Two murder-suicides just weeks apart last fall involving children and parents connected to Skyview Middle School in Oakdale were troubling for city residents and devastating for students.
The Rev. John Stiles of nearby Holy Cross Lutheran Church knew he had to do something to bring hope and encouragement to kids and lift up the community.
This month he's putting the final touches on "We Are the Children," a gospel album chock-full of songs that are laced with positive messages from some of the Twin Cities' finest singers and even kids in a Head Start program.
It's due out in May, and Stiles plans to sell it and use the proceeds to benefit victims of domestic violence and fund a popular tutoring program for school-age children.
"When something like this happens, we are affected in a deep way," said Stiles, the guitar-playing pastor of the church that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. "The goal is to find common solidarity with these families and try to bring hope to the community. Oakdale has had some bad press lately, and there is so much good that needs to be lifted up."
Stiles came up with the idea in the wake of two tragedies. The first occurred on Sept. 15, when a 6-year-old Skyview student found her parents dead at home. Her mother, Cintia Guadalupe Ornelas Bustos, 28, and babysitter, Angela Uscanga Gonzalez, had been shot. Her father, Jaime Anival Almaras Velasquez, 32, had committed suicide.
In the second, authorities said that Anthony DeHaven, 35, shot and killed his children -- 11-year-old son Jace and 5-year-old daughter Jersey, who were students at Skyview Middle and Skyview Elementary schools -- then killed himself. Their bodies were found in a burned-out motor home near the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
Stiles, a self-professed Lionel Richie fan and fan club member, reached out to the superstar to be a part of the project, but never heard back from him. He did hear from several church members and local artists, however, who were eager to jump on board.
Dan Neale, who plays on "A Prairie Home Companion," teamed with gospel singer Sam Butler, who performed with the Blind Boys of Alabama on the song, "In My Heart." Pippi Ardennia, whose "Lovely Day" is one of the 15 to 18 tracks on the project, lent her voice as well.
"This was a no-brainer. Anything that is going to be of help to the children and the community," said Ardennia, who hosts "PipJazz Sundays" at the Landmark Center in St. Paul. "He has an amazing heart and has the desire to create change. Not all pastors go outside their congregation into the community."
Ardennia said she chose "Lovely Day" because the song communicates the message that life is worth living, and that no matter what people are facing they can make it another day.
Like Ardennia, several artists recorded tracks in a studio which Holy Cross member Kendall Johnson operates in the basement of his Oakdale townhouse. Johnson, who composes and mixes music for movies, TV's Nickelodeon network and video games, offered his studio to keep costs down.
"This is a chance for people to get some good music," said Johnson, who teamed with Stiles to record a few tracks. Johnson also offered "Dawn Again," a number from the indie rock band Submission that he played with for 12 years.
Artists such as Lauren Redpath and Jonathan Rundman, who could not make it to Johnson's studio due to other commitments, donated pre-recorded tracks to be included on the project. For others, Stiles and Johnson took microphones to the artists, as when they recorded the Progressive Baptist Church Choir singing "Psalm 1" and when they taped the 12 children who attend the Washington County Head Start program at Holy Cross Church singing "We Are the World."
"To see them light up, that was worth the whole price of the project," Stiles said.
Stiles said it will cost between $5,000 and $7,000 to produce "We Are the Children." He plans to make 1,000 CDs and charge about $15 each. He may also offer the music in downloadable form through iTunes or a similar service. Proceeds will go to Building Bridges, child support and family-building programs that include after-school tutoring offered through Holy Cross and Transfiguration Catholic churches and other organizations.
To promote the project, Stiles has started a website that includes music samples, photographs, videos and a place to make a donation. Butler and Neale will play May 20 during worship services at the church, located at 6355 N. 10th St. in Oakdale. An album release party is planned for May 24 at the Oakdale Dunn Bros.
"It's a wonderful project and for a great cause," said Butler, whose song "In My Heart" appears on the album. "I hope he is able to generate a lot of capital to help needy children, and that this would grow bigger and into something that continues throughout the state of Minnesota."
Tim Harlow • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @timstrib