As Soccer Moses, Jars of Clay Guitarist Stephen Mason Finds Unexpected Joy - Word&Way

As Soccer Moses, Jars of Clay Guitarist Stephen Mason Finds Unexpected Joy

(RNS) — Stephen Mason’s life has been shaped by guitars, barber shears, and the Bible.

And then there was the dad joke that landed him on ESPN.

Three years ago, the former Christian rocker turned barber was talking to a friend and fellow fan about the opening of the Major League Soccer season when four magical words popped into his head.

“Let My People Goal.”

Mason, a longtime member of Jars of Clay, a Grammy-winning Christian band, was cutting a fellow soccer fan’s hair in his Nashville, Tennessee, barbershop when he recalled how a musician friend had been watching a soccer game and shouted out those words when the team scored.

He joked to his friend in the chair — what if we put those words on a T-shirt for fans?

Then, in a moment of either inspiration or terrible judgment, Mason pulled out his phone mid-haircut, opened up a browser on Amazon, and bought the costume that changed his life. Another customer in line, who owned a sign company, offered to make a banner.

Stephen Mason attends a Nashville SC soccer game dressed as Soccer Moses with a sign bearing his catchphrase, “Let My People Goal,” in Nasvhille, Tenn. Photo by Nick Bastoky

A few days later, Soccer Moses was born.

“It’s a dad joke gone horribly right,” said Mason in a recent phone interview.

The joke might have died right after that first game. But photos of Mason at a Nashville SC game in full regalia — flowing white hair and beard, a biblical-style tunic, a purple and yellow banner with “Let My People Goal” — and a look of sheer joy on his face made their way to social media, catching the eye of a producer at ESPN.

Mason first saw that picture on TV while getting Sunday brunch and chatting up some fellow soccer fans. A profile of the former rocker published by Major League Soccer described that morning’s scene this way: “Mason screamed. His wife looked around and saw the screen. She screamed. Mason was on ESPN.”

These days, Soccer Moses is a celebrity superfan for the Nashville soccer club. His face flies on a flag outside the team’s new stadium and he’s often found in the team’s supporter section, where its most devoted fans gather. A local brewery put out a special “Let My People Gold” beer, which benefits a local soccer charity.

This past week Mason and some friends put on a “Nuns N’ Moses” fundraiser for the local Humane Society — playing covers of Guns N’ Roses in costumes — when the hard rock band was in town for a show. That show was inspired by another conversation at the Handsomizer, the shop Mason opened after being trained as a master barber in 2014 when Jars of Clay stopped touring after nearly two decades on the road.

Mason had been part of forming the band — named for a verse in 2 Corinthians — when he was 18 with some friends from Greenville University, a small Christian school in downstate Illinois. They became one of the biggest bands in Christian music in the 1990s, said Leah Payne, associate professor of American religious history at Portland Seminary and author of “God Gave Rock and Roll to You,” a new history of contemporary Christian music.

Payne said that in the 1990s, many Christian groups wanted to get mainstream success. But few were able to. Jays of Clay was one of them, with the band opening for Sting and hits like “Flood” being played on rock radio stations around the country.

“In some cases, people knew them first as a modern rock band — not as contemporary Christian music,” she said.

Payne said she’s enjoyed seeing Mason’s evolution.

“It’s great to see the artsy, fun life he is having,” she said.

Mason didn’t grow up a soccer fan but discovered the sport while recording the band’s second album, “Much Afraid.” Their sound engineer got the band tickets to a game at Highbury, the former longtime home of the famed English football club Arsenal. From the first moment, Mason was swept away.

“The crowd was jumping and singing the entire time,” he said. “It felt like it was on the verge of disaster the entire match. I’d never felt energy like that before.”

When the band returned home, Mason would get up early to watch soccer from overseas and when soccer came to Nashville, he was a regular in the crowd. Going to matches is a lot like life, he said, paraphrasing soccer journalist Roger Bennett of Men in Blazers, a media company that covers soccer.

“It’s a profound experience just like living,” Mason said. “It is many times sad, and it’s on rare occasions glorious and magical.”

He said that both his work as a barber and his soccer fandom are filled with joy. That search after joy — and the ability to make the world a better place — guides much of his life these days.

George Dohrmann, an editor for the Athletic and author of “Superfans,” said that Mason’s journey to being Soccer Moses parallels the stories of other superfans.

“It often isn’t deliberate,” said Dohrmann. “You often fall into it and then you realize how good it makes you feel.”

Dohrmann has written about the role organized groups of devoted fans — often known as supporters — played in the success of the Portland Timbers, another Major League Soccer team in a smaller market like Nashville. Soccer fans, he said, form a sense of community that’s unlike other sports — with organized chants and songs and a joy that’s as much a part of the experience as the game on the field.

“There’s a sense of unity among fan groups that doesn’t exist, in say, the NBA or NFL,” he said.

There have been a few superfans with religious themes — like Da Pope and the Bless You Boys Popes, fans of the New Orleans Saints; and the Rainbow Man, who wore rainbow wigs and held up “John 3:16” signs at major sporting events for years before being jailed for a bizarre kidnapping episode. But none have quite the backstory that Mason has.

Mason said that when he first put on the Moses costume, his wife warned him he might be doing it for the rest of life, something he seems to be at peace with. A friend from St. Bartholemew’s Church in Nashville now makes his tunics by hand — he has several of them — and he often hosts tailgates at the barbershop before walking over to Geodis Park, home of Nashville’s soccer club, just a stone’s throw away.

Being a superfan, he said, is easier than life as a Christian musician, where people wanted to know his beliefs on hot-button issues or scrutinized the band’s lyrics.

He loves the diversity of the crowds at games, seeing people from all walks of life being bound together by the joy of the moment.

There’s one downside, which will stick with him when he finally lays his tunic down.

“I’ll remember being really hot,” he said. “I don’t know how they did it in the desert.”