News - Calling: A Hymnwriter's Story

Calling: A Hymnwriter's Story

Dan Damon '77 Calling: A Hymnwriter's Story


Daniel Charles Damon '77, FHS (BME, 1977) is the pastor of Richmond First United Methodist Church, Richmond, California. He is a hymnwriter, a jazz pianist, and serves as an associate editor of Hymnody for Hope Publishing Company. In 2016 he was named a Fellow of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.

When I was in high school, I told my Grandpa Damon I might want to become a minister. He said, “That’s the highest calling there is,” so I immediately put it out of my mind. It was clearly beyond me. He also told me you could tell a man’s intelligence by the width of his forehead. I had long hair and bangs at the time, completely concealing my forehead. My conservative Free Methodist grandfather did not approve.

Early Clue, An “Ear”

I decided to attend Greenville College, but instead of taking courses that would prepare me for seminary, I majored in music.

Because I didn’t have the classical background required for a piano major, I chose voice for my performance area. To fulfill a music theory assignment for Everett Sanders, I wrote a tune for the Charles Wesley text, “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.” My theory class tune was published forty years later when Ruth Duck wrote a text for it, “In This Ministry of Life” (Poetry of Grace, Hope, 2015).

My sense of form and my ear for melody were already present in 1975, but it would take years of private study with jazz pianist Dick Hindman to develop skill with harmony.         

Attention Captured

The first progressive Christians I ever met were religion professors at Greenville College, James Reinhard and Charles Dillman. They were teaching a course called “Christ and Culture” based on the book by H. Richard Niebuhr. As a freshman in my first semester, I came to class joking about phrases like “ontological bifurcations.” I was glad to discover that some of the other students had also encountered these roadblocks to understanding in our first reading assignment.

Our professors asked us if the Bible claimed to be perfect. (We all thought it did.) They showed us that it claims inspiration but not perfection. They encouraged us to doubt and to question our childhood faith, but challenged us not to serve “doubt” as a new master.

One professor said he had not signed the statement, “I believe the Bible is inerrant in the original autograph copies.” He told us his faith in the Bible was not based on documents we don’t have, but in the scripture we hold in our hands.

I had a conservative upbringing and these ideas were new to me, but I was interested.Dan Damon Yearbook I could tell that our professors wanted us to grow in faith. I felt they were speaking from a place of love as they taught us.I was impressed when they photographed the class of over one hundred students and learned each of our names.

As a junior I took the second required religion course, “Biblical Theology,” from Frank Thompson. These two courses, along with the required chapel services and the optional Sunday school classes at the Thompson’s house, were enough to nudge me in a new theological direction.

Bar Scene Burn Out: “Misty” X 500

After graduation from Greenville I taught band and choir at Douglas High School, Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, for two years. Thanks to my training at Greenville with Paul Egli, I could teach all the instruments except double reeds. I played piano for the choirs and for the jazz band. I got good enough to land a summer job as a pianist at a restaurant in the Black Hills called Chute Roosters.

I decided to try playing professionally in the big city, so I moved to the San Francisco Bay area at the end of that summer. Eventually I found work at a sing-along piano bar on San Francisco’s Geary Street called the Curtain Call. After a few years of making a living playing in hotels and restaurants, I was burning out on the bar scene. I had played “Misty” at least 500 times.

Saved by the Dean: “Give Him a Chance”

During those early years in California, I attended Lutheran, Catholic, and Presbyterian churches before landing at Temple United Methodist Church, San Francisco. I became a member and started a youth choir. One day, in a conversation with my pastor, Dick Corson, he brought up the idea of my going to seminary. He said I could apply for a one-year Certificate of Theological Studies program at Pacific School of Religion (PSR), Berkeley, California.I wanted to learn more about my faith, so I applied.

The admissions committee initially rejected my application because I had too many music courses and not enough seminary preparation courses, but the dean vetoed the decision saying, “Let’s give him a chance.”

Just Try It

piano handsWhile I was in seminary Robert and Marion Fitch came to hear me play my happy hour gig at the Holiday Inn on Union Square, San Francisco. Robert had taught ethics and served as dean of PSR for twenty years and he knew how to size up the students. On my break he said, “So, you’re a student at Pacific School of Religion, are you going to become a minister?”

I said, “That’s the highest calling there is.” I was still afraid I couldn’t do it. His response changed my life. He said I could try it to see if I liked it. “If it doesn’t work out,” he said, “you can try something else.”

Grandpa Damon had put the fear of God into me when I was seventeen, and Robert Fitch had pointed out the human element in the call to ministry.

I went back to my one-bedroom apartment on “Holy Hill” in Berkeley. In the serenity of my inexpensive student housing, I thought about giving parish ministry a try. I was reading Augustine’s Confessions at the time and was struck by Augustine’s argument for a life of service to God through the church. I felt, with the African saint, that there could be no better use of my life’s energy. So I finally took the plunge and applied for a transfer to the Master of Divinity program.

"So Long" Ego Issues, "Hello" Gift

I almost didn’t take the church music class from Tom Hunter at PSR. He was a folksinger who wrote children’s songs and sang in schools. What did he have to teach me? I had a degree in music and was playing pop and jazz in the hotels of San Francisco. Luckily I got over my ego issues and signed up.

I came to love and respect Tom. He was a pastor serving a small church part-time. For a class assignment, Tom asked us to write either a hymn text or a hymn tune.

I had written a few songs, but no hymns. It had never occurred to me to try more serious writing. I went home that weekend and wrote the words of my first two hymn texts. I then wrote tunes for them in four-part harmony. I discovered that I could write hymns. I found it fun to pour my ideas into the short forms of hymnody.

As a seminary student, I was getting ready to go out and change the world. Hymnwriting became part of my call. I joined The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada and began sending my new texts to hymn poet Brian Wren for critique. During the next six years I wrote 113 hymns. With Brian’s help my first single author collection, Faith Will Sing, (Hope, 1993) was released.

“Reverend, I can cut that ponytail for you.”

After graduating from PSR I was appointed as a licensed local pastor to serve two small United Methodist churches in Sutter and Meridian, an hour north of Sacramento, California. I didn’t feel very saintly when my district superintendent introduced me to both Pastor-Parish Committees as the Reverend Dan Damon. It was the first time I had ever been called that.

The people were gracious to me and cut me the necessary slack for arriving late with a truckload of family treasures from South Dakota. I was from a small town in a small state. I valued family and old things—maybe I would value these people.

They asked me hard questions like, “Do you believe the Bible?” I said I did, and told them how I believed it. I used my Greenville education and said the Bible claimed inspiration, not perfection. I said, “The Bible was not dictated by God.” I was asked, “Are you a liberal or a conservative?” I still had a little ponytail at the time. I took a nervous breath and said, “I have elements of both.”

Like a young politician I told them I had a conservative upbringing and a liberal education. They asked if I could play the piano. I went to the nearest piano and played “Down by the Riverside” for them. This seemed to clinch the deal.

The people of those churches accepted the bishop’s appointment of the licensed local pastor from Berkeley. After the meeting, Betty Odor, the Meridian beautician, said, “I can cut that ponytail for you.”  I accepted her kind offer and thus donned the look and the mantle of a small town minister.

Heeding a Deeper Call

For years I thought I would earn a doctorate and teach church music at a seminary. I served as pastor in Sutter and Meridian for five years. Then I was appointed as associate pastor at Modesto First United Methodist. I served there for three years before accepting a half-time appointment to serve as pastor of Richmond First United Methodist Church.

At that time, I did some doctoral work at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, musicCalifornia, but instead of completing that degree program, I discovered a deeper sense of calling to be a pastor and a hymnwriter. In a few years I built the half-time appointment up to full time. I have served the Richmond parish for twenty-one years. I preach, play the piano, lead congregational singing, direct the choirs, and type the bulletins.

As a pastor, I enjoy the weekly challenge of using the stories of my faith to help people discover God’s call for themselves. I enjoy writing hymn texts that expand our view of God as seen through the lens of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

By nature I enjoy exploring the edges. In my writing this means I explore the edges of our spoken and sung faith. I often write hymns on social justice themes—the way we treat people is very important to me. I have written hymns for children, women, the elderly, for people living with disabilities, and for the poor and the oppressed. I have written hymns expressing interfaith respect.

My prayer life bears fruit in my hymnwriting, both words and music. I devote myself to God daily in this way. I work to create a loving faith community where all are welcome regardless of gender identification, sexual orientation, abilities and disabilities, ethnic background, or country of origin. As a pastor, I have been learning with the members and friends of Richmond First United Methodist Church as we create a place of beauty and peace in our place and time. I lead by example, not perfectly, but faithfully.

I am grateful to all my professors and friends at Greenville College for helping me to hear, understand, and respond to the call of God in my life.

Read more: Alumnus Damon Receives Highest Honors as Hymn Writer


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This story was published on April 21, 2017

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