Jesuits, members of the Society of Jesus, are sometimes called “God’s Soldiers” or “God’s Marines,” but what about “God’s Musicians”? Many Jesuits at Loyola and beyond love making music, especially in the folk-acoustic variety. The Folkin’ Jesuits, a band made up of Jesuit scholastics –– priests in training here at Loyola’s First Studies program –– are no exception. Band members include Garrett Gundlach, S.J., Marcos Gonzales, S.J., Eric Immel, S.J., and Steve Nicholson, S.J. — four men who love Jesus and music, and have a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor.
“We like to think of our group as less of a ‘band,’ and more a ‘collective,’” said Immel. “We love Jesus, the Society of Jesus and playing fun music mediocrely.”
Mediocre or not, the music is more than just a stress-relieving pastime for the four men.
“Music, as with any art form, is a way to dig deep, to share, to celebrate, to tell stories and to listen,” said Gundlach. “Playing music isn’t just about doing something cool or fun, but about doing something together and doing something wholeheartedly.”
The group formed in Denver in 2013 during one of many summer meetups of Jesuit novices — the first stage of Jesuit formation. One of the popular social events at the meetup is a talent show, which was the moment when a group consisting of Immel, Gonzales, Nicholson and two other Jesuits combined their talents to perform a mashup of songs.
“As we were all novices and were all inspired by folk music, we called ourselves the ‘Folkin’ Novices,’” said Gonzales.
With their novice days behind them, the three musicians reunited at Loyola and continued to make music, finding an additional band member, Gundlach, to join in on the harmonica. By this point, they were all officially Jesuits, so it was only fitting to change the group’s name to the Folkin’ Jesuits.
The members continued on to become performers in small community settings — playing on porches, around campfires, in backyards and at Mass — and they still make it a priority to continue that tradition. They have played events for human rights organization Amnesty International, Loyola Coalition for the Homeless and Ignite LUC over the years.
“[These are] places where music is more than music,” Gundlach said. “It is celebration, it is community, it is prayer, and it is wrestling with the stuff of injustice in our hearts and our minds.”
Issues relating to faith and justice are core to Jesuit beliefs, and the group tries to incorporate these ideals into its own mission.
“Whenever we play, we hope to, one, write and cover songs that are relevant to issues of faith and justice and speak
to our beliefs,” said Nicholson. “And two, create an environment that is inclusive and that brings people together.”
Whether this turns out as a passionate performance of a protest song or a cover of the latest Taylor Swift single, the band members hope their music will reflect the Jesuit mission.
“Covers are nice because someone else already wrote them,” Immel said. “We make them our own in some way with the instruments and voices we have.”
The band makes its covers unique by using the strengths of its multi-talented members. Gundlach, for example, plays the harmonica.
“I’m always learning new licks, always learning to play better alongside other instruments,” Gundlach said. “And here’s to hoping that I play less poorly than I did when I drove my community crazy starting to learn in 2010.”
Immel sings and plays drums, but he also has a special talent that he has utilized at a few performances — rapping.
“While I don’t claim to be the ‘rapper’ of the group, I suppose also that I’ve done most of our rapping,” Immel said.
Gonzales and Nicholson both perform using a variety of different string instruments. This versatility allows the quartet to switch things up when playing, something the easy-going group enjoys.
“That’s one of the most fun parts of what we’ve been able to do: All four of us take turns in the forefront and in the background, playing and singing different things at different times,” said Nicholson. “There’s not a lot of ego involved when we’re at our best, so we can just celebrate playing together and have fun.”
But that doesn’t mean the members haven’t found an appropriate way for their music to be included into worship and praise.
“Each of us take turns leading the worship music for our community liturgies,” Gonzales said. “Music can help bring a liturgy to life if done well, and the focus is not on the musicians –– it’s all for the greater glory of God.”
The reaction to the band’s many musical talents has been all positive so far — mixed in with a little surprise.
“I think it has something to do with what people expect vowed Jesuits to do,” Nicholson said. “Playing folk music and covering pop tunes tend not to be in people’s expectations.”
Although the band members are losing Gundlach, who is moving from Chicago next year, they plan to stay active musically.
“We’re all interested in becoming better musicians and performers,” Immel said. “We’re also interested in continuing to craft a message with our music that celebrates the things we believe in: a loving God who works with us, a world of peace and justice, a world filled with opportunities for play and fun and a world of radical inclusion.”
In that spirit, the Folkin’ Jesuits desire to become more involved in the Loyola community and beyond — particularly with more performances that allow for the inclusions of faith, opportunities for activism and protest and occasions to take more musical risks, which they hope will include more original music.
“Ultimately, there’s a desire to write more music, but we don’t have enough time,” Immel said. “Someday, and hopefully sooner than later, there might be a full set of original tunes. Alas, it is not this day.”
Until then, the band members are willing to entertain any requests to play their tunes, original or otherwise.
“Don’t be afraid to ask,” Immel added. “We love to play, and always try to make it work.”