever get better. That’s what draws me to these hurting teenagers.”

I have that same story. Likewise, it’s what continues to draw hurting teenagers to Seventh Day Slumber. One just like I was.

Seventh Day Slumber was posted on June 3, 2014 for HM Magazine and authored by .