Volunteers Find Their Voice, Too
Volunteers help us in many ways, including by singing with the Choir once a month when we join the community at Old St. Pat's Church for their mass. Jennifer Miller (over Marge’s shoulder) shared her story of joining the choir, which is particularly appropriate this week as we honor volunteers at this Sunday's Autumn Afternoon event.
When I was 13 my friend Pam and I used to sing Christmas carols at a hospital near where we lived.
My parents had left the Catholic church following their divorce then, so when Pam told me about her Episcopal church and its choir, I figured I could give that a try. I don't remember much about the audition; the older male choir director was about four times my age. He sat at his piano while I stood fidgeting. I was terrified and sang like a deaf mute who didn't speak English.
Pam did not believe me when I told her I had been rejected by her church’s choir.
"No, I'm serious," I repeated.
"Come on!" she squealed.
"No," I repeated as I felt blanketed by some deep shame like I had betrayed her and myself and failed God.
Looking back, that choir director should have let me sing. He could have put me next to someone with a strong voice, just because I wanted to sing—I needed to sing.
Not counting singing happy birthday or alone in the car, that audition was the last time I sang publicly for something like 40 years. I didn't know it at the time, but how was a 13-year-old girl who loved to move going to stand in a stiff choir with perfectly matching choir robes? It wasn't the right fit.
Love at first sight & sound
Fast forward to 2016, when I attended the Homeless Memorial Service at Old St Pat's. When the Harmony, Hope and Healing choir began to sing, I was moved to, where is my Kleenex, tears. That was it: love at first sight (and sound!), and this is before I even had a chance to meet Marge!
After the service she was warm, inviting and engaging. I asked about the choir and the next thing I knew I was going to rehearsals! At first it was a bit awkward; I didn't know anyone in this rainbow choir. A lot of women had come from shelters and were dealing with homelessness and drug addiction. I wasn't sure how to bridge the gap between us, so I showed up and sang but was never sure how to share my own stories and vulnerabilities.
My first Sunday singing at Old St. Pat’s with my new choir, the great turnout in the pews stunned me. I looked down at the floor as I sang, afraid to make eye contact. But then, maybe the Holy Spirit tapped me on the shoulder. I began to look around me, look out into the sea of faces and suddenly I saw things with a new pair of glasses.
We were spreading the power of love through music. This wasn't about performing or perfection or even hitting the right notes. It really was about "harmony, hope, and healing," and it felt like a perfect fit.
At first I struggled to share my own vulnerabilities and story with some of the women singers who are recovering from homelessness and addiction. As I continued to show up, our histories and differences, seemed not to matter so much. We just came together to sing and heal ourselves and each other through music.
Now, every time I sing with the choir, I look around and I'm filled with deep gratitude and amazement.
I even brought my out-of-town daughter and her boyfriend to hear me sing. It was also a thrill to bring my then 87-year-old father with me to church. I was nervous, almost like the first time I sang. It was not easy for him even to stay in place for the service, but we managed to sit together and hold hands while I sang and he bobbed his head up and down.
And then there’s Marge. She leads this group of eclectic musicians and singers in a way that allows people to find their voice despite any baggage, without ever using her massive amounts of knowledge to make anyone feel inadequate.
Sometimes she needs to corral us like a herd of stray cats, but she always does. Her presence allows a level of safety to form as new members sit in the choir for the first time and I recognize the fear on their faces. Using Marge as a guide, I can try and reach out to those who are afraid. I tell myself “do a Marge” and I know exactly the next right thing to do.