The first time Matt Antolick brought his djembe over to guitarist and singer Ryan Costello’s back porch in 1999 the two could not have imagined how the events of September 11 would ultimately bind them together. Seven years later they are the lead band members of The Oaks, a band created to affect change in Afghanistan and even the world.
When Costello thinks back to the year of the terrorist attacks, he remembers it as a year of searching. “September 11 happened, and I found myself—like a lot of people—focusing on that part of the world,” he says. “Shortly afterward, I went through an experience where everything that I had ever valued in my life was pulled out from under me.” In a short span of time, Costello experienced everything from watching his car catch on fire, to losing his job.
“In that state I eventually became quiet enough to be forced to look at my life and where it was headed,” he says. “I confronted some difficult questions about myself and the vanity and spiritual irrelevance of my life to that point.”
It was at that “moment of surrender” when God started to draw Costello to Afghanistan. “I knew literally nothing about it as a country, but somehow I knew I was headed there to be a part of the change that was going to happen.”
Costello began investigating various humanitarian organizations and ways he could be involved. That is when he discovered Global Hope Network International, an organization that focuses on helping the “hidden and hurting.” By 2003 Ryan was preparing to move to Afghanistan for two years with GHNI. He would take part in providing agricultural resources and education about agriculture, hygiene and nutrition.
Much of Ryan’s time in Afghanistan was spent bringing aid to a central mountain village named Yawcalang. He says, “Many of the villagers were returning after living as refugees during the time of the Taliban and were coming back to find their farms destroyed and seed stock gone. I was able to help them get back on their feet by teaching them agricultural techniques and by seed distributions.”
As God used him to serve the needs of the Afghan people, He also brought Costello to a place of important introspection. “Afghanistan completely changed me as a person,” he says. “Not just through my interaction with Afghans and their culture, but also internally as I was stretched beyond where I thought I could go, and was forced to confront dark, selfish parts of myself. I realized that what I had experienced needed to be shared.
“There were times in Afghanistan where I would sit and think about my generation back here in the States—about the sense of powerlessness and lost-ness that we seem to have absorbed. I wanted to make it known that yes, you can confront yourself.”
While Costello was on the other side of the world, Matt Antolick was undergoing his own life changes back in the states. “The funny thing is,” Antolick says, “Ryan and I both graduated college at the same time. He went to Afghanistan, and I got my masters in philosophy and entered the work world.”
The change of talking about the “real world” while in college, and living in it afterward, was important for Antolick. “Leaving the insulated environment of the University and becoming the sole support for my wife and son was a big eye-opener,” he says. “Ryan and I, in this sense, were both thrown into the ‘real world’ at the same time. The particulars of our experiences were vastly different, but the process of growth and personal change was identical. Actually, I should say ‘is’ identical, because it is still going on, everyday.”
His vision and philosophy on life had been aligned with his friend’s from the beginning, he says; by the time Costello returned from Afghanistan, both musicians wanted to “express very similar life lessons that we had come to on opposite sides of the world.”
After Costello returned to the States in 2005, the two began collaborating on what would become Our Fathers and the Things They Left Behind. Fourteen months later, they had an album and knew it was something special. “We realized that this album was very unique in that it was deeply rooted in Afghanistan, and also in the idea of giving of yourself,” Antolick says. “We felt that a natural extension of these concepts was to give a portion of the profits directly to those in need in Afghanistan.”
Ultimately the decision was made to give 50 percent of the album’s profit to relief in Afghanistan through GHNI. “This is really important for both of us, because it means that as we promote this album we are tangibly affecting change in the world,” Antolick says. “As a result, anyone who purchases the album or helps to promote this project is aiding widows and recently returned refugees in Afghanistan.”
For those who have a burden for the remote reaches of the world, or who are just curious, Costello says the best thing to do is to just go. “Getting over there and actually putting yourself in the situation is the only way to begin to understand what the real needs are and what you can do about it. When I left Afghanistan after my first short trip of just two weeks, I was never the same.”
As far as the future of The Oaks goes, Antolick says the band wants the profits of each of their album’s “to be associated with a particular region of the world that is in great need.”
Costello says, “I feel like, as a band, we’ve barely scratched the surface of both our musical potential and our ability to directly link people to avenues where they can affect change.”
You can learn more about The Oaks by visiting www.myspace.com/theoaksband.