An interview with Helen Sanderson-White
Hi Helen, can you tell me who you are and what you do in everyday life?
OK, my name is Helen Sanderson-White. I live in Wheatley. I’m a musician and a mother of 2 children, Saffron (7), and Max (19 months). I’m married to Graham, who is training to be an Anglican vicar in Cuddesdon.
So how did you and Graham meet?
We met at London Bible College, in 1996. In fact, we met on the very first day. My friend pointed him out to me and said, ‘That’s Graham, he wants to be a vicar.’ So I stayed away from him as I didn’t want to marry a vicar. He came up to me and said, ‘You’re very small,’ and I said, ‘You’re very tall.’ He then said, ‘Will you marry me?’ And I said ‘No.’ And so we were best friends all the way through Bible College, and I refused to go out with him. But 6 months after college he got a job as a youth worker for Uxbridge parish, and I was living nearby. And the rest, as they say is history.
What led you to decide to be a musician?
After college I ended up with a job in HR. I was working with really lovely people, but I hated the job; it just wasn’t enough. I’d come home and Graham would say to me, ‘You say you’ve had a good day, but your face says something else. You need to decide what you are going to do.’ I had that ‘back-to-school’ feeling every Sunday, and got really depressed about it. Eventually I took some days off to decide what I was going to do. By Day 4, I was having long conversations with God, and I was ready to face up to what He was saying.
I had been involved in music since I was a child, and my first performance had been when I was 3. I started playing the piano at 5. When I was 16, my parents said they thought I should learn a second instrument. I had been singing for years. I went for singing lessons. and I thought, ‘That’s it, this is what I want to do for a living.’ But it was as if I couldn’t work out how to get there, and I wasn’t ready to face it all at that time.
Anyway on that day, I had this conversation with God, and it was incredibly clear what He wanted me to do, I remember praying and knowing instantly I had to walk away from my job and the security it brought, and trust in God. I remember saying to Graham, ‘I’m ready to go into music.’ This was such a scary statement because at the time I was the main wage earner.
We moved to North London where Graham took up a job with a church in Edmonton and I started a music degree at Middlesex University.
You made a big decision to trust God and follow music, but how did you manage financially?
Well, Graham was offered this job in Edmonton, and they were looking for someone to head up their worship team. They offered to pay half of my tuition fees if I took this on and I went to have a chat with them about it. They already had a traditional music group, but it was a large black community so I started a gospel group, and a worship group, based on the cultures of the different countries represented. I also taught singing and piano privately.
What’s interesting for me, is that you took that step first, before any of this work appeared. You didn’t say to God, ‘If these opportunities come up then I know it’s the right thing to go to university.’ You actually said yes to the course before any of this had come up. That’s a big statement of faith.
Yes, I can remember being at home when Graham was offered the job. We were talking about the church and what my role might be and how the church could support me. And I suddenly thought, ‘If I don’t do this, I could be missing out on something massive.’ It’s not that I’m a risk taker, but Graham always says, ‘If it sounds dangerous, and there’s the possibility of death or bankruptcy, then Helen will do it!’
Where did God take you after you finished your music degree?
Graham then took a job as Development Advisor to the Bishop of Kensington, so we moved to Chiswick. I had to close down my business, and start again (this is something that is repeated quite a lot!). Chiswick was lovely, it was a break after being in large church in quite a deprived area. I recorded my second album during this time (I’d recorded the first one when we were in Edmonton).
And then, we started thinking about having children. I am the girl who never wanted to have children, never wanted to get married, and was definitely never going to marry a vicar … We were renting a small 2 bedroom flat at the time, and knew we would only be able to buy a studio flat in London, so we ended up in Aylesbury. This meant I had to walk away again from all the musical jobs that I enjoyed in London.
In 2007, the bank that we bought our house with went under, I discovered I was pregnant in July, and then Graham was made redundant in September. It was quite horrendous. We went through a period of not knowing whether we would be able to keep a roof over our heads.
Graham eventually got a job with Bucks County Council, and we carried on. But it was really difficult for me to get work. The recession was biting at this point.
Saffron was born in 2008. I had a lot of complications during her birth, and was ill afterwards for 2 ½ years and suffered from Post Natal Depression. But I had to go back to work when she was 5 weeks old because we couldn’t cope financially, so there was a lot of stress on me. And then Graham got a job working in Waterloo, when Saffron was just 8 weeks old. He’d be gone from 5.30 a.m., and if we were lucky he’d be in by 8 p.m., sometimes it was midnight.
What strikes me is that everything you’ve been through in the past has brought you to where you are now. It’s so encouraging for people who are in ‘that part’ of their lives, who are in a dark place, to know that they will get out.
We would say that we were in that dark place for 6 ½ years, to the day we moved here to Oxford. Graham had been through 4 redundancies in about 5 years, and our lives felt like constantly sifting sand, with no stability at all. Lots of studios I’d been working with in London had gone under, and it was hard getting varied work in Bucks.
The one glimmer of hope in all this was that I signed up with a Christian music company and recorded my 4th CD, At Second Glance. But nothing seemed to happen after its release, although I can see now that it started to raise my profile.
Around this time we decided to try for a second child, and I became pregnant again. We were really excited. But 8 weeks later I had a miscarriage. I wondered whether maybe God was telling me, ‘No more babies.’ It had been so rough having Saffron that maybe it was too much of a risk. But I wasn’t sure, so we prayed about it, that we would know God’s will. I got pregnant again and was absolutely terrified.
I recorded Sirens and Other Mysteries when I was 7 weeks pregnant. The producer (Andy) had known about the miscarriage when we were doing the final touches to the song-writing process. There had been 1 song that wasn’t quite right and didn’t fit the project. At a meeting about 3 weeks after my miscarriage we had discussed dumping it and writing something else. Andy asked me if there was anything I wanted to write about, and I burst into tears. He said, ‘If you could sum up what you’ve been through and how you feel about it with God, what would you say?’
‘If that’s the way it has to be…’
I was at the end of my tether with God; 4 redundancies, a miscarriage, all this hard work and I wasn’t getting anywhere. Never seeing my husband, my daughter in childcare – this was not the life I signed up to. I’m was pretty angry with Him.
Andy took my line,
‘If that’s the way it has to be…
… I’ll trust Your judgement for the things I cannot see.’
And within 15 minutes we’d written the whole song.
Interestingly, I had wrestled with this song for so long, that I didn’t want it on the album. I thought I’d cry all the way through recording it. But we recorded it. Even at the point when we were mastering the final album I still wondered whether to take the track off. It’s a very personal song, very raw. But every time I went to delete it, God told me not to do it.
Resound Media, who represent me, told me they wanted to do something to raise my profile with this new album. They suggested a crowdfunding campaign where you get people to pledge money for the CD. I have to say I had no faith that it would work. They said I needed a music video and a promo video which I would need to raise the funding for. It would be a minimum of £700 which isn’t lot of money, but it seemed a lot to raise for me. It was a 2 month long fundraising campaign, which really faltered at the beginning. Halfway through I thought I had to do something to make the campaign bigger, and I heard God say,’You have to be honest with people about what happened with your miscarriage.’ So I wrote a blog about my experience which I emailed out to people, and overnight I had so many hits on my website that it crashed! I then looked at my crowdfunding campaign and it was at 75% of the target! People had resonated with my story, it had helped them and they wanted to support me. In the end we actually exceeded the target. After I’d had Max we made the video which you can see here.
And that brings you to now. So somewhere in that period you moved to Oxford?
Yes, we moved to Oxford in August 2013. We moved here and Graham said, ‘It’s a new dawn,’ it really felt like that. I came to Headington Baptist Church immediately. Graham told me to find a church I’d be happy in as he’d be off on placements, and he wanted me to be in a church where me and the children were happy.
There’s another faith element that’s going through at the moment. My testimony is about perseverance and overcoming, and trusting God in what seems like very odd and unusual situations. I’ve started to hear God tell me ‘You have to give up the teaching because there’s no way you can teach and do all the things I want you to do.’
So again I’m learning to give up teaching and trust that my music will pay enough to allow me to do what I enjoy, writing for other people, doing concerts and session singing.
So yes, it’s always the trusting.
Perseverance, overcoming, trusting God – He always gives me a ‘little’ hurdle to climb over!
Visit Helen’s website at www.helensandersonwhite.com