Editor's note: Portions of this story are about Kelson Graber, brother-in-law of Kansan editor and reporter Chad Frey.
In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 teens dead, Adaylia Powers, a sophomore at Buhler High School, wanted to do something — anything — to send comfort to a school and community that was hurting.
After a conversation with choral teacher Greg Bontrager, a Newton resident and member of First Mennonite Church of Newton, the idea of making a video with classmates singing became her mission.
She collected more than 40 students, put them in a circle in a hallway, and hit record. Their voices, soaring in four-part harmony, began to sing the words of a song called “This I Pray.”
“To the students, friends, and families of the victims at Douglas High School, we extend our love, thoughts, and prayers to all those effected,” Powers wrote on Facebook as she posted a link to the video. “Being from a small town in Kansas, we can’t do much. However, even though we are miles apart, we stand together as one, as students, and as humans. To express our heartache in the best way we know how, we came together to sing 'This I Pray.'”
Within 48 hours, the video had been viewed 606,000 times on Twitter. It has since soared to nearly 670,000 — with nearly another 100,000 views on Facebook. It has been tweeted around the world.
And she was able to meet the song's composer — Kelson Graber of rural Peabody who is a technician for the Newton School District.
Graber learned of the video, and its reach, late last week. He had been asked to speak during a church service at First Mennonite about the power of music. “Open Road,” an a capella group from Bethel College, was slated to sing the song as part of that service.
A call from Bontrager, a longtime friend, clued him in to what was happening with the song that Graber had written in 1997 and recorded with his own a capella group called Stairwell. Stairwell was made up of students from Bethel College including and later disbanded when one member of the group was called by recording artist Acapella to join them in Nashville. During it's run, Stairwell included Graber, Fred Hardyway, Allen Krehbiel, Jim Ostlund and Kelly Stucky.
“On Friday I was on my way to a school district training, we call it an ALICE training, where it would involve a simulation of an active shooter. Greg called me to tell me what was going on. I was dumbfounded,” Graber said.
Dumbfounded, yes, but not shocked that the words — words like “May the hands that made the heavens hold and keep you safe” — strike a chord with people. For 20 years, he has seen that happen.
“I have heard from so many who have received that song,” Graber said. “The interesting thing to note is it is almost always heard in the context of the listeners current struggle. … I could have never known these people's needs, but God did. The song was a means for him to speak to them.”
The song came about, not as an attempt to write a hit, but as a thank you. In about 1996, Stairwell was asked to sing at a week-long set of corporate meetings in Branson, Missouri. Up to that point, the group had sung in churches, weddings, college and smaller venues. On this trip, however, they found themselves on the stage of the Grand Palace — at the time the largest venue in Branson.
The concert was, for the group, an amazing experience. Following that performance, Graber began to pen the words of what would become “This I Pray.”
“Imagine you are inspired to create a blessing, the inspiration of having fulfilled one of your very dreams. Write a thank you wrapped in a blessing expressing your joy, admiration, love, respect and well wishes for those who have touched your soul,” Graber said. “I wrote 'This I Pray' for those wonderful people who represented that blessing boomerang.”
For a video of the song, performed by both Buhler High School students and Open Road, visit thekansan.com.
“This I Pray”
May the Lord put sunshine in all your days.
May He lead and guide you along your way.
May you feel the love, truly flowing from above, that's meant for me and you today.
May the Lord put joy into your life.
May he take your sorrow and your strife.
May you feel Him there, always listening to your prayer.
A beacon in your darkest night.
This I pray, this I pray for you today.
May the hand that made the heavens hold and keep you safe.
May your love for him always be brand new.
This I pray, this I pray for you.
May the Lord put music into your soul.
Give you happiness like you've never known.
May you find the key to life eternally.
May he wash you white as snow.