My Savior First of All: A Story of Faith

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Vocal studies BJU faculty member Pam Dunbar teaches a voice performance student, Mar. 13, 2018. Photo by Derek Eckenroth

My sophomore year of college, I was working on a gospel song with my teacher when I had a light bulb moment. She really communicated her faith when she sang. She connected with the audience. And watching her, I was moved.

But I was very introverted. I was afraid of what people thought of me. In order to communicate the message of the song to the audience, I felt like I had to literally open up my chest to let people see my heart. It was scary, frightening to be so transparent. But it was a turning point in my singing and in my personal life too.

Voice is the whole person. It’s not like playing the piano where you can hide behind your instrument. You are your instrument.

When you teach voice, you work with the whole person. I’ve always loved teaching voice because, unlike lecture classes, you get to work with students one-on-one. Some students open up more easily than others, and occasionally it can be a challenge to get to know them. But you have to listen to them. There’s a balance between teaching and listening. Sometimes you don’t know a student is on the verge of tears, and sometimes it spills over. Singing is very personal. But to see students go from one level to the next (not just vocally but spiritually too) is just so rewarding. I’m thankful to be working at a Christian university where we’re free to talk about these things.

I’ve always felt like I’ve had the best of both worlds. Back in the day, mothers worked only part time, so I could usually schedule my classes while my girls were in school and then be there for them when they got home. I was part-time professional, full-time mom. And I loved it.

In the beginning it was just me and my husband. We had met and married while working in the music department. He was the one who encouraged me to go on and get my master’s degree.

And then we had Katie.

She was the apple of our eyes—our first child. We thought she was just the smartest and prettiest girl there was. I remember saying when she was almost two, “I just feel so full! God has given me so much.”

A week later Katie cried out in the middle of the night. Her fever was high, but it was January and the middle of flu season. The next day she was worse and started having trouble breathing. I called the doctor, and he said to put her in a tepid bath. That only provided temporary relief. At noon I took her to the hospital. By 5:00, she was gone.

This type of spinal meningitis should never be fatal so quickly. But it was for her. The doctor tried everything he could, but she just died.

It has taken me a long time to be able to say “she died.” I could say “when Katie went to heaven,” but the word “died” just sounded so—harsh. Even now I don’t like to hear the word when I say it.

At the time it was very painful, but God is good. I often think of that time as one of the primary ways the Lord started working in our lives. Not to say He wasn’t working before, but you could really see it in that time and afterward.

Like our pastor said at the funeral, she lived her whole life. She never had to experience life’s woes. She never had to go through the emotional stress of being a teenager. We did have a joyful time when she was here. Looking back, while it’s not something we would ever choose, my husband and I both said we would not change the events that took place. It often brings tears, but they’re not tears of sadness because she is with the Lord.

After the funeral, some friends let us borrow their cabin on a lake to get away from it all. We were thankful for all the people who rallied around us, but there came a point when we needed to be alone. We spent most of that weekend writing thank you notes. And that was probably the most healing thing we could have done because we wrote over and over and over in different ways that God was good. And He is.

The 5-Year Cycle

It takes experience to be able to sing a gospel song honestly. And by that I mean that to understand the words and to communicate them clearly and with feeling, you have to have lived and experienced things. You can’t express in song what you haven’t felt in life.

Katie’s death was one of the biggest experiences of our life. But others followed. Five years later, my husband’s father died. Five years after that, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. My MS started out quickly, but it didn’t really progress much until about three years in.

Today, I walk with a brace and have trouble using my right side. I have to to make an effort to write clearly, but it is okay. It hasn’t affected my voice, and it certainly hasn’t affected my outlook on life because I know I have the Lord through it all.

There were times when I used to be afraid of what it would be like later on. How it would be for my family. But then it felt like the Lord just took me by the shoulders and showed me that He is constantly giving grace to me, and He is giving the same grace to my family.

The Lord’s Grace

The Lord is always good. And because He is with me, it’s okay. I don’t fret about what might happen anymore.

I was reading an article recently about how your outlook on life affects the progression of MS. According to my doctor, my disease has not affected me nearly as much as it should have. And I think my faith has had a lot to do with that. In fact about ten years ago, I was seeing a new doctor who was very surprised to see me walking into her office because, with the amount of scarring I have in the tissues around my nerves, I should not be able to walk. And that’s just the Lord.

My life is good. If you wallow in your difficulty, you become your difficulty. It’s a vicious cycle. But my faith and trust in the Lord give me everything I need. I can still sing His goodness because He has truly blessed me.

And I can teach. I can teach students to sing, and—by God’s grace—I can teach them about the Lord. I’ve been blessed to have relationships with students who have become like family. Right now I am teaching the daughter of a former accompanist whom I was very close to. And that’s really exciting. She is studying voice performance and is doing a beautiful job.

I am very blessed in my life. Every day I get to do what I love. I have wonderful students. I have a beautiful family. And very soon I will have a new granddaughter. I am very full.

Just before Katie went to be with the Lord, I had been working on a hymn. I was supposed to sing it on the opening night of the evangelistic services on campus the day she died. The song was called “My Savior First of All.”

The Lord really hit me with the words of that song. Because for a long time, I looked forward to heaven to see my baby girl. But the song says, “But I long to meet my Savior first of all.” That’s how I feel now. I long to see my Savior. And I will sing His praises until I do.


As told to Lauren Heilman


Mrs. Pam Dunbar is a member of the voice faculty in BJU’s Department of Vocal Studies in the Division of Music.