This wasn't a typical gig for Westminster blues musician Christopher James.
The concert was in Sahuarita, Ariz., 2,300 miles from home and 50 miles north of the United States-Mexico border, where migrants hope to elude Border Patrol agents and cross into America illegally every day.
How James wound up performing in the desert town just south of Tucson last October can be directly traced to friendships he made at Common Ground on the Hill, two weeks of roots-based music, arts classes and performances on campus at McDaniel College in Westminster.
The 19th annual Common Ground on the Hill begins tonight.
James teaches music classes and performs at concerts for Common Ground each July.
During down time, he meets lecturers who are at Common Ground to discuss divisive human rights issues in a nurturing environment, one where participants are brought together through their shared passion for the arts.
At previous Common Ground events, James met Green Valley Samaritans Shura Wallin and the Rev. Randy Mayer. They regularly travel across the U.S.-Mexico border offering water and first aid to migrants who are weary from traveling days through the desert in the hopes of illegally entering the United States.
James was invited by the Samaritans to perform at a concert in their hometown of Sahuarita. While there, James traveled to the border, where he was shown how disorienting and dangerous it can be for desperate migrants hoping to either reunite with family or improve their livelihoods by somehow trekking into the United States.
The immigration issue gets discussed annually at Common Ground by the Samaritans and activists who live near the border. One of this year's keynote speeches will be given by journalist John Carlos Frey at 8 p.m. Monday at McDaniel's Alumni Hall. The lecture is free and open to the public.
Frey, who has reported from both sides of the border, will discuss immigrant struggles, reforms and the role the U.S. Border Patrol plays. It's a touchy subject, yet it's one that has been discussed at length in Common Ground, without bickering or arguments.
"That's one of the neat things about Common Ground," James said. "It's all the different people you meet and the different things that happen from the relationships you start to make during those couple weeks in July."
Common Ground was founded by musician Walt Michael, a graduate of Western Maryland - now McDaniel - College who went on to record 14 albums and tour internationally. Michael strives to bring participants to Westminster from all over the world who love the arts and want to learn more about other cultures.
Common Ground is always evolving. When an interested participant comes to Michael with an idea, he always listens. He usually says, "Let's give it a try," allowing them to investigate a wide array of topics and bring in a variety of unique viewpoints.
Common Ground nationwide
In recent years, Common Ground instructors and students have asked Michael if they can hold similar events in their hometowns.
As a result, Common Ground will hold events in Gettysburg, Pa.; Chincoteague, Va.; and Sahuarita, Ariz., in the next year as the movement continues to spread outside Westminster.
Common Ground on Seminary Ridge will be held Aug. 2 and 3 at The Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg and will feature art, music and lecture classes just one month after the town celebrates the 150th anniversary of the pivotal Civil War battle held there.
Common Ground on the Shore debuts Jan. 18 through 20 and will feature bird walks, bicycling, music classes and stories relating to Chincoteague, Va. Classes are on the campus of the Marine Science Consortium in Wallops Island, Va.
Common Ground on the Border is scheduled for March 13 through 15 in Sahuarita, the same town where James performed last year.
"It's all been a natural evolution," Michael said. "They are all formatted by the people who live there and come to Common Ground. So in every instance, it's someone saying, 'Gosh, we'd really like to try this where we are.'"
Common Ground for combat veterans
After serving two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Marines, Josh Hisle was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and searching for where he fit into society.
He turned to music, songwriting and, subsequently, Common Ground. He found the atmosphere so accepting and so relaxing that it eased the constant anxiety he felt from PTSD.
"I was surrounded by kindness," he said.
He wanted other veterans to experience what he did.
Hisle is helping develop the Common Ground Veteran's Initiative. He expressed his desire to have more veterans attend Common Ground during a discussion with Michael at a concert.
"We both decided to do this," Hisle said. "I had no idea what [other veterans] would get out of this. But I was hoping they would feel better like I did."
The initiative debuted last year with 10 veterans taking part. Sure enough, the instant stress relief was palpable.
"It took their mind off the things that ailed them," he said.
This year, 28 scholarships were given out to veterans from any war who wanted to participate. Common Ground raised more than $25,000 for the initiative.
This year's group will include a few fellow Marines Hisle toured with. Hisle, inspired to serve after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was part of the initial Baghdad invasion.
He witnessed so much death and destruction during his two tours that he returned home still feeling anxious and on edge. He's eager to share his experiences with anyone at Common Ground. The veterans will meet each weeknight to discuss their plight together.
"I gain a lot from this," Hisle said. "Working with these guys and sharing our stories, I mean, I think that's how you heal. I don't think sitting by yourself or even traveling playing music, I don't think that's how you heal."
Common Ground for teachers
While visiting the Common Ground indoor and outdoor classrooms set up throughout McDaniel College's campus, it is almost impossible to enter an educational area without encountering public school teachers.
Michael has welcomed 100 educators to attend Common Ground and develop creative ways of lesson planning. The teachers wind up in art classes, music courses and discussions and debates held throughout the two weeks.
Common Ground will hold "From Common Ground to Common Core: A Workshop for Teachers" this year. The class will be taught by Lee Francis IV, a second-generation Common Ground attendee and educator from Texas.
In 2010, Maryland became one of the first states to adopt Common Core standards. The state initiative establishes a set of shared goals and expectations for what students should understand and be able to accomplish in order to be prepared for success in college and the workplace.
This gives teachers a unique opportunity to develop new curriculum and lesson plans. In the Common Ground course, teachers will discuss and review common core guidelines and how Common Ground workshop lessons and activities can be integrated into curriculum.
With teachers on summer vacation, they will have a chance to share ideas that should lead to collaborative lesson planning, Francis said.
It's yet another instance of a group of individuals collaborating for the collective benefit of the group, a benchmark established when Common Ground was founded 19 years ago, Francis said.
"It all falls around finding that Common Ground with all of the things we have going on in this world," Francis said. "We can renew the spirit and remember that we should be doing everything for the benefit of human beings. That's what the arts are there for. Arts and music renew the soul."