NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, March 29th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. It hardly matters the genre or style of music you may prefer. It’s the story behind the music that can capture our hearts as much as anything else.
Today, WORLD Radio’s Myrna Brown spotlights a songwriter whose personal tragedy inspired some of Christian music’s greatest hits.
MUSIC: [Born Again]
ORTERO: That was actually my first song that I wrote that got noticed.
MYRNA BROWN, REPORTER: That’s Juan Otero talking about his song ‘Born Again,’ recorded by the Newsboys in 2010. Since then, the soft-spoken Otero has written and produced at least four other chart-topping contemporary Christian songs including King and Queens, for the Grammy-award-winning Christian pop band Audio Adrenaline. Otero says every one of his songs reminds him of God’s faithfulness.
OTERO: I just feel God keeping His promises to me as a kid and the struggles and just thankful that I never gave up.
CLIP:[Knock on door] OTERO: Mom, it’s Juan
Ortero grew up in Battle Creek, Michigan. This is an excerpt from his autobiographical documentary, Closure.
CLIP: I think I heard a gun click dude.
Otero’s mother physically abused him as a child, often smothering him to the brink of death.
OTERO: So whether it be strangling or dunking my head in water or not letting me eat, you know, she just had control over all things and my brothers and dad didn’t know.
He ran away from home when he was 7 years old.
OTERO: It was a really bad home. So a lot of things happen there different from home, in a lot of ways worse.
He says he found moments of peace in the poetry he wrote. He used to recite to other displaced children in various juvenile centers.
OTERO: I would write poems all the time and the kids would ask, tell us that one poem, tell us that one.
After about a year, his social worker sent him back to his mother. It didn’t last. At 15, he was placed with a Christian foster family and never returned home.
OTERO: I went into a really good foster home with a great youth group and just lots of love. And that changed my life completely.
MUSIC: [Jesus is Just Alright]
In the late 80’s, he toured with Toby Mac as a backup dancer for six years.
OTERO: I still had things I was working through, and what really brought a lot of healing to me was realizing I can make a mistake and they still love me.
MUSIC: [So can I]
In 2015 Otero stumbled upon the iconic photo of Kim Phuc, the 9-year-old Vietnamese girl burned by Nay-palm.
OTERO: I just started weeping. I was like man, what happened to her? So I looked up and I noticed that she is a beautiful lady and she goes around and she speaks about forgiveness. And so I thought to myself, man if she can forgive, so can I. And then I was like, wow, that’s a great title for the song I had to write that day.
Audio Adrenaline recorded “So Can I” that same year. Then Otero sent the song to the woman who inspired it.
OTERO: She emailed me back and I was pretty pumped about that. I thought it was like I won a Grammy or something. Better than a Grammy!
God used that song to help Otero eventually face and forgive his mother. That moment is captured in his documentary.
CLOSURE: [Knock on door] Mom, how about five minutes? Yeah five minutes.
OTERO: The guilt was really, really heavy on her, but I was able to go in and speak to her and tell her I forgive her.
In 2018 Otero’s mother was living in a motel. He planned to purchase his childhood home, and planned to renovate it and move his mother back into the house. But she died before the renovations could begin.
Otero continued to struggle with why his mom hurt him as a child. Her own abuse at the hand of his grandfather offers a partial explanation.
OTERO: So it was just something that got passed down, and I’m just so thankful to the Lord that I’m not abusive. So it’s a lot easier for me to forgive when I realize that he delivered me from that generational stuff.
Otero loves to tell his story of healing and forgiveness.
ORTERO: God’s grace is sufficient for every single person in this room.
A husband and father of two, Otero hopes his story will inspire others to seek closure and extend forgiveness.
OTERO: You grow up your whole life and you hear if you were abused, you’re going to be abusive. And think that’s a lie. It’s not. It doesn’t have to be true and it’s not in this case.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Myrna Brown reporting from Lawrenceville, Georgia.