Guitarist rocks for good

Vancouver native Jay ‘Bird’ Koder’s ‘Christmas Comes Alive!’ show aids church’s refugee program

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter



Go to the Jay “Bird” Koder & Friends “Christmas Comes Alive!” concert at Crossroads Community Church on the Thursday before Christmas and you’ll have every reason to feel great.

The music will be the Vancouver guitar virtuoso’s signature, genre-defying blend of blues, jazz, soul and gospel — with a little old-fashioned Christmas cheer twisted in, too. And he’ll enlist the help of special guests such as Grammy-nominated gospel singer Tracey Harris, saxophone great Renato Caranto and even the Crossroads church’s own Rev. Daniel Fusco, who happens to be “a monster bass player. People don’t know that,” Koder said.

Plus, there will be a children’s choir. “It’s not quite Christmas without some kind of kids’ choir involved,” he said.


Even greater than all that are the causes driving this annual benefit concert. According to ministry assistant Kathleen Sorman, Crossroads’ LoveNOW Ministry is the chief local partner of Lutheran Community Services, the government-designated agency that resettles refugees in this area.

Crossroads volunteers try to ease refugees’ entry into the U.S., Sorman said, starting with a heartfelt welcome at Portland International Airport. They also help hunt for and furnish apartments, provide English language instruction, and generally pitch in with all the bewildering basics — like driving around running errands in a strange new world.

Welcoming refugees into the U.S. has become controversial in recent times, but it’s not controversial at Crossroads, Sorman said.

“They are people just like you and me,” she said. “The definition of a refugee is someone whose life is in danger, someone who is threatened and who needs to flee. Jesus and Mary and Joseph were refugees.”

Many of the refugees Crossroads and Lutheran Community Services have hosted are from Iraq and Afghanistan, Sorman said, where they worked on behalf of U.S. forces and received death threats because of it.

“It’s hard for us to imagine what it must be like, but it’s scary and sad. These are just people. They are the vulnerable of the world. They don’t have other options,” she said.

The Crossroads LoveNOW ministry also “adopts” local schools and ministers to needy and elderly people who live in motels and hotels. In the new year, Sorman said, it will start a program to encourage more foster parenthood in this community.

LoveNOW is “the hands and feet” of Crossroads Community Church, Sorman said.

‘Double blessing’

Koder has a long history of playing charity shows for all sorts of good causes, and he’s been offering up a Jay Bird & Friends fundraising extravaganza during the holiday season for well over two decades now. It used to be a tradition at the Grotto in Portland during its Festival of Lights.

So how did this big, rocking show wind up out in Clark County? Simple: Crossroads is Kodor’s church. He’s a lifelong Vancouver resident who graduated from Hudson’s Bay High School — which had the best music program around and a better recording studio than most colleges, he said. He started teaching music classes at Clark College while still a teenager; he’s been “blessed to have a great career” across the decades since, playing all over the nation and all over the world.

Koder has shared stages with the likes of rock god Steve Miller, blues master Robert Cray, jazz giants Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, and even the Oregon Symphony Orchestra.

When his annual Christmas concert had to leave the Grotto a few years ago, moving up to Crossroads — a megachurch with a big sound system and a big auditorium — seemed natural. “Jay Bird & Friends” has been an annual event there since 2012.

“I guess I’ve always felt a need to give back,” he said. “I really can’t portray myself as this benevolent, charitable musician” because he’s just doing what he does best, he said: performing.

“But it’s a double blessing for me if I can do what I do and be able to bless other people, too.”