Tim Hughes, writer of worship songs like Here I Am to Worship tells Hazel Southam how a visit to Tanzania changed his songwriting and his life.
Inspiration strikes artists at unusual moments. For well-known worship leader Tim Hughes, one of those moments was standing talking to a 14-year-old girl living in Tanzania, one of the poorest countries in the world.
There is no photo of the encounter with 14-year-old Halima, but you can tell that the encounter changed him.
“She took us back to her home to meet her family who grew sunflowers,” he recalls. “Her shirt was held together with a couple of safety pins, and even though the ground was covered in rocks and sharp stones, she had no shoes. It all seemed so unfair. So many of the other kids at her school were orphans and seemed to have lost their childhood. The injustice of it all was so clear.”
This moment was just one of many during a week-long trip to Tanzania with the Christian development agency Tearfund, that have left an impression on Hughes and his wife, Rachel.
Still in his twenties, he’s one of Britain’s foremost worship leaders, with songs including the Dove Award-winning Here I am to Worship to his credit. He works with Soul Survivor and for Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London.
Before the visit to Tanzania, Hughes had already been thinking hard about worship. He said: “I’ve been thinking about how many of the songs we sing at church are about how good God is, how faithful God is, how wonderful it is to know God. But when you read through the Psalms, there are hundreds of references to life being hard and full of pain.
“There are questions like ‘God, where are you?’ I tried to express some songs that look at that aspect of worship, that say ‘You are good’, but from a place where that’s hard, where there is pain.”
Then he got on a plane and flew to Tanzania, where life expectancy is just 46 years and where many live below the poverty line. There, he met Joyce Mbwilo, 35, who has walked a distance equivalent to three times around the world just to find water for her family.
For 25 years, she rose at midnight and walked through the night, barefoot, on uneven terrain, to fetch a 20-litre bucket of water. She’d walked 5,200 miles before Tearfund helped to bring a water supply to the village where Joyce lives and her night walks stopped.
Tim is sure that the visit is reflected in his work. “I’ve written a song called God of Justice that uses verses in Micah about acting justly, walking humbly and loving mercy,” he says.
“There are a few things I’m trying to work on, and the songs of lament I’ve been writing have come from this feeling that some of these situations are so unfair. It’s brought a massive amount of reality and – I hope – honesty to my songwriting.
“At the heart of worship is the idea of pleasing God, living for His pleasure. The Bible’s clear that God is not pleased when people are oppressed and when they go hungry. So our songs have no integrity and everything becomes self-centred if we don’t get closer to God’s heart.
“If we don’t put the two together – the songs and the choice to go out and make a difference – then how can our lives be a pleasing sound to God?”
As well as changing his writing, it’s changed his outlook on finances: “It’s made us want to be wiser with our money,” he says. “It made us question how much we really need. I think it’s crucial that we learn how to be generous, how to manage our money. I’m sure that God blesses people with the skills of making money so that organisations like Tearfund can be supported.”
Christians will have to wait until the launch of Tim’s next album to hear the impact of the trip to Tanzania. One thing’s for sure: we’ll be able to tell in the lyrics that God inspires today’s worship leaders – even through a young teenager in Tanzania called Halima.
Hazel Southam is a freelance journalist
To find out how to bring physical and spiritual transformation to poor people around the world by praying, volunteering, campaigning or giving, go to www.tearfund.org or phone Tearfund on 0845 355 8355
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