A dear friend died much too early last week. David Mills was one of the great songwriters of his generation. His innate sense of melody and his arresting lyrics combined to produce a range of music both rousing and haunting, but always purpose-driven. Unlike many musicians in today’s self-absorbed culture, Dave always had a larger aim in mind: to give hope and courage to a world struggling to overcome painful history and divisions of every kind. One of his seminal compositions, “Walk a Mile in Another Man’s Moccasins,” is sung on every continent.
Dave was an Australian and he wrote powerfully about his beloved land. He drew inspiration from the people he met, his own life challenges and most of all his faith and absolute belief in God’s loving plan for humanity. Music was at the core of his being, but his life was given to a larger cause. As such he spent years leading reconciliation and trustbuilding work in such places as India, Ethiopia and the UK where I first got to know him forty years ago as he grappled with the need to bring new perspectives to the British trade union movement in an era of industrial turbulence.
As a fellow musician I have fond memories of performing with Dave on numerous stages from London’s West End to the docks of Liverpool. I recall coming out of a theater with him in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1968 to find a large crowd of demonstrators running down the street with police in hot pursuit.
When Susan and I came to Richmond, Virginia, in the early eighties, Dave and his wife, Jane, and their infant son Keith lived with us for a year. Their care for community leaders in a city deeply wounded by racism helped build the foundations for what we now know as Hope in the Cities. Dave got to know John Coleman, a black lay preacher and pioneer of racial reconciliation. He captured in music the essence of John’s mission: If you’re going to be a bridge you’ve got to be prepared to be walked on over and over again.
When I visited Dave and Jane in Australia eight years ago I found them deeply involved in addressing the need for dialogue and trustbuilding among Sydney’s increasingly multicultural population. Dave’s “Stranger at your Door” is a clarion call to all of our communities: Turn away all the fears across the border of my mind, as the old world disappears there’s a richer one to find.
During the final year of his life, during which he endured painful and debilitating medical procedures, we had several long Skype calls. Never once did he complain about his condition which he described in a matter-of-fact way. In our last call earlier this summer we chatted for over an hour. He wanted to discuss the upcoming US election, the events in the Arab world and in Africa, and – most of all – the future leadership of the work of Initiatives of Change. Until the last months of his life he took a keen interest in the training portfolio of our international association.
Two weeks before he died he sent me his final DVD of songs, poignantly titled “Bless These Seeds,” recorded this year with a friend in his home. I wept at “My Pledge to You,” a tender love song that also expresses the commitment to the world that he and Jane undertook together.
My love, here’s my pledge to you
That whatever comes
I’ll be true to you, and forever
In sunshine or in rain
I’ll be there just the same
To give everything I can
For this life we share
And though sometimes we’re apart
When life takes us away
Deep in my heart, I will always pray
That stronger we may be
And deeper we may feel as one
To live beyond our dreams
For a world out there.
I don’t know why God chose to take Dave at this time and I grieve for Jane and the family. I do know that his sons are extraordinarily proud of their dad. And I know how much Dave rejoiced that a first grandchild is on the way – the gift of new life. The titles of his last songs speak for themselves: “A Loving God,” “Triumph of the Lord,” “He has Risen,” and “Tsunami of Love.”
Dave sang with a quiet intensity, a light in his eye, a fire in his heart, and a challenge to each one of us to be our best. Farewell, dear friend, until we meet on the other side. Your songs will live in our hearts and your life will continue to inspire us. Thank you, thank you for everything.