Behind the Scenes of the JRS Lampedusa Concert Tour for Refugees

By Deanna I. Howes, Director of Communications, AJCU

Buddy Miller, Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle (Photo by Jesse Lee, Marquette University)

Buddy Miller, Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle (Photo by Jesse Lee, Marquette University)

On Thursday, October 6th, musicians Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller and The Milk Carton Kids took the stage at the Boulder Theater in Boulder, CO for the first concert of an 11-city tour across North America. For the next two weeks, these celebrated artists would travel on the road with the staff of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) USA to raise awareness of the global refugee crisis through the most universal of languages – music.

Music has a way of connecting people from different cultures and explaining their stories, giving meaning to their lives and experiences. More than an artistic means of expression, music is a form of activism that can inspire change and open hearts and minds to new stories and ways of thinking. For Gail Griffith, director of the Global Education Initiative (GEI) for JRS, music is a way to teach people about issues of social justice.

Soundcheck at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston, MA (Photo by Deanna Howes)

Soundcheck at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston, MA (Photo by Deanna Howes)

In 1999, Griffith produced a series of concerts headlined by her longtime friend, Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris, to raise awareness of landmines. The success of those concerts inspired Griffith to reach out to Harris last year, and produce a new series of concerts for another worthy cause – the global refugee crisis. With JRS’ blessing, Griffith spent the next year assembling an all-star line-up of socially-conscious artists who would generously give their time and talent toward the cause and be part of the Lampedusa Concert Tour for Refugees (named for the Mediterranean island and transit point for refugees seeking refuge in Europe).

Since its founding in 1980 by former Jesuit Superior General, Rev. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., JRS has existed to accompany, serve and advocate for refugees. At present, more than 65 million people across the globe are displaced, lacking homes, security and access to education. The Global Education Initiative is the newest project of JRS, designed to double the number of refugees who have access to its educational programs by 2020.

Through the Lampedusa Concert Tour, thousands of people have been introduced to the mission of JRS and the Global Education Initiative. Griffith says, “Music is such a powerful force and it can communicate a sensibility and genuineness that we haven’t been able to communicate in other ways around this issue. JRS has a unique opportunity here because we have managed to get into communities that haven’t really thought about this issue to any great extent and we brought it through this cultural medium.”

Monica Baker (JRS-USA) on the JRS tour bus (Photo by Deanna Howes)

Monica Baker (JRS-USA) on the JRS tour bus (Photo by Deanna Howes)

To help communicate its mission and message, Monica Baker, sponsorship and partnership consultant to JRS, helped to facilitate a partnership last spring with noted public relations agency, APCO Worldwide. This led to APCO’s sponsorship of the tour and pro bono development of videos, graphics and a social media campaign.

APCO senior vice president (and Creighton University alumna), Becky Boles, says, “When [Gail and Monica] started talking about the refugee crisis, they gave me a book [City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence] and started telling me stories and then said, ‘The only way out is education.’ Through education, your eyes are opened up to things that you wouldn’t have seen before and really is the best way to improve peoples’ lives. In the video that we created, there’s one moment that always gets me: It’s a quote from a dad who says, ‘When I am no longer there, education will be your mother and father.’ And that’s the way out for people.”

Through strategic partnerships with APCO and other global sponsors including Visa and Ethiopian Airlines, JRS has gained significant opportunities for greater awareness throughout the global advocacy community. Baker says, “We are now at the table with the Tent Alliance and not only do we have the wonderful work of JRS in the field, but we have [the tour] as this external exposure vehicle to talk about it. And through that, we launched into the Concordia Summit. I feel like we have done so much work in such a short period of time, and it’s just the beginning because then we have to take this and build on what we have to go forward.”

For the artists, this tour has given them an opportunity to use their voices to shed light on an issue that for many of them is personal. Toward the end of each concert, Americana rocker Steve Earle shared the story of Mr. Kim, a proud Asian-American immigrant who owns a bodega in Earle’s Manhattan neighborhood, and is now learning Spanish to keep up with his changing community and workforce. Earle’s song, “City of Immigrants,” celebrates the story of immigrants to the United States, and was performed during the concerts.

Gail Griffith, Director of JRS-USA's Global Education Initiative, with Steve Earle (Photo by Deanna Howes)

Gail Griffith, Director of JRS-USA's Global Education Initiative, with Steve Earle (Photo by Deanna Howes)

Earle says, “This has been going on for a long time and JRS has been doing this for a long time, but right now, ‘immigrant’ and ‘refugee’ are these words that keep getting thrown out in this election cycle as the threat. [The tour] was especially important to me when I realized it was going to happen in October right before the election. I think this conversation absolutely needs to be had at this point before people walk into voting booths around the country.”

While Earle and Harris have championed social causes through music for decades, The Milk Carton Kids have recently begun using their voices to advocate and engage with their audience in a new way. Joey Ryan (who, with Kenneth Pattengale, sings and plays guitar in the band) says, “We’ve not been a very outwardly political band but also I don’t think that providing services to refugees is a particularly political thing. Of course, it’s become politicized in this election season, but it’s not inherently political so it was a very easy cause to get behind. All you need is a slight bit of human compassion to realize that we all need to step up and do whatever we can to draw attention to and raise money for, and even step up physically, personally with our own work, our own hands and our own homes to help people who need help.”

In addition to the main line-up, several other artists performed for select shows on the tour: legendary Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant (St. Louis, MO to Washington, D.C.), celebrated singer and activist Joan Baez (New York, NY), Ron Sexsmith and Daniel Lanois (Toronto, ON), Ruby Amanfu (Milwaukee, WI and Chicago, IL) and Nancy and Beth (Boston, MA to Washington, D.C.).

Stephanie Hunt (who, with Megan Mullally, is part of the Nancy and Beth duo), says that advocating for refugees is part of her career: in addition to acting and singing, she has a non-profit organization that supports refugees. Hunt says, “We help refugees with creative arts so I just was overjoyed [to be part of this] especially [with] all the people that are here. But I’ve learned more about the cause from hearing Emmy talk every night so sweetly from her heart, and it’s great to put more awareness into peoples’ consciousness about the gifts that refugees can bring.”

JRS-USA Development Coordinator Elizabeth Ward at Town Hall in New York, NY (Photo by Deanna Howes)

JRS development coordinator, Elizabeth Ward, explained that these artists are more than performers: they are now faces of JRS. She says, “They’re giving us our public persona and kind of influencing the way that everyone in those seats are thinking about the refugee issue. It’s been really interesting [to see] the way that they’re able to craft their stage banter to engage the audience and open their eyes and maybe make someone who was there who wasn’t thinking about refugees the way that we do, to maybe change their mind about that.”

Jesuit colleges and universities have been involved with the Lampedusa Concert Tour in a variety of ways. Five institutions were tour sponsors (Fairfield University, Georgetown University, Loyola University Chicago, Saint Louis University and The University of Scranton), and several institutions shared their staff photographers with JRS to take pictures during the concerts.

When Jesse Lee, senior communication specialist at Marquette University, volunteered to take pictures of the Milwaukee concert at the Pabst Theater, he had no idea that his pictures would end up featured in national media. In addition to his local paper, The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, CBS News and The Washington Post were among the many national news outlets that featured his photography.

Lee says, “I was happy that [I was] able to not just shoot it for shooting sake, but to actually give back some kind of service to JRS and actually give them something that they could use. It was just a huge thrill for me and a huge opportunity. And I actually looked it as kind of a huge responsibility…the fact that [the photos are] being so widely used, I’m really happy about that.”


It’s only been seven days since the tour ended and I have since spent considerable time reflecting on the experience and how it has affected me. I relished the opportunity to help the JRS staff during the East Coast leg of the tour, which started in Boston, MA on Sunday, October 16th and ended in Washington, D.C. on Friday, October 21st.

While Gail knew of my passion for music, she also recognized that this would be a powerful way for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) to support our sister Jesuit organization and help promote the concerts to our alumni, students, faculty and staff across the country. It’s no coincidence that most of the concerts were located in or near cities with a Jesuit presence! The arts have long been an important part of the Jesuits’ history; the Lampedusa Concert Tour is the latest chapter.

Deanna Howes, Emmylou Harris, AJCU President Rev. Michael J. Sheeran, S.J., Peter Spiro (Photo by JRS-USA)

It was nothing short of heavenly hearing such a talented group of musicians perform together for four shows in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Knowing that these artists were on this tour out of the goodness of their hearts was what really gave it meaning. During our conversations, I was struck by their generosity and spirit, and inspired by their desire to make change through music.

And riding on the JRS tour bus and selling merchandise before and after concerts truly gave me the authentic “roadie” experience that any musician dreams of having! One piece of merchandise was especially meaningful to concert attendees: crosses made of wood from boats that have carried refugees to Lampedusa.

A family friend remarked this week that she thought it was only natural for me to be part of this experience given that my grandfather spent years helping refugees seek asylum. After World War II, he helped displaced Lithuanians immigrate to the United States through his work with the United Lithuanian Relief Fund of America, which he helped found and served as executive director. Many of those immigrants became friends and have remained dear to my family.

A Jesuit alum himself (of Georgetown University) and a communications professional (he led the Lithuanian divisions of Radio Free Europe and Voice of America from the 1950s to the early 1980s), my grandfather, Joseph Laučka, inspired my family to always help those in need and advocate for those without opportunities to do so themselves. I am grateful to use my voice and carry out his legacy in some small way through helping JRS to make a difference in the lives of refugees across the world.