Been There, Felt That

Ten years ago Monty Hobson ’02 was chosen by his class to be the student speaker at Colby’s Commencement. Dynamic, articulate, humorous, an actor and a musician, Hobson was well known and well liked around campus. In his speech he mentioned COOT, the Colby bubble, white privilege, and the challenges following the September 11 attacks the previous fall.

To the surprise of some in the audience, he also spoke of God, and his struggles with depression—and the Colby community that helped him live with his illness.

Reflecting on his freshman year, Hobson told the crowd on Miller lawn, “Though it seemed as if my classmates were adjusting to Colby smoothly, I often felt depressed, lonely, and scared. I hated the way I acted, I hated the way I treated people, and I hated myself.”

How was it that this gregarious man-about-campus fell into dark times, yet so few of his classmates knew about it?

Hobson’s friend Sally Hall Bell ’02 believes that the challenges of college caused stress for many of her classmates. But most people were quiet about it. “Because, to be perceived as depressed (and accept it), would mean that we were less than perfect,” Bell wrote in an e-mail. “And at Colby, that was a tough pill to swallow.”

Last summer, in St. Louis’s Central West End—a bustling neighborhood populated with condos, coffee shops, and cafes—Hobson stood on a street corner in a loose T-shirt and sweat-stained baseball cap, chatting and laughing with two people who, it turns out, he’d just met.

This is Hobson the evangelical, who connects with people, even strangers, at every opportunity. As the music director of a large evangelical church in St. Louis, Hobson is still talking about depression and the remedy that community provides. Just as they were on Mayflower Hill, for Hobson the two forces in his life are inextricably linked.

Monty Hobson ’02, playing guitar at center, performs at The Crossing, a nondenominational church in St. Louis.
Monty Hobson ’02, playing guitar at center, performs at The Crossing, a nondenominational church in St. Louis.

Hobson brings people together—whether on street corners, at church, or on the stage. Much of this takes place at The Crossing, a nondenominational church with three locations in the St. Louis area, where Hobson oversees music and worship development. Each week when three to four thousand people worship at The Crossing’s venues, in addition to scripture readings and a sermon simulcast from one location, churchgoers hear music performed by a live band. These bands are Hobson’s purview. He auditions, trains, and manages a pool of musicians, comprising members of the church, who play in each location every Sunday.

This isn’t traditional church music with an organ and a choir. It’s electric and acoustic guitars, drum sets, and keyboards. It’s singers with microphones. It’s a congregation on its feet swaying to the beat.

It’s also a community and—in many less-than-obvious ways—it’s like the community on Mayflower Hill.

Hobson was raised in a Christian household, the youngest of four children, and came to Colby prepared to keep his faith to himself amidst what he assumed would be outspoken, liberal classmates. However, during his first year he joined the Colby Christian Fellowship (CFC), found solidarity, and by his sophomore year was playing the guitar and leading the group in worship.

Under his leadership, the CFC grew in size as Hobson recruited students, including Richard Thomas ’03, who arrived at Colby after a difficult first semester in England. “I was drawn to him,” Thomas said of Hobson. “He had a larger than life personality.”

These two young men became unlikely friends—Thomas, a then-fragile introvert, and Hobson, gregarious and even charismatic. Hobson helped Thomas acclimate to college, but the tables turned when Hobson fell into his depression. “He’d withdraw and stay in his room for long periods of time,” said Thomas, a psychology major with a family member who had depression. “I’d get worried and go check on him.”

Hobson, third from right in teal, prays with with church members.
Hobson, third from right in teal, prays with with church members.

In hindsight, Hobson realizes he struggled with depression in high school, but it was when he got to college that he began to “wake up” to the reality of his illness. It was a private affair, however, that happened primarily behind closed doors. Hobson called his struggles at Colby “huge,” made especially difficult, he said, since the “battle was self-contained.”

It was then that Thomas encouraged Hobson to “keep going, keep pushing forward” and to get help at the College counseling center, where Hobson got his first dose of anti-depressants. Thomas said, “I kept trying to engage him … and I encouraged him to put his music down on CDs,” which Hobson did his senior year.

The consummate performer, Hobson was seen on stages across campus, even as he struggled with self-doubt in private. He was best known through the a cappella group the Blue Lights and Colby Improv. He also sang with Broadway Musical Revue and acted in productions in Strider Theater, most notably in the lead role of Leontes in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.

Shakespeare figured prominently in Hobson’s final year at Colby. For his senior scholar project in English, he memorized more than 80 of the Bard’s sonnets, set some of them to music, and performed them around campus. He even took his show on the road to a Waterville fifth-grade classroom, where he explained how to learn a sonnet by heart by imagining it and acting it out.

The sonnets, according to Associate Professor of English Elizabeth Sagaser, are “really gritty and really about dark nights of the soul.” Hobson began reading sonnets in Sagaser’s Renaissance Poetry class his junior year. He was drawn to them and memorized them easily, said Sagaser, who was Hobson’s senior scholar advisor.

It was in talking about the sonnets that Sagaser suspected that Hobson was depressed on some level. “We talked about how genuine and representative the sonnets were of this human capacity for despair and for self-criticism,” she said. “And he really got it.”

Hobson began to understand his illness through the poems, and he credits Sagaser for helping him identify his depression, or melancholy as the Renaissance poets called it. While Sagaser humbly said that she’s “just attuned” to student struggles, she understands how helpful poetry can be to those who despair. “I feel like it’s therapeutic when people do find that they’re not alone in their darkest feelings,” she said. In reading the sonnets, “they find they’ve got company across the centuries,” she said.

Hobson agrees, referring to the authors he was reading as his community. Having a professor who cared and literature that spoke to him “was a balm during that time,” he said.

After that commencement address and graduation Hobson, who minored in theater and dance, auditioned unsuccessfully for acting jobs in New York. Eventually moving back home in St. Louis, he worked at Blockbuster Video, a job he said shamed him. He thought his life was going nowhere. During this time he attended The Crossing with his parents. The church’s energy and message spoke to him and he began to sense that his life had purpose.

Hobson began as an intern at The Crossing, giving private music lessons to teens and forming them into cohesive bands that performed for youth services. A mentor to these kids, Hobson listened to them and nurtured their passion for music. Aaron Krause, who came of age in The Crossing’s youth program, auditioned while in middle school and, working directly with Hobson, grew enough musically and spiritually to perform at the church and occasionally lead worship services. Krause credits his growth to Hobson.

“Monty has always been by far one of the most encouraging voices in my life,” said Krause, 20, from Nashville’s Belmont University, where he’s studying music business with an emphasis on audio production. “Most of my musical growth, especially early on, came from [Hobson’s] wisdom,” Krause said. “He was instrumental in my life.”

Church members during a service at The Crossing.
Church members during a service at The Crossing.

Hobson eventually started working full time at The Crossing, developing programming and deciding how worship services would flow. He suggested that worship bands play popular music, such as John Mayer’s Something’s Missing, to connect the church’s music with songs people heard outside of church.

“They’re going to realize that God is wherever they go. … The church has now left the building,” said Hobson. “And now they’re going to learn to identify God in every part of their life, not just this microcosm of one hour.”

Hobson, who is married with a 6-year-old stepdaughter, said he aims to make faith accessible, a faith that speaks to everybody. “Church is not a building—it’s people,” he said. “It’s all about community.”

The importance of community and its role in helping him heal has only recently become clear to Hobson. At The Crossing, he creates community through music and he draws strength and inspiration from the congregation’s collective energy. At Colby, despite surrounding himself with people, he still felt he needed to be a “self-sustaining rock, an island unto myself,” he said. A perfect student.

Only in the last year has Hobson realized that as a student his soul was really hungering for community. His hyperactivity at Colby was actually a desire to be with others. “Community is what kills depression,” he said. “It’s what resurrects those who are lonely.”

At Commencement 2002 Hobson confessed that within his self-hatred his “love affair with Colby began.” And as his time at Colby unfolded, love prevailed. At the close of his address, Hobson encouraged his classmates to “keep on loving,” adding, “and I know you will because over the last four years, at one time or another, I have felt a love that can only be God reflected in each of you, and I am eternally thankful.”

Depression still haunts Hobson, though not as powerfully as it once did. He recognizes its signs and controls it with diet, rest, and antidepressants. “I find the first thing that depression tries to do is steal from the primary gifts we each have,” he said. “So if I can make an extra effort to do what I love, I often find a lot of freedom, which for me is in creative expression.”

Making music, leading worship services, and being the best husband and father he can be are priorities for Hobson. He’s transparent about his depression in hopes that others who struggle with the illness will see the healing power in community.

On that street corner cafe in St. Louis, Hobson leaned in and said, “I was so lost, so lost. …” He believes invisible threads link us together, like a wireless connection. “Somebody is out there praying or whatever saying, ‘God help me,’” Hobson said. “And on the other end of the line, God goes, ‘Hey Monty, get up off your butt and go do something.’”

And so he does.

“Everything that’s happened to me has been a divine accident, and a wonderful, wonderful life. Now I feel so blessed.”