Nearly 20 years after leaving Wichita, Rich Mullins still evokes strong memories here.
He was the best-selling Christian songwriter who seemed to turn his back on success, hung out at Harry’s Uptown Bar and never pretended to be perfect.
“He wrote songs that weren’t these sort of happy, positive, cheesy kind of Jesus songs,” James Bryan Smith, a professor of religion at Friends University, said. “Rich just wrote earthy songs that really exposed his own pain.”
“He was one of a kind,” another friend, Cheryl Hurley, said. “He was too tight for his skin. He would teach you lessons when you were just walking and talking with him.”
Mullins, who died in a 1997 accident at the age of 41, is now the subject of a full-length feature film. “Ragamuffin” debuted to a sold-out house at the Orpheum Theatre on Thursday, the first of 66 screenings planned across the nation. The title is derived from the name of one of Mullins’ bands.
David Leo Schultz, who wrote and directed the film, said he chose Wichita for the premiere, rather than one of the other places that Mullins called home, because “it was just a really significant city in his story.”
Mullins grew up in Indiana, the son of a tree farmer father and Quaker mother. He performed with a touring Christian music group in his teens, then attended Cincinnati Bible College from 1974 to 1978. Moving to Nashville in the 1980s, Mullins wrote songs for Amy Grant, Debby Boone and other Christian artists, and also recorded a couple of albums on his own. His third effort, “Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth,” contained “Awesome God,” a song that has been ranked among the top 10 worship songs.
Then, at the height of his success in the Christian music field, he moved to Wichita to be mentored by a friend.
“Usually when people’s careers go really well, they head toward the epicenter of fame,” Schultz said. “He ran away from it.”
The friend was Morris Howard, the father of a college friend and “a really down-to-earth, good man,” Smith said. Howard died six months later, but Mullins stayed put, eventually enrolling in Friends University to get his music education degree.
“He was brilliant, he didn’t need to be in class with me, “ said Smith, one of his instructors. “That was one of our running jokes.”
Smith said a scene in “Ragamuffin” that he appears in isn’t strictly accurate in that it portrays him and Mullins meeting for the first time in a classroom. In reality, they met on campus and became friends, with Mullins living in Smith’s attic apartment for several years.
In general, though, Smith said the film is “very accurate, and very inspiring. I think a lot of Christian films are not of high quality and tend to be pretty thin. This movie is deep. It shows the complexity of who he was; it shows his human struggles.”
Mullins’ biggest struggle “was he never felt love from his father,” Smith said. “He was artistic, the more sensitive kid. That plays out in the film quite a bit. It led him into some behavior, drinking too much at one point. Some Christians may be a little offended at parts of it, but it was honest.”
Mullins continued to write and perform music while based in Wichita, and also became active in Central Christian Church.
Hurley, the church’s events director, got to know Mullins when they both lived near the Sisters of Saint Joseph convent on East Lincoln.
“There were about 10 of us that lived in the same neighborhood. We’d have Sunday dinners together.”
Hurley got Mullins a spot performing during the 1993 World Youth Day concert in Denver, inspired by Pope John Paul II’s visit.
After his death, she organized a memorial service at the Wichita State University roundhouse that drew several thousand people.
“People love him,” she said. “They just love his life and music.”
Hurley appears as an extra in “Ragamuffin,” in a scene shot at Harry’s. “That was his hangout.”
Mullins, after graduating from Friends in 1995, moved to a Navajo reservation in New Mexico to teach music to children. He wrote a musical based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi and talked about becoming a monk, though he never converted to Catholicism. He toured in his spare time, donating much of the proceeds to charity.
On Sept. 19, 1997, while on his way to a benefit concert at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan., Mullins was in a fatal accident near Bloomington, Ill.
Schultz, who grew up in Indiana, saw Mullins perform twice in his teens but never met him. Now based in Los Angeles, Schultz started developing the story about four years ago. Filming, including a couple of scenes shot in Wichita, wrapped up in late 2012.
Schultz said Mullins “changed my life. He was always the Mother Teresa and the Bob Dylan of the Christian music scene. He was really against the idea of pretending to be perfect. He was real before it was popular to be real.”
Smith said he thinks the film “might end up being used in churches as a way to get people talking about the love of God, the grace of God, the struggles with life.”
“I have no idea how the movie will do commercially, but it has high ministry impact. I hope it does well commercially because it’s really good.”