From writing hymns to true-crime podcasts, CityAlight’s co-founder Richard Thompson reckons with his twin roles of creative and advocate
by Tan Huey Ying // August 31, 2023, 8:33 pm
Rich Thompson, one of CityAlight's two co-founders, believes in using story to move people to “see and care about the unseen, uncomfortable parts of our world”. All photos courtesy of Richard Thompson.
The home video was low-resolution, featuring about 10 Asian girls of various ages in jeans and T-shirts. Still, it held the rapt attention of 40-year-old creative director Richard Thompson.
His first reaction: “Goodness, this is incredible.”
The girls were singing a song that Rich knew like the back of his hand – he was, in fact, one of its songwriters. He had written the lyrics with his three young daughters in mind, hoping they would sing the lines often.
But Rich had not expected this, and marvelled at what he saw.
The girls in the music video were residents at an aftercare shelter for survivors of human trafficking. They had just been rescued. Yet, even after everything they had gone through, they sang the lyrics with certain, joyful gusto:
“For the Lord is good and faithful,
He will keep us day and night
We can always run to Jesus;
Jesus, strong and kind.”
Richard, or Rich, Thompson is one of the original co-founders and songwriters of CityAlight, renowned for their 2018 debut, Yet Not I But Through Christ In Me, co-written by Rich and his team of songwriters.
Writing worship songs is not his full-time job. Rich is also the creative director of creative agency CadenceMedia that he founded in 2016.
For him, song-writing and story-telling had always been the two tools in his hands that operated independently of each other in different worlds. Like two sides of the same coin in bringing God’s glory into the foreground of our world, he had – until CityAlight – used his skills in different settings for vastly different target audiences.
In a strangely providential way, Rich has now become the common denominator of an interesting partnership between CityAlight, a worship band, and Cadence Media, a creative agency, together with International Justice Missions (IJM), an anti-trafficking advocacy group. Added to the mix is Philippine Survivor Network (PSN), a movement to protect vulnerable people such as those rescued from trafficking syndicates.
(Editor’s note: CityAlight is holding their first ever worship night in Singapore on September 30, where Rich will speak more about the new release of “Jesus, Strong And Kind” in the partnership with PSN and IJM. For tickets and more info, click here.)
Faith forged on the road
Rich first started out with songwriting. As a child, he was never interested in playing “other people’s music”, he told Salt&Light. His happy place was on the piano seat, expressing his feelings through playing chords and note sequences as they sounded in his mind.
“It’s been like this for as long as I can remember,” he said.
Fresh out of school after being trained as a teacher, Rich spent four years as a broke but passion-driven musician touring America with his band, Revive, that included his wife, Nicky, and three other couples.
They had gotten this opportunity after they played an opening set for Third Day’s concert in Australia and were invited to continue doing so in America. Rich laughed as he recounted the move as “the promise of adventure across the world”.
But the finances weren’t checking out and there were many scares when the band thought they would run out of money.
“We were living gig-to-gig hoping we would sell enough T-shirts to be able to put petrol in the bus,” recalled Rich.
“We were forged together on that,” he added. “That time really taught us a lot – that God is the Provider and His promises are true, and we can trust them.”
An unusual partnership
It was only when the band got signed by Sony that the financial stresses abated.
Each band member took on additional roles and Rich got his first taste of creative work through being mentored on marketing best practices by Sony’s marketing team.
“I loved the songwriting and storytelling through marketing that I did then. That’s both of the things I do now,” Rich surmised.
When the band moved back to Australia in 2012, Rich went to Bible school as he was at a crossroads and wanted to “figure out what I was going to do with my life”.
“From time to time, that necessitates us making bad financial decisions because we’re making Kingdom decisions.”
In 2013, Rich’s home church, St Paul’s Castle Hill, invited him to explore the potential of their music ministry.
On his first day, Rich met fellow newcomer Jonny Robinson. They immediately clicked and formed a dynamic partnership despite their vastly different backgrounds – Jonny holds a PhD in Philosophy and teaches at Macquarie University in Sydney.
“That first day, we actually just went and grabbed a piano and we started the song that became ‘Jerusalem’,” Rich said.
It would be the first original song by CityAlight, a name which Rich and Jonny picked from a previous poll done in the church. The ministry was originally called St Paul’s Resources.
Together, the duo hammered down the approach to song-writing that has now become a defining characteristic of CityAlight’s music: Modern hymns with easy-to-sing melodies and Bible-centred lyrics that believers take with them into their “Wednesday mornings”.
Along the way, however, both Rich and Jonny decided to keep the ministry on a purely volunteer basis and pursued careers independent of CityAlight.
“If we take seriously the words of Jesus where He says ‘Seek first the Kingdom’, then from time to time that necessitates us making bad financial decisions because we’re making Kingdom decisions,” Rich said.
“But, you know, He’s been very faithful.”
More than a decade later, their philosophy has held strong and CityAlight continues to be a volunteer-run ministry.
Fanning fires in the dark
Rich joined the marketing team in Missions Aviation Fellowship (MAF), a missions organisation providing aviation services to other mission agencies, churches and humanitarian organisations, helping them to reach communities in remote, hard-to-access locations.
As he worked on telling their stories and building a wider audience, Rich realised: This is not enough. He had more stories to do and more to give.
Rich took a leap of faith and founded Cadence Media in 2016 to amplify the visibility of organisations doing good work through the art of storytelling and by “coming alongside such organisations”.
“Imagine a city shrouded in a growing darkness, creeping outwards,” Rich said, listing today’s problems of modern-day slavery, widespread mental health issues, environmental challenges, pornography and other addictions.
Advertising is one of the contributors to that darkness because it typically pushes either fear, greed, or lust, Rich added. “But we also see sparks, bringing light into the darkness and drawing people into the light.
“Sometimes it is just a single piece, like a film, where we hope it helps their fire burn just that little bit brighter. Other times, we are right in the trenches with them, thinking through strategy. We structure the business, stay by their fire and help them build it.
“The beautiful thing about Cadence is that we’ve been able to touch so many different communities as a result of the work we do,” said Rich. They have helped over 200 clients since their launch.
A new evil
When International Justice Mission (IJM), a global organisation that protects people in poverty from human trafficking, modern-day slavery, violence and police abuse of power, became one of Cadence’s first clients, he was soon made aware of the growing evil phenomenon that has emerged in recent years.
OSEC (Online Sexual Exploitation of Children) involves the production, possession and distribution of child sexual abuse materials and the live-streaming of sexual abuse and exploitation meaning that children are sexually abused for the consumption of sexual predators who pay for images or to watch through livestreams.
“This new type of modern-day slavery is very, very difficult to stomach,” Rich said, adding that according to UNICEF findings, the average age of survivors is 12, but children as young as two months old have been subjected to this horrific abuse.
After working with IJM over many projects, Rich finally attended a fundraiser in 2021 where Ruby, a survivor of human trafficking, addressed the audience in person. He was shocked by what he heard.
He was surprised by his own reaction: His team had prepared all the collateral for the event, he knew the story. Why did Ruby’s story seem so new and shocking to him?
The father of three daughters decided that one more “punchy” media campaign would not cut it.
In such a campaign “we would lose all the nuance, we lose the chance to understand and empathise, we lose the opportunity to stop and reflect on ourselves and the part that we can play in doing something about it”, Rich said pointedly.
“Much like a Netflix drama series that will make people want to listen to this incredible story of triumph over evil.”
His idea: Go in the complete opposite direction and build a podcast as a long-form, true-crime immersive story of the fight between good and evil. Not just of Ruby’s fight for freedom, but of the many others who came alongside her to chose make her fight their own.
Rich wanted to test the theory that NGO stories told in a gripping narrative in long-form could move and change people’s hearts. Much like a Netflix drama series.
“I wanted to emulate and magnify the feeling I had when listening to Ruby speak at the conference. It changed lives,” he shared.
It was an enormous undertaking. And it meant committing both time and resources which would hit his bottomline hard. But Rich felt God compelling him to do so.
“There’s a case for that (hearing God). You know, when you hear, you just go and do it.
“I’m very, very aware of people’s apathy towards this kind of thing,” he admitted. “But that is exactly why this is being done – so that you don’t have to convince people to give time to this. They will want to listen to this incredible story of triumph over evil.”
It would not be a documentary filled with dry facts and hard truths that is emotionally exhausting, but a Netflix drama with inviting characters and a plot that is fully engaging.
“And then whilst you are watching that movie, to be able to have some of the important conversations about the topic,” Rich said.
With IJM’s go-ahead and Ruby’s permission, Cadence funded the project and in September 2022, the first true-crime podcast, Finding Ruby, was launched.
When worlds collide
In fact, it was the staff of the aftercare shelter that Cadence visited during subject research on Ruby’s podcast who sent him the video of the survivors singing Jesus, Strong And Kind.
“The voice of the survivors is going to be what helps put an end to this form of trafficking.”
When Rich took that video to Jonny and other CityAlight members, they were moved by the girls’ ability to sing such poignant words despite all they had gone through.
The idea of a duet was mooted. Rich had come to hear of a new movement, the Philippine Survivor Network (PSN), mostly made up of survivors rescued by IJM’s efforts in the Philippines that had recently come together to make their voices heard.
“The voice of the survivors is going to be what helps put an end to this form of trafficking,” Rich said.
CityAlight’s involvement would play a part in helping bring awareness to the PSN, and their latest album gave them the perfect opportunity for a re-release of Jesus, Strong And Kind which they had already considered doing.
The music video of the duet was filmed, first in the Philippines with PSN and then included in the live recording done at CityAlight’s home church, St Paul’s Castle Hill in Sydney.
A story within
“The relationship between CityAlight, Cadence, IJM and the PSN is an interesting one – it’s like a smushing of my worlds,” Rich mused. “In some ways, strange, but in other ways, it feels like a very natural thing.”
“I think the work that God has given me in seeking the Kingdom is to use storytelling to help open eyes.”
In Cadence, Rich believes it is about using story to move people to “see and care about the unseen, uncomfortable parts of our world”, much like how the prophet Nathan confronted King David.
At the same time, the songs produced by CityAlight would remind him and other believers to look to who God is, remembering His sovereignty and knowing that He is already at work in and through us.
As he drew out the threads that bind his work in different worlds together, Rich inevitably told his own story: “I think the work that God has given me in seeking the Kingdom is to use storytelling to help open eyes to what is happening in our world. And to use song-writing to help the church lift their eyes to God so that we can properly engage with the world around us.”
CityAlight will be coming to Singapore for one night of worship on Saturday, September 30. Tickets can be purchased here.
Listen to true-crime podcast Finding Ruby here.
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