SANTA FE, N.M. — The song is called “Seek Ye First” and the lyrics come directly from the Bible. Matthew 6:33, to be precise – part of the Sermon on the Mount.
Through the years, this simple praise song has become a worldwide phenomenon, sung in many languages by dozens of Christian denominations from Presbyterian to Quaker to Coptic to Baptist to Catholic.
With its seven alleluias in a descant, it will be sung at many Easter services today.
Authorized copies of the sheet music will tell you the composer is Karen Lafferty. What they don’t tell you is that she is from Alamogordo, was educated at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales and, for the past 16 years, has been a resident of Santa Fe – after spending almost two decades abroad as a Christian missionary. Or “musicianary,” as she calls it.
Over the years, Lafferty says, she has ministered and performed in more than 70 countries. Her travels have led her to sing “Seek Ye First” in places as diverse as a secret house church in China and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Lafferty says she has heard others sing her song in just about every European tongue, as well as languages of Asia, Africa and the Americas.
“Seek Ye First” can be compared in its universality with “Amazing Grace.”
Where a slave trader wrote “Amazing Grace” about wretchedness in need of redemption, “Seek Ye First” is a song of faith and hope.
“I’m the author of the melody,” Lafferty says. “Of course, Jesus said the words.”
Dozens of adaptations of the song can be found on YouTube.
Try an orchestral arrangement by Jean-Francois Paillard’s Kanon Orchestre de Chambre that moves between “Seek Ye First” and Patchelbel’s “Canon in D.” Or one by a gospel choir mixing the song with Andrae Crouch’s “Jesus Is the Answer.”
Or a heavy metal take by the British band Fire Fly. Or lively Eurojazz interpretations by Dieter Falk and Sons or the Jan Willem van Delft Trio.
‘I need some answers’
Like the story behind “Amazing Grace,” Lafferty says she wrote “Seek Ye First” during a period of worry and self-doubt.
After getting her degree in music education at Eastern in 1970, she started a career as a singer. In case she didn’t make it in the music biz, she would become a music teacher. Her repertoire included the sounds of artists like Joni Mitchell, and she was finding regular work in Dallas and New Orleans.
“I was singing in bars and making pretty good money,” she said.
Then, a friend introduced her to Calvary Chapel’s personal style of Christianity and she moved to southern California. She began attending services in Costa Mesa, Calif., and, shortly after, decided to quit singing in bars and focus on a Christian music ministry. But there was little to no money in hippie ministry. Car payments, the rent and basics became an issue.
“I went to church one night then. I was just so frustrated and said, ‘God, I need some answers.’ And they were teaching out of Matthew 6 … . And then it says, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these shall be added unto you.’
“It kind of burned in my heart and I said, ‘OK, God, that means my rent and my car payment.’ I went home, and I had my joy back and my faith back. I picked up my guitar when I got home and actually wrote the melody then on my guitar.”
She presented the song during Calvary’s Monday Youth Night and the crowd quickly picked it up.
Lafferty became part of Maranatha! Music’s stable of musicians and singers, and when the label put together its first record, “The Praise Album” by the Maranatha! Singers, “Seek Ye First” was one of the tracks.
Maranatha! published “Seek Ye First” in 1972 and released “The Praise Album” in 1974, sharing royalties with Lafferty for her song 50/50.
Lafferty says the royalties from “Seek Ye First” are largely what has made her life as a missionary possible, usually contributing at least half of her income.
Once the song was on a record, people outside southern California could hear it and its popularity spread nationwide.
And then beyond.
Speaking of home
On a tour of Europe in 1979, Lafferty recalls seeing several nuns in habits watching her concert in Belgium. During the concert, someone slipped her a note saying the sisters had a gift for her. Their gift was singing the song for her in French.
“Catholics are the ones who probably have taken this song around the world more than anybody,” Lafferty says.
Lafferty says she wound up learning the song in several European languages, which helped in her mission work.
About that time, Lafferty moved to Amsterdam where she founded Musicians For Missions International in 1981.
“Seek Ye First” isn’t her only song. Lafferty has released eight albums over the years. Her songs often tell of the people she has ministered to and the places her mission has taken her. Her style ranges from soft jazz to country to world music.
One song speaks of home.
The “New Mexico Song” was released in 1978 as a 45-rpm record and received some airplay on mainstream country radio stations.
It speaks about coming from New Mexico, the diversity of its people, how she misses it when she’s away, and how God placed beauty in its lands and sky.
“It’s a place I can come home to, a place I’d rather not leave, a place I feel I belong to, and a place that belongs to me … .”
She came back to New Mexico in 1996 to care for her ailing mother and incorporated Youth With a Mission Santa Fe, which became the new home for Musicians For Missions. After her mother died, she decided to stay put.
Plenty to do here
Yet, the bulk of her ministry remains in faraway lands.
Last month, for instance, she toured Israel with an early ’70s folk music group called Children of the Day.
“I was able to play ‘Seek Ye First’ on the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus actually said the words,” Lafferty said. “It was an awesome experience.”
And, in May, she will be in concert in California with Christian bluegrass guitarist Dennis Agajanian.
“I get more invitations from other places than I do in New Mexico. I don’t know what that’s about other than it says a prophet is not without honor except in his own country,” she says with a chuckle.
But Musicians for Missions is firmly rooted in Santa Fe now and she says she finds plenty to do here.
Later this month, her record label will release a CD of Christian music in the Towa language by a Jemez Pueblo group called the Waa-Haa-Mee-Nee Singers.
And this summer, Musicians for Missions will host two six-week Santa Fe Summer of Music Workshops, offering college-level training for people interested in music ministry.
But she says what may be her “last big vision” is a project she is working on to establish a Sangre de Cristo Arts and Culture Center in Santa Fe, where the musical and visual works of area artists can be experienced in a Christian atmosphere.
Lafferty says she believes that “where God guides, God provides,” and it would appear that, in her case, he did it for a song.
For more information about Karen Lafferty, her CDs and her projects, go to MusiciansforMissions.com.