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May 11, 2018

Philip Pappas strums his guitar on the stage in a dingy dive bar in Dallas. His wife, Loren, stands to his right playing a mandolin-like instrument called a charango. Their two voices bend and tangle in harmony as the folky indie rock sound of their band, Mountain Natives, fills in all the dark corners of the room. There are no quiet moments in bars like this. Between the songs, glasses clink and there is a steady murmur from the crowd. At one point Loren interrupts the between-song banter with a request. “Is it okay if we tell you guys a story?” she says. Together, they tell an abbreviated version of how they met and the miracle they experienced.

Years ago, Philip had just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics. There probably aren’t many professional musicians who can say that, but Philip has a mind for it. He was drawn to it in part because it gave his faith a new perspective. “In physics, you’re not taught what to think, you’re taught how to think,” he says. “It helped me to understand God more in terms of the physical versus the spiritual.” He had grown up in a deeply theological tradition, attending a church that doubled as a seminary. His mother was involved in the new age movement and his father was an atheist when Philip was born, but when he was three, his mother became a Christian and his father soon followed. Philip had heard the gospel his entire life, but when he was thirteen years old, he gave his life to Christ. “I know in rock and roll, you’re supposed to be a little rebellious—and I love rock and roll,” he says. “But I never had a rebellious streak.”

Upon graduating from college, he found it difficult to get a job using his degree. The economic downturn made many entry-level physics jobs scarce. He worked part-time in a lab helping students understand physics and as a barista at Grapevine coffee shop Buon Giorno. It wasn’t what he imagined his life would look like when he graduated—he wasn’t making the money he hoped he would, and he was lonely.

Right around that time he got a Facebook message from Loren. They’d met at an open-mic night two years before, but she moved with her family to Georgia. She wanted him to know she had moved back and invited him to a barbecue at her house.

It was actually at her parents’ house, which Philip realized as he arrived at the address she gave him. He became a little nervous, but by the end of the night, they all joined together for a family jam session in the music room upstairs. He and Loren hit it off and within months they had fallen in love. Then one day at a swimming pool, just after he had turned 27, Loren noticed something on Philip’s shoulder. “That’s a pretty big mole,” she said. “You should probably go see a doctor.” She gave him the name of a dermatologist and he made an appointment.

The doctor removed the mole and biopsied it. It was malignant melanoma and it was twice the size it needed to be to metastasize. In other words, it was likely that cancer was spreading throughout Philip’s body. “He didn’t want to leave me a widow, so he wouldn’t propose,” says Loren. “I thought, God, are You going to take this man away from me?”

To make matters worse, he didn’t have medical insurance, so he couldn’t afford the expensive surgery and other treatments he needed. He and Loren decided to throw a benefit concert at the coffee shop and were able to raise enough money to cover his medical expenses. In the meantime, they had friends and family praying for Philip daily.

The day of the surgery came, and the doctors had prepared him for the worst possible outcome. If the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes, they would have to be removed. In fact, the doctors were 99 percent certain this would happen to him. They cut into his shoulder and used tracer dye to see where the cancer had spread, but the dye didn’t go anywhere. One of the surgeons came out to Philip’s mother and said, “We looked around and couldn’t find anything. He doesn’t have any cancer in his body.”

As Philip healed, he came to a realization. He had a second chance at life and wanted to do what he truly loves—making music. He and Loren were married soon after and formed Mountain Natives. He started working at Drive35 recording studio and Loren worked as an elementary school music teacher for a few years before joining him full-time in the studio. Together, they have toured the United States doing what they love and sharing their story at every music venue, dive bar, and church along the way. “It’s been really good to tell people our story and have them tell us theirs,” says Philip. “To connect with them and see them respond has been super powerful.”

And with another tour in the works and the release of their newest album, We Call Each Other Home, you get the sense that their story is still being written and they’ll continue to tell it. “I feel the Lord just gave me a tremendous gift of life,” he says. “And being able to give that back to people is just so awesome.” 

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