The Rev. Nancy Boldt McLaren is Minister for Faith Formation and Discipleship at Storrs Congregational Church in Storrs, CT.
I am in the West Bank of Palestine for my sixth time, making observations and music with a group called Musicians without Borders that has a lot in common with MMC whose mission is to connect people through music. Working with musicians and music schools in war-torn areas all over the world, Musicians without Borders aims to use music to “bridge divides, connect communities, and to heal the wounds of war.” By teaching the natural musicians of these war torn areas community music-making techniques very similar to what we teach at MMC events, the trainees are then able to teach, facilitate and empower others in their own particular context. The embodiment of this group in Palestine takes a few forms, but the one I get to hang out with is the music school, Sounds of Palestine.
As luck would have it, I learn, on my first day in Bethlehem, that Sounds of Palestine is newly in need a choir teacher for their elementary-aged students. Just days earlier the program lay dormant and homeless, following a nasty power struggle from within. One of the gnarliest dimensions of the decades-long military occupation is how the fabric of Palestinian society is threatened from within. As resources are stolen and limited monetary reparations made, the economy fails and daily life regularly grinds to a halt due to violence and excessive bureaucratic checkpoints. Palestinians are often left at odds with each other. As soon as I agree to teach the newly formed Sounds of Palestine contingent who have come through the struggle, I sense a creeping awareness of my inadequacy in light of this so recent and so seismic reformation of the organization. And yet, as thugs threaten, corrupt police are summoned and bombs explode, the music of a pride of children rumbles, squeaks, and honks. Armed with their commitment to simply show up, to be present and to lift up their voices, the children, teachers, and supporters find a way where there is no way. The way leads them to an abandoned building with the most beautiful garden I’ve ever laid eyes on: the new Sounds of Palestine, in the Garden.
Did I mention I don’t speak Arabic? And the kids I am working with, all children who make their homes in refugee camps, no english?
Back home in the US, I make paperless music with others in the setting where I sing most often: church. I am a pastor at Storrs Congregational Church, and have been an “MMC groupie” since its inception. As a natural musician, I rarely have occasion to make music in church—and apart from some serious hymn singing, left all music-making to the professionals. But like every other human being on the planet, singing is, was and always has been a unique and irreplaceable way of being for me. A form of worship, sure, and also a tool, a fulcrum, for major shifts in energy, mood, connection, participation, inclusion, vulnerability and intimacy. My participation in MMC in 2008 was nothing short of deliverance for me, the birth of a new way of being in the world for me that continues to reveal itself.
In Palestine I learn that paperless music makes a way where there is no way. I laugh when I am bold enough to summon the image these kids must have had of me—they have literally no access to the type of person I seem to be: a lone-female wanderer, middle-aged, blond haired and fair, and I smile constantly. I haven’t seen another of me in Bethlehem, not once. I could not miss their expressions of straight confusion upon beholding my benevolent, albeit, loony smile.
And of course the confusion goes the other direction as well. Here, the six classes of children I teach are comprised of elementary-aged, bright eyed, goofballs (familiar enough)…who have grown up as members of internally displaced families. They are refugees in their own homeland, imprisoned. Occupied forces work against them from the time they first lift their infant voices into their tear-gas filled world. To say they are typical kids is absolutely true. To say their experiences of life and human behavior are in any way ‘typical,’ ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ is a lie. I loon on, regardless, because, well, they are God’s beloveds. And so am I. But I am learning that this smile is not the thing that finds a way where there is no way.
The first exchanges are mercilessly awkward, even with the translator present. I ask the children their names, and end up calling one of them the same word as the Arabic word for ‘ass.’ I start singing scales to warm up, and when I realize they can’t match my pitches, I remember the Arabic maqam music scale, which of course I can’t sing at all. There is so very much smiling. Heart racing, I realize that all of the tricks I have up my sleeve won’t work—there’s no language, no notes, no shared nursery rhymes or stories.
As if overtaken by the spirit of Ana Hernandez herself, and MMC and all its beautiful people, I compose myself and find a way where there seems to be no way. And it comes in the form of ‘Open My Heart.’ Sung by a rowdy roomful of tiny Arabs. The room echoes with their singing, and magically the notes click in because we are listening to each other. They are compelled by the dissonance in the layered song, and they stumble with the words a little but also the words don’t matter. They watch my mouth and my arms and my body making shapes they can read, and in all their earnesty and divine perfection, they respond with robust and eager voices. I step out of their space. Their voices continue, clear, audible, embodied, floating through an archway out to the garden below, an antidote to that other hateful stuff lingering in the air just moments ago.
Musicians without Borders is hosting a training of trainers in Brattleboro, Vermont this summer. You might want to go. Here is their website: www.musicianswithoutborders.org. And here is more information about the training: https://www.musicianswithoutborders.org/get-involved/training-of-trainers.