Fernando Ortega is a profoundly gifted musician, singer and songwriter, who grew up in New Mexico near the Rio Grande, and spent time in Ecuador and Barbados due to his father's work with the U.S. Department of State. He is the product of eight generations of family hailing from Chimayo, New Mexico.
Though sometimes mislabeled as a Contemporary Christian Musician, Ortega's music breaks all the boundaries of that genre to include elements of folk, classical, Celtic, Latin American, world, and rustic hymnody, according to Wikipedia. These roots are made possible both by his heritage and his formal training at The University of New Mexico.
Fernando graciously spent an hour of his time with me for a phone interview on December 19, 2014. A more complete version of this hour-long interview can be found here.
RTN: One of the threads I identify with in many of your songs is a sort of introspective uncertainty and world-weariness. This comes across particularly in the album, Storm, but on other albums and songs as well. Sometimes it is expressed peacefully, as in it seems you've come to peace with it and in yourself. Other times it seems to have much less resolution. In either case, what is that about, do you suppose, for you personally? Why do you suppose that thread resonates with listeners?
FO: It's about... [pause] doubt. After being in a Pentecostal church, where I thought the leaders communed with God in a way that others could not -- they were so highly spiritual -- those leaders ended up being embezzlers of our money, addicted to prescription pills, adulterers. It seems like every church I've been in, there has been some kind of scandal. The hypocrisy really affected me -- I don't think I'm totally jaded, but there is a definite mournfulness over the hurt that has found its way into many of my songs. So, there are people I know that do not seem to struggle with doubt about their faith, but I certainly do. And I always have.
RTN: I live in St. Louis, MO. Since the shooting death of unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown, St. Louis has somewhat become an epicenter of social unrest and racial tension between black and white persons. Certainly it's brought to light a lot what is already here.
What words of life would you offer surrounding these issues? What are we to do, and what do we do with our discouragement at racial injustice and the seemingly slow pace with which people seem to wake up to it?
FO: Well, it seems to me there is such an obtuseness to people who have hidden racist sensibilities. Things lie under the surface that reveal themselves so unexpectedly. People don't recognize it in themselves. I don't know what words to offer.
There are ugly prejudices in my life, and bizarre ones. I don't think I'm a racist in the classic sense, but there are things in me, stereotypes because of race, and they are there, to my deep shame. I think the first thing therefore is recognition.
I don't know how to answer your question. But what I do know is that I've been in getting ready to go on the platform before with groups of famous Christians. We're standing there praying ahead of time, and I heard one woman say, "And we pray for that precious little black girl who's going to offer her prayer..." And it's just sort of shocking to hear! We're not going to pray for the "precious little white girl," we're going to pray for, you know, "Stephanie." But the other girl doesn't have a name -- we distinguish her because she's a black girl.
So, I don't know. It exists. And it comes out so obviously some times, in prayer even...
RTN: Well, I appreciate the fact that you don't know what to say. There is some level at which no one knows what to say. But I think what you are saying, even if not in so many words, is that you have a level of identification with the struggle, you validate its reality. It's not something people are making up.
FO: This brought to mind last week's advent sermon by a brilliant pastor we have, Ryan Bestelmeyer. He tied Advent in with Ferguson and St. Louis and other places. Talking about the notion that racism does exist, and that we are called to ask, "Who is your neighbor?" And he said that your neighbor is the person next to you who is hurting, who may have a different skin color, and like it or not, Advent is tied in there. We long for Christ's coming to bind us together, of one heart and mind, regardless of skin color.
RTN: Who is Jesus Christ, and what is his Gospel?
FO: I think the more you delve into the mystery of who Jesus Christ is, the bigger the mystery becomes, and the more you realize it's not something that you say, "Bang! Now I know. "
For me, last night was an incredible prayer night. I was wailing before God. Partly because of my friend, Matt, who died in a car accident. And then another friend who is in a coma -- a young woman whose husband is so deeply in love with her. I was wailing, and super angry at God. I was saying, "What do you want us to do?! Rub our faces in piles of dung?! How do we approach you?! Do you want us to grovel?! Who are you?!" I realized then, I don't know how to answer that.
But somehow in my head, and somewhere in my heart, I know that he is the one who redeems us from these things, and that he is establishing his kingdom in me. In his death, Matt has joined in the communion of the saints. He's singing the eternal songs of those multi-eyed creatures with all the arms and wings, singing, "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God, Almighty!" Matt has joined in that song that goes on all around us that we completely cannot recognize because we're so caught up in our own stuff.
So, it's a very emotional mystery to me right now how to answer, "Who is Jesus Christ?" But that's who he is. We can all easily say the stock answer "He's the Son of God." I know that. But more than that, he does somehow tie you and me... and my friend Matt who died, and my grandfather, who died in 1991, and other people around the world who are suffering greatly, the tragedy in Ferguson. The incarnation, God becoming flesh, ties all of these things together.
I don't know. When we come to God, and become Christians, we join together in that eternal song, and are dragged through the mud, but yet, God empowers us to sing and live his praise in our lives.