Walking up to a pizza stand with her children at a downtown arena in Nashville, she looks just past the server to observe the menu options before ordering two slices of pepperoni. “Miss Candy!” the server cries, looking at her. With a questioning look, she gazes back at the server. “Don’t you recognize me, Miss Candy?” says the server with an excited smile. “I have a job...I’m doing well...I had my baby...you know me. We met under the bridge.”
This isn’t the first time such an event has taken place for Candy Christmas. In fact, some of the most precious people in her life are those she has met under the Jefferson Street Bridge in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, over the past six years. A few years earlier, Candy left the road as a recording artist, something she had been doing since the age of 13 when she recorded her first album with her family’s group, The Hemphills. As part of this legendary southern gospel group, Candy became one of the genre’s most respected singers, garnering six GMA Dove Awards in addition to her own Dove as a member of the group Heirloom. She was also nominated for Contemporary Album of the Year in 1984 for her solo recording Heart Afire as she followed in the musical footsteps of her immediate family and aunt Vestal Goodman.
“I was born into a record deal,” Candy recalls vividly. “It’s just what I did. If I didn’t join in, I would be home and the bus rolled on without me. Now I do this because I have a purpose.”
That purpose began several years ago. While battling depression—and being told that medications or hospitalization were her best options—Candy was taken by a friend to that inner-city bridge where homeless people abound.
“I was born into a record deal. It’s just what I did. If I didn’t join in, I would be home and the bus rolled on without me. Now I do this because I have a purpose." “I thought, ‘I know how to cook. I’m a Louisiana girl,’” she remembers. “‘I can make jambalaya in a big pot as well as a small pot.’” With that, she began to feed the poor and homeless. “I realized that the biggest portion of them had no gloves, socks or coats. It was January, so we went to Walmart and Dollar General to buy scarves and coats. By the next week it began to grow, and it hasn’t stopped. Some nights we’ll have 500 people under that bridge.”
The Bridge Ministry is now a vital part of the city and much of what gets her up in the morning. “We feed the attendees at the beginning of the service,” she describes. “Then we invite them to stay for church under the bridge. We have sound, lights and chairs and we have a worship service. At the end of the evening, we give away brand new clothing, toiletries, groceries and a bicycle. Those who stay until after church are loaded up with stuff. It fills our hearts. There is no joy like walking away from the bridge and seeing these people with so much stuff they can hardly carry it. They often bring their friends with them the next week.”
Candy also founded the Food for Kids program. Volunteers go every Friday and fill backpacks for underprivileged children in the Nashville area who are on free or assisted meal programs. “We served do this because I have a purpose.” 36,000 snacks to school children last year!” she exclaims with a glowing smile. “We get permission from parents to send grocery bags of snacks home for the weekend and they love it! On Mother’s Day, the children were able to take jewelry and make-up items home to their moms. It enabled them to give something special to their mothers on this significant day.”
God has been retooling me. I knew in my heart I didn't have anything pertinent to say until now. Rather than just crank out a project, I wanted to do something fresh and different and let my music reflect what’s going on in my life.” “My focus has changed,” she says with passion. “I have found purpose—to help the poor and take care of people who can’t help themselves. I want to share the mercy God has put in my heart for people who have fallen on hard times and to express my love for them. I don’t care if you’re rich or poor, no one can resist love. We go in with no agenda, only with love, saying, ‘We’re not trying to sell you anything.’ I don’t care if they’re prostitutes, addicts, whatever... I just want to love people into the Kingdom of God."
That desire has resulted in On The Other Side, Candy’s first album in seven years. “I wanted to get my message out—to stand on the rooftop and yell, ‘Help me help these people!’” she explains as she talks about the new release. “The way I think of it is that in Michigan, when they’re building a new car model, they shut down all assembly lines and send everyone home. They don’t just start adding new parts to an old model. They shut down and retool. God has been retooling me. I knew in my heart I didn’t have anything pertinent to say until now. Rather than just crank out a project, I wanted to do something fresh and different and let my music reflect what’s going on in my life.”
That reflection can be seen throughout On The Other Side. The recording’s catchy title cut “There Is A Blessing (On The Other Side),” which was written by her daughter Jasmine, describes blessings that can be found on the other side of trials—a message Candy has experienced firsthand at the bridge.
“I basically prayed or gave my way out of depression,” she describes. “It is a medical fact that there is an endorphin that gives you a high when you do something good for somebody. The homeless people have done more for me than I could ever do for them. Those people have literally changed my life.
“I’ll tell you this: I’m not depressed anymore. I made a decision. All of my life I’d been taught the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and I came to a place where I thought, ‘Either it works or it doesn’t,’ so I started The Bridge Ministry. God has given me a grace and a mercy for people who can’t help themselves.
“They don’t care if you’re singing Gospel music. They don’t care if you’re too country, too pop, whatever. Homeless people don’t care what brand you are. They say, ‘I’m dying of cocaine. Can you help me? The Gospel you’re singing about, will it work for me?’ God’s Word says, ‘Blessed is he who hungers and thirsts after righteousness; he shall be filled.’”
The lyrics found on the album, which was produced by Robb Tripp, are words Candy has already taken from the studio to the street over the past decade. One of the songs she recorded is the popular tune “Orphans of God,” which she made her own with an honest and organic approach, indicative of the streets on which she serves.
She also rerecorded The Hemphills’ ballad “Could I Wish,” produced this time with a more “rootsy” approach and stripped-down style. “I was going for honesty,” she explains. “I’m not much of a fluff person anymore, after time under the bridge with helpless people scratching for survival and starving to death. You can feel that in some of the album’s production and tone. I think when I first recorded this song, I was still wishing for ‘mansions’ as an up-and-coming artist. That’s what success was back then. I understood the words as much as I could, but ‘could I wish an easy life for me?’ Yes, I could still wish. As all of us mature as Christians and as Christ is formed in us, the more we’re going to have compassion and learn to love others, not because of their status in life but because of God’s love in us.”
That love is celebrated in songs like “Since I Laid My Burdens Down,” a song she sang in church as a little girl, and “Jesus On The Mainline,” which she slowed down with a more relaxed groove. “Climbing Up The Mountain” is a foot-stompin’, black Gospel-oriented tune that will take you to a Sunday morning church choir loft, while “Troubles Of This World” offers a soulful, R&B tinge from Candy. The song “Can You See The Clock” is dear to her and is a message she proclaims weekly.
“We had a guy at The Bridge who wanted someone to hear his confession. ‘I can’t sleep,’ he said, ‘I can’t live with myself.’ Another man, who has been coming for six years, is the drunkest person I’ve ever met. He sits on the front row and weeps and sobs. He comes to prayer every week and can’t forgive himself for things he has done. I can’t be their judge. I think there’s a special place in God’s heart for people like that—truly sorry and repentant. My job is to feed them, showing them the love of Jesus. If they stay long enough, I tell them, ‘Jesus is the answer."
"I can see fruits of my labors under the bridge. Sometimes God will give me a little view of a changed life. That is a real treasure.” When she’s not proclaiming this message to the inner-city’s needy, Candy often travels around the country, speaking and singing in churches and at women’s events. One of her trips took her to Haiti where, over time, she opened The Candy House, a school and care facility for 65 children, 25 who are orphans. She had plans to expand the center when the recent earthquake destroyed it.
“Before the quake, God called me to Haiti,” she explains, “and now I’m thinking, ‘What can I do?’ Many people are starting to leave the area at this point, and there are people literally starving. I have heaviness over what I’ve seen there. It’s overwhelming. I’m going to rebuild The Candy House. It will be a school outside the city of Port-au- Prince. I have a pledge from a church that they will make blocks and build a church, a dorm for an orphanage, a compound and a place to live.
“I’d always been a mobile ministry,” she recalls, “I grew up on a bus, traveled on the Gaither Homecoming tours, etc. Mobility is wonderful, but you’re not always accountable, not really locked into things locally and you don’t always get to see the fruits of the ministry. You sometimes think, ‘What is it all for?’ It excites me to now be in this place. I can see fruits of my labors under the bridge. Sometimes God will give me a little view of a changed life. That is a real treasure.”
Making her way down the street while running errands, Candy hears, “Hello! Candy Christmas! Do you recognize me?” “You look familiar,” she replies. “I’ve gained 85 pounds since you saw me under the bridge,” exclaims the former drug addict and gang member, “I got saved and started going to the Assembly of God. I hold tent revivals now, and I’m living in North Carolina where I’m a recovery pastor at a large church and the state representative for 60 chapters of the national Celebrate Recovery program!” Candy smiles and gives him a hug. Her eyes fill with tears as she says to herself, “There truly are blessings on the other side!”