Father Matt McGinness had never heard the song playing on his car radio, even though "Sing Your Praise to the Lord" was one of superstar Amy Grant's biggest hits.
"Gosh, I really like that song," the priest told a musician friend that night back in 1995. "Well, thanks," responded Rich Mullins. This mystified the priest, who asked what he meant. "I wrote that," said Mullins.
McGinness hadn't realized that Mullins was that famous. The priest simply knew him as another seeker who kept asking questions about doctrine, history and art and was developing a unique spiritual bond with St. Francis of Assisi. At the time of his death in a Sept. 19 car crash Mullins was taking the final steps to enter Catholicism.
"Rich had made up his mind and he wasn't hiding anymore," said McGinness, chaplain of the Newman Center at Wichita State University. "But I really don't think it's fair to make him the poster child for Catholic converts. ...The key to Rich is that he was searching for a deep, lasting unity with God. He was such a reflective man and that quality brought him both peace and a great deal of anxiety."
Even friends described Mullins as "enigmatic" and "eccentric" and there was much more to him than hit songs, led by the youth-rally anthem "Awesome God." Grant summed up his legacy during last month's Dove Awards in Nashville, in which Mullins received his first "artist of the year" award.
"Rich Mullins was the uneasy conscience of Christian music," she said. "He didn't live like a star. He'd taken a vow of poverty so that what he earned could be used to help others."
McGinness said Mullins often said he felt called to a life of chastity and service, while staying active in music. It was hard to predict his future. His final recordings are slated for release on June 30 as "The Jesus Record."
"Rich didn't know for sure if he was called to ministry, which in the Catholic context would be the priesthood," said McGinness. "He also feared that converting to Catholicism could mean losing his audience. ... He knew there might be rough days ahead."
It's crucial to remember that Mullins grew up surrounded by fiercely independent brands of Protestantism such as the Quakers and the Churches of Christ, said his brother David Mullins, minister at the Oak Grove Christian Church in Beckley, W. Va. This taught him to fear formality and hierarchies, while also yearning for a faith that united people in all times and places - - with no labels.
"Rich had a very low view of church structures, but he had very high ideals about what the church could be," said his brother. "He was sincerely drawn to Catholicism, but he also wondered where he would fit in the Roman Catholic Church."
Nevertheless, Mullins' recent music was steeped in Catholicism, from his autobiographical album "A Liturgy, A Legacy & A Ragamuffin Band" to his "Canticle of the Plains" musical about a Kansas cowboy he called St. Frank. His greatest-hits set was filled with photos of Celtic churches, crucifixes, nuns and statues of Mary. He quoted G.K. Chesterton and Flannery O'Connor, defended the pope and told one interviewer: "I think that a lot of Protestants think that Pentecost happened and then the church disappeared until the Reformation. So there is this long span of time when there was no church. That can't be if Jesus was telling the truth."
After playing telephone tag for a week, McGinness and Mullins talked one last time the night before the fatal accident. Mullins was going to Mass weekly, if not more often. He was ready to say his first confession and be confirmed. They set a meeting in two days. Others said Mullins was aiming for Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis.
"There was a sense of urgency," said the priest. "He told me, 'This may sound strange, but I HAVE to receive the body and blood of Christ.' I told him, 'That doesn't sound strange at all. That sounds wonderful.' ... Of course, I'll always remember that conversation. Rich finally sounded like he was at peace with his decision."