"I just wanted to sing for the Lord," says Max Mace, Heritage Singers' founder and man responsible for a thousand Sabbath memories. Mace wipes a strand of blond hair, flashes a trademark smile and says "Who knew we'd be here 40 years later?"
You'll Never Make It
In 1969, Mace and his wife Lucy belonged to the Rose City Singers, a singing group Max started and led at the United Medical Labs where the two worked in Portland, Oregon. Mace steadily felt God calling him to form a full-time Christian-singing group. Three months before going on the road, Max wished to be upfront about his plans and shared this with his president/boss. Rather than receive a blessing, Max and Lucy were fired, along with the other UML employees involved in the venture. However, his president accused him of being disloyal, and said "You'll never make it out there — Max you don't even read music!"
The next day, Max went to Pacific Press and asked them to sponsor the group. They listened, but came back and said "We're sorry, Max, but there is no way we can do this. It's just too costly — it just won't work."
Devastated, confused and over-whelmed, Max felt doors close behind him. He began to question the idea himself. Was his dream really that outrageous? Was he on some ill-fated ego trip? What was he doing taking people away from their families and jobs and going on the road without any source of income?
But, then he remembered the Bible verses: "People make plans in their minds, but only the Lord can make them come true. You may believe you are doing right, but the Lord will judge your reasons. Depend on the Lord in whatever you do, and your plans will succeed," (Proverbs 16:1–3, NCV).
"The day I was turned down by Pacific Press was my darkest day," Max admits. "There we were just three months from our first concert, with needs for printing, travel, music, etc., and we, along with all these other families, were — unemployed." Right there he turned his questions, fears and self-doubts over to God.
God Was In It
But, getting fired soon proved to be an actual blessing. The Industrial Relations Division of the Labor Department investigated the lab and found none of the employees disloyal — forcing the company to provide unemployment. Now, members had time to prepare to go on the road with some income. Lucy found inexpensive red and white skirts for the girls to wear, and a generous woman made a second set of dresses for the girls at her own expense. A printing company printed all the posters and programs at no cost. Things began falling into place. God was providing for their needs. And they began to realize God was in it.
With the date of the first concert quickly approaching, the group still had to find transportation. Max heard the Greyhound Bus Company sometimes offered retired buses at a discount to non-profit groups. He wrote a letter stating their needs. However, a week before the concert the group still had no vehicle. Members got together once more to pray about the situation. No sooner had they said "amen" when the phone rang. It was the Greyhound Company asking them to come select a bus. Two original group members, Jerry Leiske and Bruce Twing arrived at the lot feeling suddenly overwhelmed. How in the world would they choose the right one? Most of the buses looked really bad. Suddenly they heard a voice and were startled to see a man approaching. "What are you looking for?" the man asked.
"We are trying to find a bus with a reliable engine that would be good for road trips for our Christian-music group," they answered.
The man smiled and replied "Well, I know a lot about buses; I'll help you."
They looked at several buses. One was especially ugly. Its Greyhound logo had been sanded off and the interior was yellow-stained and reeking with years of cigarette smoke and stench. However, with a little more checking, the men realized it had lower mileage than the others. "This is the bus you should have. The engine has just been rebuilt, and it is mechanically sound," the stranger said.
Jerry and Bruce looked skeptical — "Are you sure?" they asked him.
"Yes, this is the one you should have," he assured them.
The two parked the bus and went inside the office to fill out the paperwork. "You've really made a good choice," the Greyhound representative said while they signed the papers. "How did you happen to choose this particular bus?"
"Well there was a gentleman helping us," answered Jerry. "He said he knew a lot about buses."
The Greyhound representative got a strange look on his face, "Nobody is allowed on this lot except our security guards, and none of them are here today," he said. Then he paused, leaned back in his chair, and looked at them skeptically. "No one could have possibly been out there other than the two of you." Mystified, he sent someone out to the lot to look for the man, but the man had disappeared.
Heritage founders are convinced God sent an angel that day.
One Concert at a Time
"When we left our home in Portland and climbed onto the bus with our suitcases — not knowing when we'd be returning, if ever — it was a big step of faith," says Lucy. "We didn't even know how we were going to pay for the diesel costs to get from the first concert in Yakima, Washington, to the second concert in Wenatchee, Washington." Just moments before they were about to leave, Lucy felt impressed to check the mailbox one last time. She was humbled and amazed to find a letter with a check in it for $300 which turned out to be the exact amount needed for the trip. The following concert provided just enough offering to get to the next one and so on. The Heritage Singers have grown exactly one Northwest concert, one offering, one home hosting the group for a night, one church preparing soup suppers for performers, etc.
But the new group was not without controversy. Many weren't ready for Heritage style — upbeat songs, modern dress. Sometimes committees allowed Heritage into their conferences by just one vote. "No one wants to be a negative person, so I've learned not to be bitter," Max says with boyish optimism. "Just when things looked bleakest God would send one supporter," he says. "Cecil Coffey, GLEANER editor at the time, and Jerry Brass, NPUC youth leader, gave us our strongest support. Without that Northwest support we wouldn't be here. Those two gentlemen said ‘Max if the Lord is in this, it will not fail.' So we took a step of faith."
Max affirms he didn't see his role as getting into doctrinal debates, politics, or arguing over music selection. Time that might have been justifiably spent harboring hurts, was, instead, just used singing about Jesus.
"In 40 years, I've learned God opens doors no man can," says Max. "Take for instance our recent trip to Romania. Mihai Gedea, a little boy who grew up listening to 'Heaven is For Kids' is now is in charge of a prime-time live television show (similar to Meet the Press here in America.) Mihai took a Heritage CD to the station and was playing it for the producer of a popular variety show (similar to an American Oprah). The producer immediately cancelled her guest lineup for the day and opened the whole show for Heritage to perform. In an hour-live television show, the group then answered question after question about God. This was the first time any Christian group ever had the privilege of singing nationwide in Romania.
"I've also learned," says Max "if God closes a door — not to fight it, but there might be a good reason for it to close."
Since those humble beginnings the group has sung in over 65 countries, traveled by boat, airplane, been on countless mission trips, and launched Espanola Heritage ... Concurrent with 2010 GC Session, Heritage unveiled a 206-plus page book commemorating their 40-year history. Heritage Singers, the original Rose City Singers from Portland, Oregon, packed the house, with, not one — but two concerts in concurrence with GC Session. The concert was marked by Max, stepping onto stage, paying tribute to longstanding supporters, and blending old and new music including Heritage's longest running "Jesus is the Lighthouse," "Daystar" and "God's Wonderful People."
And today, the Northwest-born, once farm boy and now co-founder of one of the most influential Christian singing groups, gratefully says he wishes for "only another 40 years singing for the Lord..."