“Love cannot be stagnant and will always create more…” So sings Brother Jamesin his tune,“I Had to Dig.” His spiritual quest led him to dig his way out of fundamentalist Christianity and then to excavate his own soul and the mysteries of the universe. “And I’ll give all I have in search of freedom, live to set other prisoners free…” There surely are other meanings to make of it, but I hear his song as an anthem for progressive Christianity.
Justin James Sinclair is a young man on a mission. He made retreats at the St Andrew’s Abbey and New Camaldoli monasteries in California, where, to his astonishment, he discovered a strand of Christianity that no one in the evangelical churches he attended, nor at Biola University where he studied, had revealed to him before. Above Big Sur, he sat at the feet of Cyprian Consiglio, a monk and musician with deep reverence for the contemplative traditions of the world’s religions. Justin discovered a radically different way to understand and practice Christianity, in silent contemplative union with the Divine. While powerfully attracted to it, he realized he was not meant for the monastic life. So he put his musical career where his heart had arrived, taking on the stage name of Brother James. He aims to serve souls through his music. “I find multiple meanings in the word ‘brother’”, he says. “The monastic, contemplative identity, but also the idea of being there for other people, like a brother.” And he chose his middle name, James, because it is what his dad calls him. For him, it is a name of sacred endearment.
His process of “deconstruction” from fundamentalist Christianity has not been without pain. In “Witness” he alludes to the loneliness and confusion along that path: “As you push into light and can’t step back, friends wonder why, but don’t know how to ask…” But the song also offers brotherly comfort: “I’ll take your hand, I’m by your side, I’m reaching out… You need to know you’re not alone…”
Brother James wants his songs to be conversation-starters. And he wants to be part of the conversation. “I don’t want to play in bars!” he says. “Put me in a living room with a circle of people, and I’ll play, and then we’ll talk.” If you want to put together such a conversation with your campus ministry, in your church, or in your living room, contact himhere. (And if you want to support his artistry, please do so atPatreon.)
He was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. In his song,“Safety Net”,he chords that precarious moment with the time he told his parents he was leaving the version of the faith in which they had raised him. “I need to find the truth, but I don’t know how, so if I cut the cord, would you hold me like you did, if I couldn’t call him Lord, would you still love me now?”
Whether or not it keeps us from breathing, all of us must cut the cord so we can follow the Spirit wind where it leads us. Brother James, with tunes both gentle and compelling, shows us the way.
Rev. Jim Burklo is the Executive Director of Progressive Christians Uniting, which is now organizingZOE, a national network of progressive Christian ministries at colleges and universities. He is the founder ofSouljourning.org, providing resources for families to nurture the natural spirituality of young people. He retired as the Senior Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California in 2022 and now serves as pastor of the United Church of Christ of Simi Valley, CA. An ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, he is the author of seven published books on progressive Christianity. His latest isTenderly Calling: An Invitation to the Way of Jesus. His weekly blog, “Musings,”has a global readership. He is an honorary advisor and frequent content contributor forProgressiveChristianity.org. Jim and his wife Roberta live in Ojai, CA.