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A Singer With Faith in Music

Christian songwriter Fernando Ortega seeks to connect with audiences through themes revolving around modern life.


It's no surprise that Christian singer-songwriter Fernando Ortega is devoted to praising Jesus. But not to be overlooked among the spirituals is his earthly search for a sense of place in what he says is an increasingly impersonal, technology-driven society.

The theme of disconnectedness to family and community, and a yearning for simpler times, is most pronounced on Ortega's 1998 release, "Breaking of the Dawn." In the title track, written by Ortega and his frequent songwriting partner, Elaine Rubenstein, Ortega sings: "I worry for my loving mother/The dimming years/The trials she has known/How I long to be right there beside her/And bring everything to back to before."

Still, on his follow-up recording, Ortega--who headlines a Contemporary Christian Music concert also featuring Michelle Tumes and Andrew Peterson on Sunday at Calvary Church in Santa Ana--understands the need to lay down new roots. Released in February on the Nashville-based Myrrh Records, the aptly titled "Home" offers a musical melange of folk, pop and classical styles with Latin, Celtic and Renaissance influences. The impressive 11-song collection ranges in subject matter from hymns and inspirationals of praise ("Pass Me Not," "Prayer for Home" and "Give Me Jesus") to tales of homelessness ("Old Girl"), Alzheimer's disease ("On the Line") and a love song to Ortega's wife ("Lonely Road").

Born in Albuquerque, Ortega says fond memories of his grandfather played a key role in shaping the thematic thread linking his last two albums. Juan Melquiades Ortega, called Tio Red by the locals because of his red hair, died in 1991 at age 102. Living his entire life near the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Chimayo, N.M., the elder Ortega was a renowned storyteller, artisan and cook who lived a simple but rich life, farming his land and weaving cloth.

"He taught my brother and I how to weave when we were teenagers, and although I haven't used it for a while, I'm sitting here looking at my large, two-harness loom made of maple," said the soft-spoken Ortega, 43, by phone from his home in Laguna Beach. "If you were to listen to my songs over the past 10 years, it surely reflects the weight of the impact that my grandfather had on me--and a longing for home.

"He preserved a way of life that he knew and cherished all the way into the last part of the 20th century. Chimayo is a place that is sort of untouched by modern living, and that era has just recently ended for our family. I'm still mourning the loss of those ties, and his passing makes today's disposable culture--and the erosion of our communities--all the more real to me."

Ortega grew up in a Presbyterian family in New Mexico. He didn't embrace Christianity, though, until his sophomore year in high school, when a classmate experienced what he calls a radical conversion. She read to him from her Bible as the two became close friends, and he says it was those soul-searching discussions that won him over.

Soon after earning a degree in music at the University of New Mexico, Ortega left for the L.A. area in 1984 to pursue a musical career, spending the next three years in Pasadena working for the Campus Crusade for Christ organization.

He has lived the past 13 years in Orange County while his career in contemporary Christian music has steadily blossomed since releasing his debut in 1991. After renting in Tustin, Irvine and Laguna Beach, Ortega and his wife, Margee, recently decided to buy a home in Laguna Canyon.

"We were both so dismayed with all of the development going on here, and we were starting to go crazy a little bit," Ortega said. "Even though there is some encroachment, Laguna seems like a haven from all that. We like the neighborhood feel here--the aging hippies add a lot of character--and we're pretty secluded in the canyon."

While the Ortegas seem to have solved their housing woes, Fernando's spiritual beliefs offer no easy answers to life's complexities.

"It's dangerous to look at God as a problem to be solved . . . like you solve it and then you know it to be true," he said. "It's more like a mystery--the more unknowable God is, in a sense, the more real he is. I think the church has taken an awkward stand on this issue of familiarity. It has lost a sense of transcendence with God."

Critical as well, he adds, is the idea of integrating faith into day-to-day living.

"It's important to have a groundedness. . . . You can't sing at all about heaven without being firmly tied to things here on Earth," said Ortega, a 1998 Dove Award winner for his song "Children of the Living God." "You can't really understand the transcendence of God unless you have a firm grasp of the reality of being human, and all that entails.

"There is the aspect of going to church on Sunday, and everyone praying and listening to a sermon together. That is well and good, but there is also the equally important task in Christian theology of living out your worship through the work of your hands, and in the way you deal with neighbors and friends. These are also acts of worship. Christianity, I believe, is not something you can turn off and on."

Ortega feels strongly that his music can reach both religious and secular audiences.

"What's compelling about a book, story or any piece of art is that it rings true, that it's something you resonate with. It's crazy to shut something out just because it's sung in a church or because the person singing it happens to be a Christian."


Fernando Ortega, Michelle Tumes and Andrew Peterson perform Sunday at Calvary Church, 1010 N. Tustin Ave., Santa Ana. 6 p.m. $15. (714) 973-4800;

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