This is a video of me leading song I wrote at our Presenters’ Retreat at Holy Cross Monastery in September. I’ve been reading the series of books named after the lines of the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful” by the British veterinary surgeon James Herriot, and this song came to me one night after reading. I didn’t even know the lines came from a hymn until I shared it at our retreat! Getting to teach my version to our talented group of presenters was a small, joyful moment that never would have been possible for me without Music that Makes Community.
It is a clear April day in Salt Lake City, Utah and the middle school choir is preparing for our big moment during the upcoming graduation ceremony when all the eighth graders will sing “Let It Be” in front of the students, parents and faculty for our K-12 school. We’re singing “Mother Mary comes to me…” when the music teacher comes over to where my friend Jessie and I are standing at the end of a row. She stands there for a minute looking at us while we all keep singing, Jessie and I looking at each other and wondering if we’re in trouble. She stops the singing and says, “Jessie honey, you don’t need to sing, you just move your mouth ok?”
Another middle school day around that time: during morning announcements there’s an invitation to come to a Eucharist service during lunchtime. Its an Episcopal school but services aren’t part of the regular schedule, so this is optional. The school chaplain is a warm, friendly woman who wears her long hair in bangs and barrettes who goes by her last name, Raggs. Sometime that morning I decide to go but don’t mention it to anyone.
My family is Unitarian and we used to attend Church regularly when we lived in suburban Chicago, but since we moved to Utah three years ago we don’t go to church anymore. I'm not sure what "Eucharist" means and I don’t know what to expect, but the service takes place on the stage in the auditorium. My favorite class is modern dance and I love performing in school plays, so I feel right at home. Under the bright lights with all the empty seats give the strange ceremony a performative feeling. The wine is sweet and warm and I can feel it in my throat for the rest of the day.
Fast forward to 2011: I’m in New York City at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. I’m attending my first Music that Makes Community workshop at the urging of my friend and colleague Emily Scott, who I work with at a Dinner Church called St. Lydia’s we started together in 2009. Emily has been teaching me to lead music during our services, something I never did before but I love enjoy learning. On the first morning of the workshop we are milling around in the coffee hall getting our name tags and schedules, and suddenly someone starts singing “God welcomes all, strangers and friends…” The rest of us start singing too and begin moving into the sanctuary. Its an incredible room full of blond wood and cream colored fabric and there’s a beautiful stone font with still water reflecting the windows and the city beyond. While we’re singing the thought pops into my head “I want to be in that water.”
I have always been interested in both music and church, but have never felt sure about my place in either. My experience at Music that Makes Community was a turning point. It created a shift in how I thought of myself as a person on a spiritual path, as part of a community, and as a creator of music. Eleven months after that event, I asked Emily to baptize me at St. Lydia’s. I was 30 years old, and it was something I never thought I’d want to do, even with a degree from Yale Divinity School and years of working in a church under my belt. My parents are not Christian, my husband is not Christian, and I couldn’t imagine taking on an identity that would separate me from them in such a fundamental way. But MMC changed the way I think about identity. I realized that we are who we are in relationship to the people around us, and that no quantity of baptismal water could affect the connection I have with anyone in my life. Music that Makes Community gave me a way to think about music and church not as an identity (“musician” “performer” “Christian”) but as a practice. Music and church as a way of living, learning and growing.
During that first MMC in 2011, I wrote my very first piece of music, a song with the lyrics “In my end is my beginning, in my beginning is my end,” from T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets. Since I never could get the hang of reading or writing music, I was amazed that I was able to create something and have other people be able to learn and sing it. Since then, I’ve written other songs, and it remains one of the best gifts I’ve received from my work with Music that Makes Community. Writing a song and sharing it with other people makes me feel both calm and full of energy--like anything is possible and I have everything I need to make it happen.
It is stories like these and moments like these that motivate my work as our Executive Director. My hope is that together, we can make many more moments like these possible for people who are searching for a way to tell a new story about music and church that is about learning, grace, love and growth. A way to sing together that lets us all find a way to be open, connect and engage in making this world more whole.
Thank you for reading today and for being part of this community and this project!