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Sharing the Gospel through Music
Since its start up eight years ago, East Lake Expression Engine continues to grow and serve hundreds of kids from elementary to high school in their local community. The Engine focuses primarily on providing a variety of musical programs for their students including choir, instrument lessons, bucket band, small ensembles, supplementary classes in music theory and composition, and tutoring. Additionally, the constant discipleship and mentoring from co-founder and current director Libby O’Neil ’09 and her staff, which includes many other Covenant alumni, help teach these students valuable gospel lessons to carry with them wherever they go.
Engaging with your peers can always be difficult, especially at a young age. O’Neil sees music as a tool that can help unite people. “Music has long been a place where what matters the most is that you can play,” said O’Neil. “It often stands out in culture as a place where other differences start to fade because everyone cares about the sound you are making together.”
Music allows these students to identify and engage with their friends, but it also provides a space for them to step into and understand harder topics. Through music and songwriting, the students are equipped and given the permission to deeply process tough, stressful moments in their life.
Peace In the Storm
O’Neil recounted the time one of her five-year old students passed away. The tragic loss of this student had a tremendous effect on all of the students at Expression Engine. “They wrote a song about grief and feeling like they were locked in a dark room alone, but Jesus was then opening the door and flooding it with light. We actually sing that song every October. Their words and their song are now my tool to talk to them about that pain.”
While the impact this program has on these children is profound, it has also brought light and encouragement to O’Neil and her staff. As Christ taught his disciples, it is important not only to teach children, but to learn from them.
Every year, O’Neil chooses a theme for the students to focus on in their music. She explained how the students’ engagement with that theme always ends up immensely blessing her. “The theme for each year really preaches to me and becomes the thing in the back of my mind that I think about in my own spiritual battles. It's crazy how many times it relates to something I am really wrestling with. There's this little snippet of something that the children wrote that is exactly the truth I needed to hear.”
This year, the theme the students at the Engine are wrestling with is peace. In their songwriting, the students highlight that peace can be different for each person. Peace can be silent, loud, busy, or quiet. They describe peace as a sacrifice, acknowledging that our circumstances don’t need to take away our peace, because God’s peace surpasses all understanding and is not dependent upon these circumstances.
Their song “Peace in the Storm” also highlights the idea of false peace that doesn’t come from the Lord:
“We don't need pretend peace; not saying what we mean; fake smiles, lying faces that's not good; forgiving with our words but not with our hearts; the world needs peace that's not made yet.”
One of the younger kids wrote a segment of the song talking about the storm that happens inside your house, especially when a parent’s peace is disrupted. O’Neil described it as a musical tantrum—rhythmic stomping and screaming balanced out by pauses, emphasizing what parents say to their kids when they are calm. “That’s a dynamic we all know,” said O’Neil, “and when was the last time you heard about it in concert?”
O’Neil mentioned how her connections to Covenant have continued to bless her and the Expression Engine. For example, Lok Kim, assistant professor of music at the college, helps conduct some of the small ensembles at Expression Engine. “He’s such a gift in terms of encouragement and just believing in the importance of the work,” said O’Neil. “It’s fun to watch the kids react to him and understand that this is a real conductor.”
O’Neil is thankful that the biblical foundation she received from Covenant has encouraged her to press on in providing a Christian environment for these students to grow. O’Neil initially found it difficult to truly appreciate the idea of faithful calling as a student, but now she understands the importance of her faith grounding all that she does in the workplace.
“As much as I rolled my eyes because you get steeped in the idea of being faithful in your calling, it was so comforting to have that foundation stepping into conferences and other contexts with our students,” said O’Neil. “I am really hopeful that God will use me, our staff, and our students to be a light in this setting.”
“Music for Social Change” is Expression Engine’s motto. It encapsulates their vision to encourage kids in their community—both musically and spiritually—in order to spread God’s kingdom renewal in their corner of the world. As the program continues to grow, the Covenant alumni office is thankful that the college has played a small part in the story of Expression Engine and hopes we continue being a resource for this remarkable work!
Expression Engine will be hosting their Christmas Concert Noche de paz or night of peace on Thursday, December 1st at Restoration Southside. The concert is open to the public.