Because of SAO


Photo courtesy of Mannhattan

The Calvin band “Mannhattan” found success

“As a constantly changing reflection of humankind’s wild and and unbridled passions, Rock music has gone in many directions over the past few decades,” reads Mannhattan’s website. “Let’s bring that all back together.”

Mannhattan is a band made up of four Calvin seniors: Cory Greeno, Joe Joel, Royce Lloyd, and Sam Mann. The band found its beginnings in high school, and after Mann and another member of the band came to Calvin, they wanted it to continue. By chance, Greeno and Mann became potluck roomates their first year at Calvin. Later, Joel joined the band. As the band developed, they started looking for a new drummer, as Mann was both front man and a drummer at the time: after auditioning a few drummers, they found Lloyd.

But in the background was Ken Heffner and SAO.

“All of these things actually were propagated through SAO,” Mann said. Joe had been encouraged to find a band by an SAO employee. Heffner had directed them towards some drummers to audition, and Lloyd was told about the band by some friends part of Pop Music Guild (PMG), a past SAO program.

As the band continued to grow, they were able to use PMG to get feedback from others, including Heffner, express themselves, and, perhaps most importantly: they had a place to practice.

“We really capitalized off that, and that’s really what helped us grow and give us that time on campus to practice,” Greeno said.

The band played their first show with all four members in the Fish House through an SAO cover night — Heffner and other SAO members encouraged them to write their own songs, instead of just doing covers — and it was at an SAO show at the Ladies Literary Club where they would meet record label representatives who would eventually give them a record deal, through which they put out their first album.

“There were a lot of pivotal moments where it gave us spaces to be able to find these new experiences,” Lloyd said.

The SAO changes concerned the band.

“One of the big reasons I came here, and I think it speaks for all of us is because it had a lot of opportunities to explore the world around us, but also to do it in a discerning and Christ centered way,” Lloyd said. He continued regarding the fate of SAO, “it makes me worried about what direction that that’s going to go in.”

Mann pointed to a part in President Le Roy’s campus-wide email, which said, “Calvin is already adapting to these forces to become a more nimble, collaborative university capable of serving many different types of students in the future.” He said that last part was crucial.

“SAO and pop music guild was an essential program that served the type of students that we are, and allowed us as individuals and as musicians to express ourselves in a way that is really unique and that no other programs at Calvin allow,” Mann said.

The band pointed out how crucial having access to a drum kit through PMG was, and how difficult it will be for incoming students who have a passion for drums to find spaces to practice drumming.

Lloyd said he thinks the desire to create “new and interesting things is a human trait, and it is something that is given to us when we were when we were given the authority by God.”

“My paint brush, in a sense, is gonna be drums,” he said, the gift of creation given to him by God. “When I’m stuck in that place where I don’t have the thing that I use to express myself creatively, it really only puts a damper on me. It holds me back, and it feels like I’m not using God’s gift as he gave them to me.”

SAO gave them a place to connect and engage with their passions: as it does for any student who wants to participate.

“Everybody can participate in these things, and creativity is more than just what we can consume,” Greeno said. “Everybody is capable of creating their own creative content.”

“When you look at popular culture, they don’t use, ‘I love organs. I also love drums,’ they use both, and it’s important to realize that if we cut the focus from one to the other we’re actually not doing what our calling is as Christians: to engage in the world around us, and to discern what we experience,” Mann said. “We’re ignoring the goodness that is found in creation and is found in the diversity of different forms of expression.”

Students learned how to engage with culture

As students mourn the potential fate of SAO and Ken Heffner, many are reflecting on how the program enriched their time at the school. From engaging in art to finding a sense of belonging, there’s no doubt the SAO affects students across the board. As students and alumni alike reflect on the news, it’s clear students care deeply for the organization.

Many students recalled Heffner speaking at orientation. Senior James Owens described his earliest memory of Heffner, an experience during QUEST. After meeting in the CFAC for more presentations and Orientation Leader skits, Heffner presented.

“Ken got onto the stage and completely changed the whole atmosphere of the auditorium,” Owens recounted. Heffner compared Electronic Dance Music to creation, fall, redemption, explaining how much meaning even one EDM song can contain, and then played the song for the auditorium of brand-new Calvin freshmen, inviting them to get on stage, “not only hear what he was talking about, but experience it, engage with it.”

His sophomore year, Owens became a Cultural Discerner (CD) after each SAO event he went to pushed him to think deeply about the event. He said that now, every time he goes to a concert or movie that is not an SAO event, something feels missing when no one is standing up front at the end of the show to start asking questions.

Calvin alumna Kandin Unger (2014) was also impacted by Heffner speaking about discernment at orientation. She said as someone who went to public school before attending Calvin College, and hadn’t consumed as much “Christian” art as some of her classmates, it was important she heard his message.

“It felt like my experience was being affirmed, and the things that I loved were affirmed. That there was beauty and meaning in the things that I had experienced and loved: the art, the music, the concerts, the movies.”

Sometimes, Calvin like a “cold place” for students who didn’t attend a Christian school before, she said.

“Ken’s ability to bring the ‘outside world’ in, to show how everyone and everything has meaning, made it feel less alien, made it feel more welcoming, made the ‘outside world’ less ‘outside,’ and perhaps made the world around us a better place too.”

Some commuter students have also found a sense of belonging through SAO.

“It can be very lonely and it is easy to feel disconnected, even alienated, from campus,” senior Melissa Van Baren, who has commuted to campus all four years, said. Along with Calvin’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, she said SAO played a role in connecting her to campus.

“SAO does a wonderful job of creating a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere and bringing people together, and it’s given me a channel to connect on campus and with other students,” she said.

For senior Daniel Hickey, a student employee in the SAO office, the organization played a role in bringing him to Calvin.

“At some point in early high school I read about some tiny Christian college in Michigan had booked the band Sigur Ros,” and this stuck out to him. He mentioned this to someone in admissions during a Fridays at Calvin visit, who called Heffner over.

“That first meeting sealed the deal for me; I wanted to be in a place where that guy chose to be,” Hickey, who later became a CD, said.

Many students have developed skills in engaging art through the Cultural Discernment program. Owens became a CD his sophomore year, inspired by his SAO experiences his first year.

“Through [the CD] program I got to take Ken’s methodology of cultural engagement to the next level,” Owens said. “I got to learn from him, speak with him, and develop with him. Through this program I was able to draw closer to and meet new friends.”

Many students mentioned learning how to engage with art through SAO. Unger said she learned how to thoughtfully engage with the things she loved, music and films, from SAO.

I developed a reverence for what people are trying to say, for other people’s stories.” And through the concerts, sitting next to all the other students, she found a sense of belonging.

SAO and Ken Heffner made me feel like I belong at Calvin by teaching students that all art is something to be engaged thoughtfully, by allowing us access to engage together, and by affirming the importance of art and culture in general. I can’t imagine my experience without Ken or the SAO at Calvin,” Unger said.

Hickey had a similar experience.

“The story gets bigger than Ken, although his personal influence as a friend, mentor and colleague is hard to exaggerate, for myself and many others,” he said. “Truly, though, my ‘because of SAO’ story is a story … of being invited to a life of avid attention, critical engagement and radical love for the world, with pop culture being just one fascinating and evocative component of that world. This is not an alternative to a life of faithfulness. Rather, it is an invitational re-imagining of what faithfulness might look like, which does not make love for the world and love for God mutually exclusive.”