Where My Great Passion Meets the World’s Great Need, Or, How Music Became My Ministry

I couldn’t see devoting myself to an extremely risky line of work for the sake of nothing but my faith in my own talent. My studies at Guilford pinballed my professional future between subjects in which I have a peripheral interest: psychology, sociology, restorative justice, philosophy. Then I discovered Quakerism. I should say, I re-discovered Quakerism.

The Beginnings of My Vocational Discernment

During my senior year at Guilford (‘05-’06), there was an active discussion about vocation. “Where my great passion meets the world’s great need” was the phrase bouncing around in my head and the community’s collective consciousness.

I had been writing and recording songs as a hobby since my senior year of high school. By 2006 I had even released a few CDs and played some shows. Music was, without a doubt, my great passion. But there were several major barriers between me and committing to my journey as a musician: (1) It is incredibly unlikely that one will succeed in this line of work; (2) Success often comes at the abandonment of the passion or love that brought one to explore music in the first place; (3) The majority of successful musicians are doing no great service to anything but their own egos.

I couldn’t see devoting myself to an extremely risky line of work for the sake of nothing but my faith in my own talent. My studies at Guilford pinballed my professional future between subjects in which I have a peripheral interest: psychology, sociology, restorative justice, philosophy.

Then I discovered Quakerism.

I should say, I re-discovered Quakerism. Or: I was convinced (as Quakers like to say).

Examining My Roots – A Deeper Commitment

I grew up Quaker. I was well versed in the modern Quaker jargon, the institutional acronyms, the banter of Young Friends, the songs of the camping programs and the schedules and rhythms of the FGC Gatherings. I thought I was as Quaker as they come.

The Early Friends said that baptism comes inwardly and powerfully when we make ourselves open to the spirit of Christ. My senior project for the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program was such an opportunity. Tired of music being an isolated thread in my life, I was inspired to write and record a CD of songs about the Early Friends and the beginnings of the Quaker movement.

The experience was incredible, not just for the personal and moving stories that I uncovered about the Early Quakers, but for the way that the world seemed to rise up around me to supply the resources needed to make the project powerful, alive. In sharing that life with my immediate community of Guilford and the wider community of Quakerism, I‘ve seen its impact be deep, meaningful, transformational. I had found where my great passion meets the world’s great need.

Settling into Action

Today, four years later, I spend my time traveling among Friends, exploring art and ministry and our collective history. I see this as being sacred, and very important, work and I am well supported in doing it.

Certainly I would not have discovered such a perfect, unconventional way to use my specific set of gifts had I not been given the opportunity to explore vocation in the safe container of Guilford College. I think of it as threading a needle (or threading several at once), which takes a lot of trial and error, thought and space. It is invaluable that undergraduates be given the space and guidance to do this explorative work, and I am always glad to know that Guilford and QLSP are still out there, helping to shape our soon-to-be ministers, musicians and leaders.

-Jon Watts QLSP ‘06

Reposted from the Friends Center Fall 2010 Newsletter

Bicycling into New York City part II: Biking into Manhattan on the George Washington Bridge

This is the second in a 3 part series on biking into Manhattan.
read Part One

Richmond to Boston on a bicycle

Me with all my gear loaded on my Xtracycle.
Me with all my gear loaded on my Xtracycle.

I recently completed a 1,000 mile bike tour in which I lugged all of my musical equipment from Richmond to Boston and then on to Buffalo.

Continue reading “Bicycling into New York City part II: Biking into Manhattan on the George Washington Bridge”

Xtracycle Radish Tour Vlog

For the past three months I have been touring on an Xtracycle Radish. Every week for ten weeks, I recorded and uploaded a vlog. Now, for the first time, each of those vlogs is combined into one window. You can watch all the way through or find the most interesting episodes, all from here!

Xtracycle Radish Tour

For the past three months I have been touring on an Xtracycle Radish. From Richmond to Boston and then on to Buffalo, NY, I ended up riding about 1,000 miles with all of my gear, which turned out to be about 120 Lbs. (!)

Click here to find out how I fit all of

that equipment onto my bike.

Two Wheel Tour Vlog

For ten weeks, I recorded and uploaded a vlog every week, which included footage from my performances and from the ride… and revealed some of the secrets of how I made my trip happen!

Now, for the first time, all of that footage is combined into one window. You can watch all the way through or find the most interesting episodes, all from this page!

Letters of Support and Recommendation

Promise Partner, Olney Friends School

Promise Partner, of Olney Friends School
“One student commented, ‘I hadn’t written that way before. It opened me up, made it easier to write, and I produced things I love.’ Another student, who was already a writer, said that her poetry has changed because of Jon’s workshops: ‘Now I can get out of my head and let the spirit in.’

Read the rest of Promise’s letter…

John W. Baird, Head of School, Westtown School

john-baird-westtown-head-school“Friend Jon connected well with students from both Quaker and other backgrounds. His vibrant spoken word messages touched on themes of environmental stewardship, peace, equality, justice and other quaker testimonies with an authenticity and immediacy that expanded the vocabulary of worship for all of us.”

Read the rest of John’s letter…

Tom Hoopes, Religious Studies Teacher at George School

“Jon Watts brings people together across boundaries of age, theology and musical taste. After Jon’s recent performance at George School, I heard a wide range of affirmative responses from various people. A spiritually-seeking teacher in his late twenties remarked, “Wow. Jon Watts is the real deal. He’s got it.” A very savvy girl of 18 said, “He is SO hot! I have all of his CDs.” A colleague in her 50’s noted, “I love his stuff. And my kids and their friends all have his music on their iPods.”

Read the rest of Tom’s letter…

Walter Hjelt-Sullivan, Academic Dean of Pendle Hill

walter-hjelt-sullivan-pendle-hill“Jon Watts is a skillful and perceptive performer. His performances take on the flavor of a Meeting for Worship. It is clear to me that Jon both prepares the play list to create that atmosphere and listens carefully to follow the leadings of the Spirit in the moment. What I appreciate most about Jon and his ministry is the honesty, sincerity, and transparency of his journey. He continuously seeks to be faithful – to find the true message that has been given to him.”

Read the rest of Walter’s letter…

Max Carter, Director of Friends Center at Guilford College

Max Carter“After witnessing the profoundly positive impact Jon’s work has had on the Quaker community at Guilford, I have felt moved to share the fruits of his labor with the wider Quaker world. I hope that Jon’s music will inspire others to dig deep into the experience of early Friends and discover, as Jon did, deep resources for our lives today.”

Read the rest of Max’s letter…

Bicycling into New York City Part I: How (not) to Bike into Manhattan

This is the first in a 3 part series on biking into Manhattan.
read Part Two

Richmond to Boston on a Bike

Me with all my gear loaded on my Xtracycle.
Me with all my gear loaded on my Xtracycle.

When I first announced that I was going to ride my bike from Richmond to Boston, one of the first questions that most people asked was: “How are you going to get into Manhattan?”
Continue reading “Bicycling into New York City Part I: How (not) to Bike into Manhattan”

How to Carry a Guitar on a Bike

Trailer vs. Cargo Bike

When I first had the idea of doing my East Coast tour on bicycle, I looked into bike trailers. I couldn’t imagine any way to fit my guitar and amplifier onto the back of a bike without towing something behind. (not to mention my box of CDs, t-shirts, posters, tent, food, clothing, sleeping bag, stove, etc!)

But towing a trailer would have felt bulky… two wheels of extra friction on the road? And where would I leave the trailer when I wanted to ride around without all of my stuff?
Continue reading “How to Carry a Guitar on a Bike”

How to get through Quantico Military Base on Your Bike

This week I started out a bike trip from Richmond to Boston with my guitar and equipment all packed up. I had done minimal training so my first day was really slow going… I didn’t even make it to Fredericksburg. But my second day was much faster and I was hoping to make up for lost time – until I hit Quantico. It was a huge pain in the ass to get through, so I thought I’d pass the knowledge on. If this helps you out, give a holler in the comments section!
Continue reading “How to get through Quantico Military Base on Your Bike”

Why I’m Going to Boston on an Xtracycle Radish

For the month of April I’m touring up the East Coast, playing shows in every city from Richmond to Boston. But I’ve made a different kind of decision about my manner of travel… instead of taking the train, renting a tour van or borrowing a car, I’m going to be traveling on human power. That is… I’m traveling from Richmond to Boston on my bike.


The first thing I said to myself once the decision was made (after are you crazy?) was: how?

I am not simply a traveling minstrel. I am a professional musician, with equipment and merchandise. I can’t just pick up and go, or play a spontaneous show. I have amps, cords, pedals, boxes, t-shirts, cds and posters… not to mention all of the personal gear needed to sustain me for a month. How was I going to fit all of that stuff onto a bicycle?

After a month of research about panniers, trailers, touring bikes, etc., I came across a small company in California that makes extra-sized bicycles for exactly this predicament: Xtracycle. I have found photos of cyclists carrying surfboards, tires, and even other bikes on Xtracycle’s cargo cycles. So I got myself a Radish.

Jon Watts and his Radish
The Xtracycle Radish

The Radish is one of the few out-of-the-box cargo bikes that Xtracycle sells (mostly people buy the kit, which extend the back of any given bike). I was lucky enough to test ride a diverse selection of cargo bikes at a sweet little bike shop in Carrboro, North Carolina called Cycle9, which is one of the few bike shops on the East Coast that stocks these kinds of cargo bikes. The good folks at Cycle9 put a helmet on me and let me ride one of their Radishes all over town, which I promptly fell in love with (check out my review of the Radish).

So with all of the cargo space in my Xtracycle Radish – and after investing in a smaller guitar and amp – the question was answered. I can fit everything I need on a bike.

But the question still stands: why go to all of this work? Why not just drive a car like any other rational American would?

Jon Watts and his Xtracycle Radish 13It would be easy for me to spout off a guilt-based justification about how quickly our society is killing the Earth, and how each of us is individually contributing a great deal to that destruction by owning and over-using personal vehicles. And it would be true. I do feel guilty and hypocritical about simultaneously mourning the destruction of the natural world and contributing to it.

But the deeper reason why I am riding my bike the 600 miles to Boston: I find driving, for all of it’s convenience, to be spiritually deadening.

So let’s turn the question on it’s head… why, when I could be actively using my body, engaging with the land and the environment around me, viscerally feeling the miles go by underneath me, and genuinely living would I isolate myself in a sound-proof, wind-proof, experience-proof chamber?

Why in the world would anyone do that?

Thus it is out of my love for this world, my love for my body, my love for experiential living that has led me to make the decision to bike.

Not out of hatred for what we’re doing to our planet, but out of love for the feeling of wind on my skin, the feeling of having my instincts engage when I’m lost or in danger, the feeling of being alive.

So, my smart answer for why I’m biking to Boston?

Because it’s faster than walking.

Jon Watts and his Radish

Xtracycle Radish Bike Review

Jon Watts and his Xtracycle RadishI recently made the decision to do my tour this Spring on bicycle, for reasons that I’ve explained in this post. I thought it might be nice to write a quick review of what I’ve noticed of the bike just in my preliminary riding around town. I’m sure I’ll have much more to say once I’ve ridden it 600 miles up the East Coast.

The concept of a cargo bike appealed to me because I have a large load of stuff that I carry with me on tour – amps, guitar, accordian, merchandise, etc – but the idea of toting a trailer behind me just didn’t appeal. It seemed like it would slow me down with its one or two extra wheels, cause me to feel bulkier and just be a hassle in general.

The first thing that struck me about Xtracycle’s Radish is the amount of stuff that it can hold. With two giant panniers beside the extended rear wheel, the Radish can hold more than four times what I would carry on the back of a normal bike. I say more than four times because all of the straps are adjustable, and the bags are essentially open flaps instead of restrictive bags, so I can have as wide a load as I want.

The Radish can hold 200 lbs of cargo in the back, which is perfect… it means that I can fit all of the stuff I need, but that the bike isn’t so heavy duty that I can’t lift and maneuver it when it’s empty.

It would be a real pain if I couldn’t lift it up the stairs to bring it into my house every night while I’m living in the city. That said, it is not light, even when it’s empty. I take a deep breath every time I’m going to pick it up.

The Xtracycle Radish

…but it’s light enough to be playful. One major concern that I had about getting a longer bike than normal is that I like to jump curbs, skid to my stops, weave in and out of cones, and all of the other fun stuff that I did on a bike as a kid. Why ride a bike if you’re not going to enjoy it? To my relief, the Radish isn’t too heavy to do these kinds of playful stunts. Even though I do feel the extra length and weight, the Radish isn’t so bulky or heavy that I refrain from being a little adventurous.

While my initial concern was that 8 gears wouldn’t be enough for me (I don’t often need to pedal when going downhill, and 1st gear is amazingly easy, even with a load), it’s getting the gears to line up with the shifter that I have been having trouble with. From my first ride on the bike I noticed that the shifter would occasionally skip a gear and after spending hours with the bike upside down adjusting the shifter and even more hours riding the bike around and fiddling with the awkwardly-placed adjuster on the handlebars, I can say that I am slightly baffled. I love the bike enough that it doesn’t destroy my experience of it when I try to shift into fifth and it surprises me by shifting 2 minutes later, when I’m about to go up a hill. But it sure would be nice if I could get that fixed… and it is somewhat ridiculous that it came with that major of a problem out of the box.

I love my Radish so I wipe it down every evening after a day of riding, but those who are not quite so attentive might get frustrated with the way that dirt stands out on the milky white frame or with the way that the chain hangs down to leave grease on a white crossbar underneath it.

The disc brakes on the back wheel of the Radish are great… they help me to feel totally comfortable in most situations, knowing that I could stop on a dime even with wet brakes. The brakes rubbed badly for the first few weeks of riding, and when I looked online it seems like that is perfectly normal. It has corrected itself, more or less.

I should also say that I’m not a serious biker. I test-rode a few touring bikes and they simply felt uncomfortable and certainly couldn’t hold the amount of stuff that I am needing to take on the road. Some may call me crazy for taking a bike as casual as the Radish on a trip this serious, but the trip is more meditative than it is goal-focused. I have plenty of time in between cities and will not be rushing or racing.

Jon Watts and his Radish

When I was researching for this trip I looked all over for stores that carried Xtracycle gear so that I could test it out. I mostly got cockeyed looks when I walked into bike stores in Richmond, VA and asked for an Xtracycle… but I lucked out to find Cycle9.

Cycle9 is a little bike shop in Carrboro, NC which specializes in cargo and electric bikes. They were super friendly and helpful when I peppered them with ignorant questions about the basics of cargo biking and touring… and best of all, they didn’t treat me with the insider snobbishness that I often encounter in bike shops! Cycle9 is the bike shop for the everyday user who may not know much about bikes but wants to live more responsibly and freely in a world where it is increasingly possible to opt-out of the destruction and everyday frustration caused by our culture of individual car ownership.

Max Carter on Jon Watts’ Video

I was unaware of a YouTube video that recently went “viral” – at least in proportion to Quaker numbers – until friends referred me to it. The video shows 2006 QLSP graduate Jon Watts rising in the silence of worship in the Barn at Pendle Hill. His vocal ministry turns into a “rap” about Quaker history and theology, focusing on the diversity of views among Friends and his own upbringing in Friends General Conference.

Reposted from the 2009 Friends Center Newsletter

Max Carter, Director of Friends Center at Guilford College
Max Carter, Director of Friends Center at Guilford College

I am not adept at most of the modern social networking devices. No Blackberry or cell phone, even. At the insistence of Friends Center staff and students, there is a Facebook account with my name attached – for purposes of getting the word out on campus ministry programs. But I don’t know how to operate it.
Continue reading “Max Carter on Jon Watts’ Video”

“Dance Party” Reflections – Two Months Later

Three months ago I traveled to the Sierra Friends Center in California to take a break from the spotlight… I had been traveling in the ministry and performing all over Philadelphia Yearly Meeting for two months.  It was my intention to get some rest and do some discernment about my next steps, including some experimentation with internet outreach.
Continue reading ““Dance Party” Reflections – Two Months Later”

Bringing our Quaker family into dialogue

Six days ago I released this music video, which has been shared widely among Friends.

Some of the lyrics have provoked dialogue, specifically about the relationship between modern Quakerism and Christianity. Here are a few of my own thoughts…

Let’s start with:

“I’m not a Christian
but I’m a Quaker
I’ve got Christ’s Inner Light
But he’s not my savior.”

Full Lyrics

If you visited my website seeking an anti-Christian Quaker manifesto, you were probably disappointed. After a Guilford College education and a year living in community with all types of spiritual seekers at Pendle Hill, I am decidedly “Christian-curious” and have no illusions about the roots of my religion.
Continue reading “Bringing our Quaker family into dialogue”

“Friend Speaks My Mind” Study Guide

A week ago I got this email from a Meeting in Pennsylvania who had some questions about the song “Friend Speaks My Mind” after I performed for them this past April. Their questions were not uncommon, and so I took the time to respond carefully and in depth and am re-posting the response here. Hope it is helpful.
Continue reading ““Friend Speaks My Mind” Study Guide”