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We have a family ritual of gathering around the television on Sunday nights to watch the hit show “America Idol.” Now in its 22nd season, “American Idol” is a singing competition in which people across the country (and now the globe) audition in front of three celebrity judges—Katy Perry, Luke Bryan, and the legendary Lionel Ritchie. “Golden Ticket” winners go to Hollywood for an intense competition among the best of the newly discovered talent. Eventually the group gets whittled down to the top twenty-four, who perform for America’s vote. From there, the competition continues until there is one person standing—the new “American Idol.”

A week ago my family and I watched the two-night special where the top twenty-four competed in Hawaii. A couple music stars were brought in to mentor the contestants. One of those music stars was the 2023 winner of the Country Music Association Awards for best new artist, Jelly Roll.

Now I’m not a country music fan. Nor am I all that attuned to popular culture. I had to ask my 15-year-old daughter who Jelly Roll is. She rolled her eyes and explained. Jelly Roll’s real name is Jason DeFord. He’s got quite a story. In and out of prison since he was 18 years old for things like aggravated robbery and dealing drugs, Jelly Roll experienced deep life change (some kind of spiritual awakening) and jumped into the music industry. He gradually rose to stardom in the world of country music, even though his style is more a mishmash of country and hip hop.

Jelly Roll in Burbank, California in September 2023. PHOTO: KEVIN WINTER/GETTY

I confess that when Jelly Roll showed up on “Idol” and surprised the contestants as their mentor, all my prejudices and biases were kicking in. A big, burly man covered in tattoos, including his face. Who is this guy? I thought. But he won me over almost immediately. In fact, by the end of the show, I was inspired. This “burly belter” ex-con music star had become my teacher.

The first thing he said to the star-struck contestants was something to this effect: “As we get to work together, I’m not going to focus on the X’s and O’s of singing [which I took to be the technical stuff]. No, I’m going to help you find the soul of the music.” Okay, I thought. I like this guy.

Before each contestant’s performance, they’d show clips of Jelly Roll working with that young artist. I noticed he had a way of seeing them—I mean really seeing them. He listened to their story, to the subtext of their lives. And he listened to their story coming through in their singing. Jelly Roll evoked something in them, at times even going against the past advice of the judges. To one young artist he said, “It would be better for you to do the song the way you want to do it and lose this competition than to do it the way everybody else wants you to and win.” To another who had experienced much hardship, he spoke softly: “I hear years of pain in your voice. Use that pain for good—sing it.” Words that could only be spoken by someone in touch with their own pain.

“American Idol” Judges (from left to right): Lionel Ritchie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan

When it was time for each contestant to perform, I was struck by how the judges commented after nearly every performance, often with awe, that it was the best they’d heard from that contestant yet. Jelly Roll had the gift of drawing out the best in each of these singers—embracing their uniqueness and speaking confidence into them in such a way that they became more of who they had the potential to be.

This kind of person is what David Brooks, in his new book How To Know a Person, calls an “illuminator.” In contrast to “diminishers” who make people feel small and unseen, illuminators have a “persistent curiosity” about other people and cultivate “the craft of understanding others.”

“They know what to look for and how to ask the right questions at the right time,” Brooks writes. “They shine the brightness of their care on people and make them feel bigger, deeper, respected, lit up.” (pp. 12-13).

It reminds me of something I heard Dr. Tom Boogaart say years ago when we served together on a search team for a key leadership position at Western Seminary. “The best kind of leader is someone who brings life to the community and institution he/she leads. They breathe more life into a place than they suck out of it.”

That’s what I witnessed Jelly Roll doing. And it inspired me as I think about what it means to be a pastor–heck, what it means to be a human being. I want to be a pastor who truly sees others. I want to be a pastor who listens to the stories of others and honors their pain. I want to be a pastor who breathes more life into a community than I suck out. I want to be a pastor who, through my words and actions and my very being, calls forth the best of who a person already is, even as I help them become more of who God intends them to be.

I want to be an illuminator.

And maybe I’ll even start listening to country music.

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.


  • Kathy says:

    I watched the Jelly Roll taped episode of American Idol last night (a week late). EVERYTHING you describe about Jelly Roll, I, too, observed. He definitely had an impact on me as he mentored those young singers. More than once I had tears running down my cheeks as he valued something about each singer that brought out the best in each one. A slight adjustment to Billy Joel’s song came to mind, “He’s Got a Way About Him”!! And in that wonderful line in “When Harry Met Sally”??? (Again, slightly adjusted). “I’ll have what he’s having!”

  • Nate DeWard says:

    Fun fact: He visited the Genesee County Jail in Flint, MI for a private performance. He had served time there as an inmate and earned his GED while incarcerated. Now that jail is a leader in the country for promoting job-ready rehabilitation in county jails.

  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    Thanks Brian, If listening to country music with your daughter, even if she rolls her eyes, helps you to be an illuminator, it will be worth it. 😊

  • Duane Kelderman says:

    We have watched American Idol for years and have marveled at the stories of redemption and resilience that characterize so many of the contestants’ lives and journeys to Idol. If the Bible doesn’t convince you of the image of God in humans or of common grace, then just watch American Idol.

  • Ann Conklin says:

    Thanks for this reflection, Brian. I too enjoy American Idol and was moved by Jelly Roll. My kids are “grown & flown” so I wasn’t able to ask them who he is and get the eye roll they surely would have delivered. Thanks for the back story. Living and serving now in Santa Barbara, it’s been a fun season seeing KP on State Street and auditions at the Music Academy of the West in SB. So much wonderful worship music this season too!!

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