Canyon Worship finds God amid struggles of 2020

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

Struggle. It’s everywhere we look these days, and it’s a frequent theme in Canyon Worship 2020, the new album by Grand Canyon University students.

Struggling to find the right lyrics.

Helping someone who’s struggling.

Struggling to right personal wrongs.

Even struggling to get a song recorded before the pandemic forced students off campus last spring.

But Canyon Worship 2020 came together by the grace of the God who never struggles and can be obtained in a variety of ways:

“There a lot of interesting things that I think are going to catch people’s ear on this album,” said Dr. Randall Downs, Coordinator of the Worship Arts program, “and I couldn’t be more proud of these students because they did such a great job.”

There also were a lot of interesting things about how they got the album to the finish line under the guidance of producers Geoff Hunker and Dave Willey – so many things that it’s hard to know where to start. But we’ll begin with how Psalm 107, which is all about struggles, paved the way for one of the songs.


Austin Bratton’s struggle came in a Worship Summit class assignment to create a “modern hymn.” Then he read Psalm 107.

Austin Bratton loves writing lyrics but appreciated the assist on harmonies from Alaira Leafgreen.

Some wandered in desert wastelands,
    finding no way to a city where they could settle.
They were hungry and thirsty,
    and their lives ebbed away.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
    and He delivered them from their distress.

--Psalm 107:4-6

“I thought it’s a beautiful psalm – I’d never heard it before,” he said. “It just had a really beautiful structure where it talked about the faithfulness of God. When they humbled themselves and called out to God for deliverance, He delivered them.”

He wrote a verse – it wound up being the third – and took it to Alaira Leafgreen, who was in his group for the class project. “I brought the bones,” he said, “and she put a lot of the meat on it with her beautiful harmonies.”

Thus was born “Steadfast Love.”

“This is such a cool process we were able to go through together,” Leafgreen said. “It’s probably one of my favorite collaborations I’ve ever had with Austin. He’s so talented, and he helped me grow in a lot of areas musically and lyrically.”

Alaira Leafgreen said collaborating with Bratton helped her "grow in a lot of areas musically and lyrically."

Typical of their collaboration was how the last line of the song came together. They were sitting in GCBC, the campus coffeehouse, and trying to refine a verse that centers on sailing the stormy waves of life when the words came to Bratton:

God, your whisper spoke the waves to cease.

“This is the best example of why I tell people, ‘I don’t write music, God does,’” he said.

Said Leafgreen, “It just kind of formed. We just were on the same page, and I felt like God was laying that on our hearts. Once we said that out loud and spoke it back to each other, it was such a cool experience.”

And it sums up the entire experience. They recorded the song in February, long before COVID-19 became a household word. Now, as he looks at what happened the last six months (“We’re going through some crazy, crazy storms”), he can’t help but feel God’s presence.

“It ended up just being about completing a school assignment, and then it became something far more than that for us,” Bratton said. “It was just really, really impactful, and mostly because it’s really not our words. We’re not trying to add our words into it; we’re just trying to best copy Scripture and put it into a melody so when people listen to it, it’s less of us and more of God’s word. We tried our best to be as faithful as we could to that.”


Amanda Riffe’s struggle came just as the pandemic started changing the world as we knew it. The University had announced that ground classes would be online for the remainder of the semester and had urged students to not return to campus after spring break.

Amanda Riffe had to scramble to record one of her songs before flying home for the rest of the semester.

Riffe is from Michigan, which meant that she had to pack up right then. Outside, rain was pouring down. Oh, and one other thing: She had not yet recorded “Come What May,” a song based on Psalm 46, which starts with this:

God is our refuge and strength,
    an ever-present help in trouble.

So Riffe emptied her room and rushed over to the Recording Studio with only hours to spare.

“I told the producers from the very beginning that I imagined that you’re singing it in the middle of an apocalypse, and then here we are,” she recalled. “There was a monsoon going on, too. I was like, ‘This is perfect.’”

She had written the lyrics for the song last year as she sat on an airplane and wondered if she would maintain her trust in God if something happened to the flight.

When Riffe returned to campus for the fall semester, she recorded "Be Alright" on the roof of the Technology Building at dawn.

“It was kind of a weird thought,” she said. “If this plane went down, what would my posture be? I’m not afraid of planes – I fly all the time. But I always think, what would I do if everything was chaotic? If I die, where would I go?”

As soon as she got off the plane, “Come what may, You are my strength” flew into her head. Now it’s on the album. Perfect, indeed.

Her other solo on the album, “Be Alright,” was chosen to be sung at Chapel on Monday – the second consecutive year she has earned that honor. It also is featured in the video that led off Chapel on Monday; it was shot at dawn on the roof of the Technology Building, above the Recording Studio. 

She wrote the song several years ago and often sang it for a cousin who died in November. Indeed, "Ooooo ooooo ... don't worry, child, it's gonna be alright" is so comforting, you can listen to it over and over. 

“I’ve always kept it in the back of my head to keep me sane, like God’s over me,” Riffe said. “It has a huge spot in my heart, and I’m just really glad that we got to do a music video for it and it turned out so great.”


Amanda Leininger’s struggle came at a time in her life – also a few years ago – when she felt as if even God wouldn’t help her. It became the basis for “You Found Me.”

Amanda Leininger transferred to GCU last fall and made Canyon Worship in her first try.

“It’s hard to explain, but I was in a mode of, ‘I don’t know if He wants to pick me up from this.’ That was my mindset,” she said. “It was really the Lord breathing life and lyrics into the song – what I needed to hear at the time. I love Jesus and I will always go back to Him when I struggle. But in that moment I didn’t think He was going to find me, and He did.”

The way she found GCU is equally remarkable. She followed a winding road for several years after graduating from high school (she turns 26 this week) until she found herself working in New York while going to college part-time.

Then her friends told her of an advertisement they had seen for GCU, and when she looked into the University she was stunned to find exactly what she was looking for – the Worship Arts program.

Leininger arrived on campus a year ago.

“There’s a big difference between 19- and 20-year-olds and my age, obviously, but I haven’t had many issues with that,” she said. “Everyone has been super great to work with student-wise and professor-wise.”

And director-wise. It has been a Canyon Worship theme every year – the student artists appreciate the direction they get every bit as much as Hunker and Willey appreciate the talent they get to mold.

Working with producer Geoff Hunker was a highlight for Leininger and other students.

The input was even more critical for Leininger, who had never worked in a recording studio.

“They were incredible,” she said. “They were really fun to work with in the studio. They do random stuff and see if it works.

“That was probably the best part about working in the studio. They told me from the beginning, ‘We will have all these ideas, and we will run them by you because we want to know what you think. We’re not going to put something out there that you don’t want to put out there.’”

The songs for the album were culled from the 25 or so performed at the two Songwriters Showcases in 2019. They had been chosen from about 150 submissions whittled down by a committee that included GCU graduate Desiree Aguilar, featured on the inaugural EP in 2015 and the first two Canyon Worship albums in 2016-17.

When Downs asked Hunker to give him his picks for the 10 songs on the album, their lists were almost identical. Ultimately, it was Hunker’s choice.

The student artists then were gathered together to talk about their work, and they found it even more fascinating to see how those songs – which they had heard at the Showcases – evolved during the production process.

Chris Calderon joined Riffe as the only students to have three songs on the album.

“I’m really impressed by the hard work,” Leininger said. “It’s been cool to see the creative side of everyone’s songs. To see them actually finished and on the album has been really incredible.”

That’s another thing you see every year: They truly appreciate each other’s talents. Leafgreen raved about Leininger’s song. Leininger said she is “obsessed” with Riffe’s “Be Alright” and added, “Love her – love her songs.”

Riffe and Chris Calderon, who collaborated on "You Don't Turn from Me," were the only students to be featured on three songs for the album. Logan Myers, who had to complete her portion of "You Are Enough" at her home in Scottsdale because of the pandemic, joined Calderon on the album for the third straight year.

They are the "stars." Being on the album with them is especially meaningful for a first-timer like Bratton, whose favorite was “The Garden” by Travis Hathaway.

“All of these people are so talented,” Bratton said. “It’s been an honor to see my name next to all these quote-unquote legends. But we’re all normal people with normal struggles. At the end of the day, it’s not how great they are or I am, it’s how great God is, hopefully using this to glorify Him.”

That’s where their struggles end.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


Canyon Worship 2020 songs:

"Be Alright" -- Amanda Riffe

"Steadfast Love" -- Austin Bratton and Alaira Leafgreen

"You Found Me" -- Amanda Leininger

"Give Me Jesus" -- Madison Russell and Harrison Russell

"Fights for Me" -- Elaina Marchegger

"All We Need" -- Chandler Kruse and Chris Calderon

"The Garden" -- Travis Hathaway

"Come What May" -- Amanda Riffe

"You Are Enough" -- Logan Myers and Chris Calderon

"You Don't Turn from Me" -- Chris Calderon and Amanda Riffe


Related content:

GCU Today (2019): Get ready for better than ever Canyon Worship

GCU Today (2018): Coming soon: Canyon Worship 2018 shines bright

GCU Today (2017): Students, genres band together in Canyon Worship

GCU Today (2016): 'Amazing' Canyon Worship album released

GCU Today (2015): Harmony is the key to first Worship Arts EP


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