Zuigia: Doing things backwards Down Under     

PLAINVIEW, TEXAS -- For Clinton Staj, months of praying, planning and wondering suddenly became clear.

"Australian bands," a pastor explained to him while on a visit to Australia, "if they are Christian bands, play in the pubs because they can play seven nights a week to non-Christians and minister to them because it is a paying gig. They can eventually earn enough money to go to America.

"A non-Christian band plays in the pubs because it is seven gigs a week and they can earn enough money to eventually go to America.

"You are coming to Australia to make no money, to play to school children and teenagers before they ever get to the pub.

"You guys are doing it exactly backwards."

Doing things differently is nothing new for Zuigia (Zoo-ee-zha). Since the band's chance formation in a dorm room at Wayland Baptist University, the group hasn't exactly fit the proverbial mold, choosing to reach across barriers with a music style and message that appeals to people of all ages. Now, as they seek to fulfill God's calling on their lives, Wayland graduates Staj a New Mexic native, Greg Howle, from Hawaii, and Salem Posey, of Brownfield, hope to use their gifts and talents to reach a whole new audience Down Under.

In the Beginning

Staj was sitting in his dorm room writing songs and strumming away when a couple of friends he met through their shared love of soccer asked to join in his jam sessions -- Staj on the bass and vocals, Posey on guitar and background vocals with the original third member, John Mark Hester, joining the group. Howle brought his drums to Wayland and was soon playing along.

The popularity of the group's sessions rose as more and more students filled the dorm to listen. The group had a unique sound that to this day cannot be described.

"I guess the closest thing you can say is it's like alternative folk," Staj said. "It's not heavy. It does lend itself to rock 'n roll, but it is really a lot of acoustically guitar driven music."

Interest in the group grew until one day the manager of Pete's Place, a student lounge at Wayland, asked Staj if they would perform a concert.

"I said we weren't even a band," Staj explained.

"You are now," was the reply.

The group had little time to gather itself together and come up with a name. They agreed upon a word that Staj had made up for one of his songs. It was a name used to describe a place where people were not judged based on outward appearance.

"I realized that I looked a little different than your average Wayland student," said Staj whose long goatee reaches down to his chest. Coupled with the loose dreadlocks stretching down his back, brightly colored, sometimes striped socks and interesting head wear, Staj has managed to turn a few conservative heads in a West Texas town.

"I grew up all my life on ranches and farms (in the four corners region of New Mexico). There is no reason for me to look this way," he joked.

But Staj had a purpose in his writings.

"I was wondering where I could go where all the pretty girls, or just one of them, could get to know me and not judge me," he explained. "I realized that place doesn't exist, so I just made up this word to describe this place.

"I realized that's kind of how God is with us. He has been pursuing me my whole life, trying to get to know me. He is the only one who has the right to judge, but He doesn't. So now, [Zuigia] just describes being with God and letting Him love you."

Thus was born Zuigia. As the band's popularity grew, Staj, Hester, Posey and Howle began playing for youth groups and other church-related functions. Hester played with the band for two years before giving up his spot in order to answer another call on his life as a youth minister.

Through its performances, Zuigia began building a repertoire and stage presence that would soon, unbeknownst to the group, prove to be their livelihood and mission.

Called to the mission field

Staj graduated from Wayland with degrees in Spanish and religion in May of 2000. Posey soon followed, graduating with a biology degree in 2001. Needing two more years to finish his degree, Howle stayed behind as the group began to split up.

"We did what we thought would be our last concert in May of 2001, after Salem graduated," Staj said. "We said the band was over unless God wanted it together and we couldn't see how that would happen."

Each member of the band felt a calling on his life, but the pull was in different directions. To that end, the group split up and moved away. Staj and his wife, Jennifer, a former women's basketball player a Wayland, moved to Hawaii. Posey headed for a summer in Europe and Howle and his fiancée, Sara, remained behind to complete their educations.

Before long, the call to missions overwhelmed the three band members, but it wasn't a call they were expecting.

"That summer, during the same week, we all had similar experiences of God showing us he wanted us together as a band," said Staj.

Clinton and Jennifer, working as youth ministers at a church in Hawaii, were driving a group to an event when one of the youth handed Staj a CD to play.

"I had tried not to think about music for more than a month. Just don't think about it. I'll do any kind of missions except music," Staj said. "I was looking for a different avenue."

Staj didn't realize the CD was a copy of a demo recorded by Zuigia.

"From the first note of the first song, I just started crying," Staj said. "I felt God saying, 'This is the way I want you to do missions. This is the way I called you.'"

Posey had just returned from a trip to Europe and was spending time with his parents, trying to determine which direction his life was heading.

"I always wanted to do agricultural type missions in Africa," Posey said. "But it seemed like it just wasn't happening. It wasn't the right thing to do even though I had wanted to do it for so long."

Posey had been given a book by a friend that documented the positive effects and efficiency native missionaries have in their own countries.

"Sending a Caucasian family to Africa would mean $70,000 a year or something like that," Posey explained. "A native could live on $1,500 or $2,000. Not that God doesn't use the other method, but it seems that a lot of what is doing really well is the native missionaries."

Through his study, Posey was feeling a change of direction for his life.

"It seemed like God was just saying, 'It doesn't mean that you won't ever go to Africa, but I just don't have you going there right now,'" he said.

The next step was to ask God what He wanted for his life. Posey said he had "kind of a bad attitude" toward people in West Texas, getting tired of the keep-up-with-the-Joneses lifestyle that had haunted him growing up.

"I couldn't keep up," Posey said. "I kind of had a chip on my shoulder for a while and no real heart to minister to people here. But God said, 'I'm going to give you a chance to use music. I'm going to make you stay here for awhile and I'm going to use you and show you how to let Me love people. This is what I'm calling you to do.'"

Posey quickly called Staj to inform him of his feelings only to discover Staj was ready to reform the band as well.

The next step was to get Howle on board - a step that wasn't difficult.

"For me it was more of a change in attitude," Howle said. "When I started playing with them, I knew they were older and would leave school before me. I had decided then not to continue with them if they decided to continue with the band. I would just do it as a fun thing while I was in college."

An art major, Howle wanted to make movies when he completed college, but he began to feel the pull of God in another direction.

"It wasn't as big an experience for me as it was for Clint and Salem," Howle said. "God was just opening me up to something different. Something other than my plan. If they would have asked me a month earlier, I would have said no."

Making plans for Australia

Posey returned to Plainview in the fall of 2001. Clint and Jennifer made it back in the spring of 2002. The group worked at various jobs while waiting for Greg and Sara to complete their education. As a band, they began preparing for the mission field, not knowing where they would move.

The band continued to rehearse, perform and work on producing a CD while trying to determine where their call was leading them.

"We knew that when Greg and Sara graduated in 2003, we were free to go wherever," Staj said.

According to Posey, none of the group particularly wanted to stay in West Texas, but they were at a loss to determine where God wanted them.

"We asked God, 'Do you want us here or do you want us somewhere else?' We just started praying and God started opening doors toward Australia," Posey said.

But no decision was set in stone. The group was still considering options when Posey finally came up with a plan.

"Salem said, 'Let's get out a piece of paper. If God said we can go anywhere, write down your top three choices,'" Staj explained. "Let's don't have any limits, anywhere in the world."

When the votes were counted, Staj said all five sheets of paper listed Australia as the No. 1 choice.

"I was really surprised," Staj said. "I probably thought we would end up in Florida or California. I knew we were all called to missions, but I didn't know how it would work."

As it turned out, in one of what Staj refers to as God's "non-coincidences," he had plans, through his missionary sister, for an upcoming visit to Australia.

"This was too coincidental to be a coincidence," Staj said.

While visiting Down Under, Staj stayed with pastors and missionaries who began to outline a plan for Zuigia's mission.

"They could see why God was leading us there," said Staj, who was wondering how the band could turn Australia into its mission field.

While in college and the years following, Zuigia's primary goal had been to witness to children and young adults through concerts. In Australia, there is no separation of church and state. The schools teach religious education classes, opening a world of opportunity to a group geared toward ministering to youth.

But while the schools offer religious education courses, the state doesn't want to be in charge of the curriculum. Therefore, the classes are contracted out to a group called Scripture Union which Staj said is similar to our Gideons.

"They said what they need is a band that can go around to schools," Staj said. "We can go into the public schools and tell them anything we want. We can tell them the plan of salvation, our testimonies, how to become a Christian, we can pray with them and lead them to the Lord."

Staj said what astounded him was the fact that of the hundreds of children they will reach each day, only a very small number have had any contact with a church of any kind.

"Less than 5 percent of Australian youth go to church or are exposed to church," Staj said. "Australia has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. They have a culture of atheism. The youth over there are really smart and they take their beliefs to the logical end. They feel that if they are just an accident and a result of evolution and there is no right or wrong and no consequences to their actions, then they can just end all the pain now."

The International Mission Board has also talked to Zuigia about flying the group from Australia into Southeast Asia to perform at the colleges. According to the IMB, 99 percent of those students have never even heard the words "Jesus Christ."

"The first time they hear those words will be from our lips on stage," Staj said. "To me that is extremely humbling."

Staj said the IMB has been trying for years to reach the college students in Southeast Asia.

"They can reach the homeless, the handicapped and the orphans, they can meet those needs. But the university students . all they want is to learn English and go to America. They want to be in touch with American culture, American movies, American music, things they see on TV. These missionaries have been trying for three years to get a Christian band to come over and do concerts."

When the IMB got wind of Zuigia's plan, they contacted the band, asking for their help. But there was one stipulation.

"They said if we were country or contemporary or southern gospel, don't come," Staj said.

It seems that Asian misconceptions of Americans paint a picture of rock stars. The IMB asked Zuigia to send some pictures and a demo of their music. Once they saw the band . goatees, dreadlocks, long socks and all . and heard their music, ". they were just really impressed and told us to come on over," Staj said.

How to get there

Zuigia's plans seem to have been mapped out, but there is still the question of how they will survive in Australia. Although they are working in cooperation with the Scripture Union and the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which has been generous in its support of the group's efforts, there is no organizational funding to help the band live.

But once again, the group has seen God's hand at work.

Zuigia released their first CD in February. It was two years in the making, but they borrowed no money and incurred no debt to finance the project. The band members took on extra work and paid for the CD with their own money and donations from generous individuals. Staj even had to form his own record label to get the CD played on area radio stations. All proceeds from the sales of the CD will help fund their trip overseas.

Also, pastors in West Texas have voted to use money from the Gordon Benson Memorial Fund to purchase the band's plane tickets to Australia at a cost of roughly $7,500. The fund was set up in memory of Benson, pastor of First Baptist Church Halfway, who was killed in an automobile accident in February of 2003. The band is hoping to make its move to Australia in August 2004.

Zuigia has also been accepting donations and love offerings from churches where they have performed. The band's list of needs includes: shipping cost for sound equipment, medical insurance, visas, a van to use for traveling to the schools, a trailer to haul equipment, travel and living expenses.

The group is in the process of getting religious worker visas which basically means they are not allowed to hold jobs in Australia. Therefore, the group will be living off funds raised and donated in the States.

To that end, Zuigia has been registered with the IRS as a non-profit organization with tax exempt status. Businesses or individuals are welcome to donate to Zuigia and will receive a receipt for tax purposes.

Donations may be sent to Zuigia International, c/o Dr. David Howle, 105 SW 9th St., Plainview, TX 79072. For information on booking Zuigia for a concert, check out the band's Web site at www.zuigia.com.

"God is providing for us to get there in really humbling ways," Posey said. "Doors that we didn't even knock on have been opened."