Growing up, I would tell people I wanted to change the world. To this I would often hear the retort, “You can’t change the world, Tryson!” Of course these words crushed my little spirits and I eventually brought my burden to my adopted grandmother. While talking about it, she told me, “The world is a big place. When people tell you, ‘You can’t change the world,’ they may think that since there’s so much to change, it’s hard for one person to do it all. But just like a single drop in a pond can ripple out and make an impact far beyond itself, you can make a difference in the world around you.” Her words resonated deep in my soul and have stayed with me for years.
Two gospel artists who are making a ripple in the pond around them are Brian Courtney Wilson and Anita Wilson (no relation). I had the opportunity to connect with them as they prepared for the McDonald’s Inspiration Celebration Gospel Tour. The two are a part of the lineup for the free concert series that brings some of the top gospel artists to communities across the U.S. with the aim of delivering a message of hope and inspiration. At these shows, running from May 10 through October 21, a donation is collected for the Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC). I was invited to a promo shoot at one of the houses in Chicago, where we learned more about the charity and the work they do.
The RMHC provides families of children who are sick in the hospital a home away from home to rest and recharge. The houses are located near leading hospitals and children’s centers providing families convenient access to the care they need. The staff offers compassionate care and resources to meet the needs of these families for a low cost at a network of houses in more than 63 countries and regions around the world.
I sat down with Brian and Anita to discuss the upcoming tour and more. Excerpts from my conversations with them are below and have been edited for clarity and brevity.
One on One With Brian Courtney Wilson
TJ: Can you tell me about your experience touring the RMHC in Houston?
Brian Courtney Wilson: Everybody's going through something. Some people more than others. If you have the opportunity to help relieve someone else's burden and lessen their pain and bring some comfort to their situation, then you want to take that chance and do it. That's what gospel music is all about anyway. We want people to be inspired to keep looking up and believe that they can keep going…As much as I was feeling for the families, I was glad I was there that day. That was a few years ago, but I’m glad to be back here today and glad that McDonald’s has brought me back in to be a part of this.
TJ: What are you looking forward to most about the upcoming tour?
BCW: Again, the opportunity to showcase gospel music in an excellent way. I worked with Donald Lawrence on the BMI Awards and other things here in [the] Chicagoland area, so I know he’s going to do an excellent job pulling everything together. [I’m also looking forward to working with] the people who are on the tour with me [Tye Tribbett, Anita Wilson, Small Fire, Jekayln Carr, Lonnie Hunter, Bishop Paul Morton]. It’s gonna be a good time. I think Bishop Hez[ekiah Walker] is coming out for a few dates as well. These are people that I know anyway because I minister around the country, so to come together and do something bigger than ourselves is a great thing.
TJ: I know you have a family as well. How do you balance multiple tour dates and making sure you have time for them?
BCW: Staying focused. Making sure I’m keeping the lines of communication open. Facebook and Twitter make it a lot easier now, so your family can see you. We have Facebook Live now where you can tape everything, so they can see what you’re doing. [Also] making sure when I am home that I’m connected, that I’m present in a way that they feel Dad was here before he goes out [on tour].
TJ: What’s something that your kids are doing right now that you’re proud about?
BCW: My son is taking up the guitar. Him picking that up is blowing me away, because he sounds pretty good. He’s very passionate about practicing it all the time. I remember that as a kid; I was a singer, so I was singing all the time. People would tell me to “shut up” all the time, and I just kept singing. I couldn’t stop. So to hear him do it now fills me with glee.
My daughter is in the top 7 percent of her class right now at school, so we’re proud of her diligence in terms of her schoolwork and making sure she leaves a good impression before she graduates.
TJ: God has given you an amazing voice and a platform to share His good news globally. Have you received any feedback about how your ministering has affected someone in the audience of one of your shows?
BCW: One of my favorite parts of what we do is that we sell merchandise at the end [of the show]. I like to go out and sign the merchandise because it gives people an opportunity to speak to me. One lady came to me, she looked at me and she said, “You kept my marriage together” [with] a song we did called “Worth Fighting For.” “My husband was sick and I really wanted to leave him, and when I heard your song it made me stay.” I looked at her and tears just welled up in her eyes. I can be a cry baby, so I started crying and I hugged her. There are [many] stories like that, especially with that song. People felt like giving up, and I think what they felt was, “Man, I’m the only one who feels this level of pain.” Then they hear the songs and feel that somebody else was feeling something too and kept going. That is very gratifying. I pray for that actually. I pray that every song I do is useful.
TJ: What is your prayer for your song “Heal (Find a Way)”?
BCW: [My prayer is] that the people who know how to pray, the people who believe there’s a God who sits high and looks low, do not become discouraged and weary in expecting this God to intervene in a divine way in some of the injustices we’ve witnessed, some of the pain we’ve felt. I’m finishing up Michael Eric Dyson’s book Tears We Cannot Stop and he hits it on the head, man. There is this pain that I don’t know how many other ways to tell you that I feel and it seems like you’re missing it. But I have to believe that this Creator of the universe, that created all of us, regardless of skin color, wants us to bridge this gap in communication and awareness. Sometimes your neighbor’s going through something and you may not have a clue about it, but that does not negate the fact that they’re going through it. Bridge this gap in a way where we all can be healed. That’s what I hope comes from the song, that somebody’s inspired to maybe, one small yes at a time, bridge the gap, have a conversation and make somebody more aware.
TJ: The theme of the tour is “Unstoppable.” What comes to mind when you think of that word?
BCW: I hear the word "resilient." There’ll be obstacles that come in your way that will slow you down, that cause you to stumble and make you doubt yourself. What we say at church is, “You gotta know, that you know, that you know.” That what God has for you is for you, and you have to have the courage to keep pursuing it. That’s what unstoppable means to me. When you know it and you keep going toward it, you’re unstoppable.
TJ: What’s new for you in the coming months?
BCW: We’re about to start working on the next record. We’re already writing for it, but we’ll start actively recording for it, and I’m looking forward to it.
TJ: Thanks for your time!
BCW: Thank You!
One on One with Anita
TJ: Is this your first time visiting a Ronald McDonald House?
Anita Wilson: It is. The tour was enlightening — to get a bit of history on how it all started and to see the lives of the children and the families [and] the way the RMH supports them. It reminds you to be grateful. Everybody’s story isn’t the same. When these babies are dealing with illnesses and needing treatment that can be so expensive, stressful and emotionally taxing, it’s really a blessing for the RMHC to be in place, ready and willing to assist and lighten the load of the families as much as possible. I think it’s amazing, the volunteers and all of it. It’s a beautiful vision. I was blessed to take the tour today.
TJ: I think it’s awesome to see how many volunteers step up and give their time. The woman who gave us the tour was a volunteer as well. You know, as believers, we look at Christ [as an example.] He came not to be served but to serve. When you have time in your schedule, how do you serve the people around you and in your community?
AW: I think that’s very important. At the building that I live in, they [feed those in need], so when I’m at home I try to find those opportunities. I try to always do that when I can. I find that sometimes when I go to minister — I appreciate the hospitality — they think that you want them to whisk you away and that you don’t want anybody to bother you. But a lot of times I find that it brightens people’s spirits just to take [the] time to talk to them. It’s sad to say because it seems so simple, but many times that’s not the case and people don’t have someone to listen and care.
With all these clothes, we have to try to be cute all the time [in], I make a point not to throw them away if I won’t be using them anymore. But take [the] time to give those clothes to shelters. I try to take that time to be compassionate, get out of my own space and think about others. I try to do that on a daily basis even passing by people on the sidewalk. A simple "hello" and "have a good day" really can go a long way. Whether it’s tangible with being able to give back or intangible with just saying hello and even making eye contact with people, I try to think about the simple things.
TJ: What does the tour’s theme, “Unstoppable,” mean to you?
AW: Life. Life can beat us up. My new album is called Sunday Song — this is a shameless plug (I’m not trying to plug though). It brings me to the concept of the album. Sunday is that day when we think of empowerment and “I’mma go to church and get my fill up” or “I was depressed when I came in but I feel better now!” What I realized is, on Monday we’re still feeding on that and then [on] Tuesday we’re trying to hang in there at work. Wednesday is hump day and we’re trying to get over the hump and we can’t wait until the weekend to get a fill up again. But I think that everything that’s available to us on Sunday is available to us all throughout the week. We can play some good music to uplift us, we can read the Word to uplift us and we can make conscious decisions. Life can beat us up and [there’s] a lot that can bring us down and make us feel like we want to stop or give up. I had an interesting morning just today and I was thinking, “Why am I doing this? Forget it!”
[By] the theme being “Unstoppable,” we are encouraging ourselves and everybody else who will assemble at all of these different stops we’ll make on this tour. It’s good that we’ll empower ourselves and empower everyone to remind them that God is always with you, even when your circumstances don’t feel good. Even when what you see doesn’t match what you believe, God is still there! You may not always feel good; it may not always make sense but nothing can stop you when you make up in your mind that you’re determined to take one day at a time. I was in one of the halls of the RMH and it encouraged me [to see a sign that] simply said, “Take one day at a time.”
Whatever your situation is, whether it’s the worst of times, somewhere in the middle or you’re on a mountaintop, all we can ever do is take [it] a day at a time and have that right mind-set to say, “Nothing’s gonna happen today that me and God can’t handle!” That’s what I tell myself. You’ll hear me say relatable, relatable, relatable a million times because I think that’s important. That’s what we need to do to connect to people. I think everybody who comes to this tour will feel that and will be empowered by just that one word. The devil can’t stop us, our money issues can’t stop us and even sickness can’t stop us, because if God gives us another day then the devil’s lost. We’re going to try again and we’ll continue to go forward and give people hope and stay hopeful. We’re never hopeless because God is our hope, so nothing can stop God.
AW: Amen, amen!
TJ: What are you looking forward to most [on tour]?
AW: I think so many pieces of the experience are going to be cool because the artists that are on this tour are great people to work with: Tye Tribbett, Jekalyn, Donald Lawrence. Of course I sang with Donald Lawrence and Company for almost 10 years, so how cool is that to be able to sing with my family? Also Lonnie Hunter, Small Fire, Brian Courtney Wilson — one of my favorite voices absolutely ever! — and Paul Porter. There are so many great people! It will be cool to be on the stage to release a message of hope and do what we love, which is music and do it for who we love, God. I’m looking forward to that part of it, but also to give hope to people who are coming to assemble at these tours. One of the most favorite parts for me is the opportunity to meet supporters and to meet one-on-one at meet and greets…I always consider it a privilege to hug babies and shake hands and all that kind of stuff. I’m looking forward to several aspects of this tour.
TJ: Can you tell me about a time when someone who’s been at a show of yours came up to you afterward and revealed an experience of how what you shared onstage affected them?
AW: Absolutely! That happens to me a lot and it’s always humbling. I was asked the other day, “What’s the one wow moment of your career?” I was like, “Listen. I can talk about nominations and stuff, and I can talk about a celebrity I’ve met, but what really wows me the most is when people come up to me.” What really sticks out to me is [when] this young lady once said, “Thank you for your music. It’s encouraged me. My father is a multistroke victim and he was in the hospital and was restless. We couldn’t get him to be still and just relax, and you released your CD Worship Soul, and we had an idea to play some music. When we played your CD, that was the only thing that gave him peace. I just want you to know your CD was on repeat, literally for months, Ms. Anita.” I was crying, I said, “For months?! What!” When I think that this was music I wasn’t even gonna make. I wasn’t gonna be a solo artist. I wasn’t gonna step out and do it, so that’s what means the most to me. The testimonies are endless. That’s why I love social media because I’m able to be directly in contact with supporters and people who have heard the music. Being in the music business, you have to think about streams and sales, and that’s cool, that’s important, but what’s most important is who’s going to hear this music and [how] it’s going to touch them. I’ve always said I don’t want to make “ear candy.” I don’t want to have the latest dope beat that makes people want to vibe out. That’s cool, I’m with that. But beyond all of that, I definitely want people to be blessed and I want it to touch their lives. I want it to carry them throughout their week. That’s important. I get a lot of those testimonies and I’m always wowed by that. I’m always grateful for that.
TJ: I love it! Thanks for your time!
AW: Thank You!
The Inspiration Celebration Gospel Tour is a multi-market gospel concert series that helps reinforce McDonald’s commitment to the African-American community, making a ripple in the pond of neighborhoods across the country.
(Photos from left: Leon Bennett/Getty Images, Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images)