Sunday, September 27, 2009

Neither height nor depth, nor dogs nor trains will separate this church

"Leave all things you have and come and follow me."

One of my good friends is an enthusiast of Bouvier dogs. I never expected this to enter into the Itinerant Chorister blog, but nevertheless...on my arrival for rehearsal on Thursday evening at Northside Community Church (929 Barton Drive in Ann Arbor), I was greeted by choir member Jeff Yeargain with, "Oh, we thought you were the accompanist." Although I play piano, I am not as good as the professionals who accompany most church choirs, and it's not part of the Itinerant Chorister program. After some waiting and the start of the rehearsal, accompanist Kathryn Goodson showed up with her Bouvier named Ruby, and relaying a story of hustling to get there on foot. Meanwhile, Ruby lay on the floor and panted.

Churches are a way in which people can break down a rather large city into a more manageable community. For some, what works best is a small church. One thing is for sure: Northside has an unusually large proportion of its members singing in the choir. In fact, it was remarked at the beginning of the service that choir members actually outnumbered the people sitting in the congregation. I assure you that this was literally true at that time, although more people showed up a little later.

The choir is led by Mary Ellen Hegel and is quite well balanced between men and women, although tenors are sparse. It is also notable for featuring local operatic bass Chris Grapentine, who is also the pastor of the church. My left ear is still ringing from standing right next to him. At the Thursday night rehearsal, with the presence of Rev. Grapentine, Mr. Yeargain, myself, and some others, and the absence of tenor Al Clark, this choir would have been very difficult to beat in terms of the average height of the men's section.

This choir takes on some interesting music, and this week featured "Two Fishermen," written by S. Toolan and arranged by William Rowan; Ms. Hegel got a copy of the hand manuscript directly from this local composer-arranger. Solos in this piece were performed by Sue Wuster and Jeff Yeargain. The choral anthem came early in the service, after which the choir dispersed into the congregation, giving a good boost to the congregational hymns.

Prayer is something that is emphasized at this church, and they accepted oral prayer requests from the congregation in preparation for prayer. These requests were a combination of joys and sorrows. The prayers were punctuated by a train whistle, which took me by surprise, even though the church is only a block from the Ann Arbor Railroad's grade crossing on Barton Drive. I have spent a dozen years living only three blocks from that track, and a couple of earlier years being separated only by a small pond, and have learned that trains almost never travel on that track during the day.

The children's sermon was only partially foiled by the lack of children willing to come forward. It only takes an average-sized adult, rather than a child, to look out of place wearing Rev. Grapentine's shoes, graphically illustrating the metaphor of walking in someone else's shoes. This was drawing attention to the needs of others and promoting Ann Arbor's upcoming CROP Walk.

Given the "Come and follow me" message of the choir's anthem, I was expecting a Bible reading and sermon about fishers of men, but the theme was the first one or two of the ten commandments (I'll let others argue about where the first ends and the tenth begins, but I find it remarkable that everyone seems to agree that there are ten of them). Idol worship--the cliche is that the modern type of this is the worship of money, but sports, arts, music, and the self were also mentioned here. However, the one image of god that is allowable is humans themselves, so "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" (Matthew 22:21) means to give of yourself.

The final hymn was "God Hath Spoken by the Prophets" in f minor. I would like to report that the service ended with a Picardy third at the end of this hymn. However, the true ending of the service came only after the congregation had stayed to listen to the postlude performed by Kathryn Goodson. A congregation that does this values its music.

Next week: St. Lorenz Kirche, Nuremberg, Germany

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Week One--First Presbyterian Church

No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I'm clinging.
Since I believe that love abides,
How can I keep from singing?

This week, I visited a very accomplished church choir in Ann Arbor and was not disappointed--First Presbyterian Church at 1432 Washtenaw Avenue. I was greeted warmly by this choir, although it doesn't hurt that nearly half of them are people whom I already knew.

At their Thursday evening rehearsal, they cover a lot of music and do it quite well on the first try. Especially impressive is their phrasing, and they also do well at tone and pitch. Shepherding them through all of this is director Susan Boggs and several section leaders, including in my bass section Dorian Hall and Gerry Leckrone. For this Sunday, we prepared "When Peace Like a River," arranged by Dale Grotenhuis, and "How Can I Keep From Singing," arranged by Gweneth Walker. The latter has some tricky rhythms, and was a little rough for me the first time through, but the second time was far better, and by the sixth time, I wondered why it seemed difficult. Still, I anticipate that this might be one of the most challenging pieces that I sing during the Itinerant Chorister project.

At one point during rehearsal, a choir member was asking for another try at a bit of the music, and then asked to practice the transition from the preceding music. Susan, the director, said, "OK, let's go back," and immediately accompanist Carol Muehlig started playing some earlier measures to put them into people's ears, before getting instructions from Susan. She knew Susan's wish before she even said it, and played the correct few measures.

Rehearsal also ranged over several pieces of music for future Sundays, and included a bit of Mendelssohn's Elijah, which will be performed by this choir in May. Rehearsal concluded with announcements, which covered a variety of things that indicated a range of interests among the group. There were some musical events, personal invitations, fundraisers for other organizations, and one that I couldn't hear very well that seemed to be asking for driving directions to somewhere. Then came a key question: Who will sing at the 9:30 service this Sunday? I raised my hand along with many others, although I didn't entirely anticipate the follow-up question, which was, Who will sing at the 11:00 service? Thus, I ended up volunteering to sing at both services.

Sunday morning, September 20, the choir arrived and spread themselves across the chancel on the pew pads decorated with cross-stitched pictures of Biblical scenes and choirs singing. After warming up and processing in, we got to the business of worship on "University Sunday." We prayed out of thankfulness for intellect and learning. We heard the Biblical passage from Acts 10 about Peter evangelizing to Cornelius, making the Christian faith extend to non-Jews. Both the children's sermon by Resident Minister Sarah Wiles and the sermon by Rev. Julie Marks made a metaphorically linked the divide between Jews and Gentiles in the first century with a generation gap. The children were asked to contrast themselves with their parents and a list of facts were read to the congregation regarding the environment in which today's University freshmen grew up. Born in 1991, they have never used a card catalog to find a library book, always lived in a time when Margaret Thatcher was a former Prime Minister, and McDonald's has been in China for their entire lives. Although these things make them alien beings to many of the members of the church, they are people who are subject to the love of God and are neighbors.

First Presbyterian has implemented a policy of not touching each other to pass the peace or when leaving the church sanctuary, instituted this Sunday with the onset of flu season. See the story from NPR's Morning Edition. Today, this elicited a combination of serious concern and nervous chuckling. At one point, I realized that right at my feet where I was sitting were a 2-liter bottle of hand sanitizer (mostly empty) and a fire extinguisher, and I also realized that there was a box of matches in the hymnal rack. I couldn't help but think that if there had also been a vial of live H1N1 virus, everything would have canceled out.

Notes to self for future weeks: BYO pencil to rehearsal. Bring the camera, but don't be too obtrusive with it. Be alert to when you're going to be singing during the service, so that it doesn't happen when you're scribbling notes, causing you to abruptly stand up and loudly drop your pen on the pew (a pen that drops more quietly might be good, too). And know about logistical issues--where to get a service bulletin (I stumbled on them by accident), where to get a hymnal (luckily they had a stash of them in the narthex while I waited to process in), and how to get a robe that no one else is using (despite myself and a few others anticipating this, there were still problems).

Next week: Northside Community Church

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Week zero--Zion Lutheran Church

I have ordinarily been a member of the Chancel Choir of Zion Lutheran Church in Ann Arbor, and when I decided to embark on the Itinerant Chorister project, I offered Minister of Music Rob Meyer first dibs on a few Sundays throughout the year when I would plan to be there. His first choice was Sunday, September 13. Because much of the activity in this church is scheduled around the academic year, the Sunday after Labor Day has been known as Rally Sunday. However, in order to play down the idea that things in the church seriously slow down during the summer, and important things only happen at other times of the year, the name was changed to Celebration Sunday. However, the front of the church bulletin says Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. I have to admit that it might be hard for the First through Fourteenth Sundays after Pentecost to excite people enough to drop their summer weekend activities and go to see the green paraments in the chancel.

In my experience, choirs are groups in which jokesters hang out, some of them very funny, some pretty corny. One bit of humor on this occasion was actually the director, reminding us (I had heard this joke before) that the Bible is a book of baseball, as evidenced by its first words being "In the big inning..."

Celebration Sunday was a big deal, and Zion's big deal worship forces were on hand for both the 8:15 and 9:30 services. In addition to the Chancel Choir and the organ, which are more usual, there was also a brass quintet and the Bell Choir. Despite that, one of the stirring bits was spoken at the very beginning (big inning) of the service, with some riffs on the handbells interspersed--Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us kneel before the Lord our maker! Psalm 95:1,6

A music-related point within the sermon by Pastor Mike Walters was that making music and singing is a type of teaching--putting the words of faith into the ears of those listening, as well is into our own hearts. The theme of the sermon was teaching, in preparation for commissioning those who were teaching classes for children and adults and serving other roles in the church. Those who were there as musicians for the two services were commissioned twice.

The choir worked harder than usual, doing three songs. Two of those were choral sections of hymns with the congregation joining for much of them--Praise to the Lord, the Almighty and Lift High the Cross. Each of these featured the brass quintet as well. The times when I was growing up that I remember singing the latter hymn were all on Easter during communion time. Maybe we sang it at other times, too. The centerpiece that the choir sang that day was new to us, Sing to the Lord a New Song, with text from Psalm 96, composed and arranged by John Behnke for choir, organ, and handbells.

It was an exciting send-off from my home base into the actual Itinerant Chorister project. This week--First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

What is an Itinerant Chorister and why?--repost

This is a re-post of my blog entry from August 23, for the sake of those looking in response to my posting on Enjoy this and come back frequently.

Hi to all.

This is to introduce my blog, the plan that lies behind it, its purpose, and myself.

The basic plan is this: During September 2009-May 2010, I will be visiting a lot of places of worship in the vicinity of Ann Arbor, Michigan. When possible, I intend to rehearse with the choir and sing with them during a regular worship service.

The purpose of the blog: All of the contents of this blog will consist of my opinion, although in many cases a self-censored subset of my opinion. I will basically try to project the positive parts of the experiences that I have at various places of worship and what emphasis they lay on different aspects of spirituality. One of the ideas that I want to develop in describing the music and worship that I experience will be a "balanced diet" of spiritual experience. Another idea that I hope to develop is "voicing hope." In part, I want to respond to the movie "Religulous," produced by Bill Maher. While Maher levels criticisms against a variety of religions that sometimes hit home, I will try to focus on things about religion that are positive regardless of the literal truth behind the doctrines of faith that are involved. The idea that voicing hope, through song or otherwise, is one of these positive things is a founding principle behind this project and this blog. Another thing that I will try to humbly remember is that I will only be visiting for a week at each place, so my statements will reflect a first impression rather than a fully experienced understanding.

About myself: I am not a religious or musical professional. My profession consists of studying climate and water budgets for the Great Lakes basin using computer models and other methods, publishing the results, and dealing with a great variety of people who are interested in these studies. Nevertheless, I have training in religion and music.
My religious training: I was confirmed in 1981 at St. Paul's Lutheran Church of Crookston, Minnesota, after one of the most rigorous confirmation training courses within what is now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I took required coursework in religion at Augsburg College. I have participated in a variety of adult classes at the church at which I am currently a member, Zion Lutheran of Ann Arbor, MI, and have been moved by two trips to the Lutheran retreat center known as Holden Village, near Chelan, Washington.
Musical experience and training: In recent years, my singing has focused on Measure for Measure Men's Choral Society, a community men's chorus centered in the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area, along with the Chancel Choir of Zion Lutheran. In the past, I was a member of the Augsburg College Choir and several church and school choirs. I have been in a large number of musical theater productions, and recently was a member for a short time of a bicycle choir. I also have experience with several musical instruments, although lately I have concentrated mainly on piano when I have time.

Worship experiences outside the Ann Arbor area: I have written some comments on my worship experiences in the vicinity of Mto wa Mbu, Tanzania, during my trip there that lasted from July 31 to August 13, 2009. I anticipate some trips during the coming year, and expect that I might report on worship in such places as Nuremberg, Germany and San Francisco, California. I may try to make some trips to former locations in my life, such as Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Princeton, New Jersey, Boulder, Colorado, and I'd like to try to get back to Holden Village.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Tanzania week 2

The second week of church in Tanzania was even more exotic than the first. On August 9, we attended the service at Kanisa Baraka--the Church of Blessing. In this case, the name of the little village where it is located is Baraka. This word for 'blessing' has the same source as President Barack Obama's name. See my favorite online Swahili-English dictionary,, for more English words that correspond to this word.

Kanisa Baraka has a concrete floor with several large chips taken out of it from considerable use, a corrugated metal roof supported by numerous wooden posts and wooden truss rafters, and walls made of a lattice of sticks covered with cattle dung. This is a church of the Maasai tribe and, being a herding people, dung is one of their primary building materials. Their houses are made of it, too, now usually with a thatch roof, occasionally metal, but more traditionally a complete dome of sticks and dung. The pews in the church consisted of rough wooden benches without backs.

The Swahili language is the language that Tanzanians have in common, at least if they've been to primary school (not all have), possibly learned to read and write, and interact with members of other tribes enough to use Swahili and keep it fresh in their minds. However, most people, especially in rural areas, more often speak a different tribal language. So, although I can follow a little bit in Swahili, this church service left me completely in the dark because it was almost entirely in the Maasai language. However, there were slogans written in Swahili on the wooden parts of the church--the door and the rafters, welcoming and blessing everyone. For them, Maasai is the language of speaking and Swahili is the language of writing.

This is a church that has some historical remove from missionaries from the United States and Europe bringing the Lutheran faith, but follows some of the same forms. One that was brought to another level is the part of the liturgy in which confession and absolution occur. Some Lutheran churches in the US dispense with this; others might or might not have their members kneel on kneelers or possibly the floor, or individuals might do this at their own option. At Kanisa Baraka, they knelt right on the rough concrete floor and put their head down on the bench in front of them, and where there wasn't a bench, right on the floor.

Now, the music. It might not be considered beautiful by the standards of Western church music, but it sends shivers. It is the words of Christian faith, translated into their language and set to the sound and soul of the people of a particular tribe who, in a land that is highly foreign to us, are the people who are foreign to the rest, the outcasts through an interplay of force and choice. Some of it lapses well into the realm of shouting and some amount of it consists of grunts. As someone living here in Ann Arbor, having lived my whole life in the USA, this kind of music is ordinarily not a reflection of my soul, but in the moment of being there among those people who bring it from the depths of their history, yes, it is part of my soul.

They asked our group to sing, and I led them in "We Are Marching in the Light of God." We're not a rehearsed group or even ones used to singing, especially in public, but we did it, it went OK, and we fulfilled an expectation they had of us. Not only among the Maasai, but all Tanzanians, and probably most of Africa, claiming that you don't sing is just plain unheard-of. Some people might be better at it than others, but they all do it. I tried to think of an analog in our American culture--something in which an element of skill distinguishes some people from others, it's not completely essential to survival, and yet everyone is strictly expected to do it. The closest thing that I could think of is talking.

Most of the songs involved some sort of dancing again, but it had less of the feel of formulaic movements inserted into the music, as we saw the previous week at Kanisa Kantate (the city church). Instead, it was more organic, and included the traditional bobbing up and down from their knees and toes (men only). In church, they didn't go to the extreme of the very high jumping that you might have seen. They brought back some of the same songs to repeat them, without any hint of apology for doing that.

I didn't time the service--it was long and meaningful. During the times when we were standing, as tall as I am, I was able to see through the sizable gap between the roof and the top of the wall (strung with barbed wire to keep some medium-sized critters out, possibly including people), and look toward the dusty horizon. Part of that horizon contained the escarpment that marks the edge of the Rift Valley, while in the foreground were often dust devils. Unusually dry conditions have brought Maasai herders from far away, including Kenya more than 100 miles away, to this location near Mto wa Mbu, itself unusually dry, but less so than the places that these herders came from. Many animals are dying and it is likely that human death by starvation will soon accelerate. Compare this with bad times in our country: Among many Tanzanians, in good times, they live in a shack with a dirt floor and eat the simplest of food; in bad times, people starve to death.

After the service, our group sponsored a meal. We had pilau, rice with chunks of beef and some spices. The meal was funded by our group and cooked by our cook, Jackie. (The photo at the top of the post is a poor-quality picture of Jackie. Only one person was allowed to take photos and video in the church, and I haven't received any from that person yet.) We don't trust ourselves to cook safely in that environment, but we trust Jackie. I got a huge serving of pilau, which for sanitary reasons was on a paper plate with a plastic fork; Tanzanians usually eat with their hands. At this point after the service, I would have loved to have had some of the church choir members teach me some of their songs, particularly one that had a call-and-response format, with a male voice doing the call. However, the men all left immediately after getting their food, because of a cultural taboo against men eating in the presence of women. Unfortunately, I didn't actually learn a single song on this trip.

After the meal, we handed out some food for them to keep. Because of the drought, their cattle are giving very meager amounts of milk. We gave them cartons of ultra-pasteurized milk that keeps for a long time--1/2 gallon per family. And also a one kilogram bag of flour per family. This small amount of food was a greatly appreciated gift. Our hearts were left with the feeling of having given these people something that they really needed and appreciated, but at the same time, something that wasn't enough and would only last for a short time.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Worship music in Tanzania

On July 29 through August 14 this year, I traveled with a group of 10 people, all members of Zion Lutheran Church in Ann Arbor, to Tanzania on a mission trip. Our nominal destination and task was to work to improve buildings at the Kirurumu Health Center in Mto wa Mbu, a relatively developed town along the main (blacktopped) road between the regional center in Arusha and the popular tourist destinations of Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti Plain. Another tourist attraction right next to Mto wa Mbu is Lake Manyara National Park. This town has electricity, cell phone service, a couple of public places with internet access, and a bustling, active look to it. According to Wikipedia, its population is a little over 16,000.

On August 2, our group attended a church whose name was a combination of Swahili and Latin--Kanisa Kantate, i.e. The Church of Singing, a name to which it lives up well. It is a cinder block structure with a seating capacity of about 400. It has a concrete floor, permanent pews, and a metal railing around the chancel area. Having just played some cards the evening before, I recognized the shapes worked into that railing as being hearts, diamonds, and spades (upside-down hearts). The choir, at about 50 people, was nearly as numerous as the rest of the congregation in attendance, and were accompanied by about 6 guys switching off on guitars and keyboards. The instrumentalists sounded great and the choir sounded and looked great. The biggest difference from most American churches was that for every song, whether a congregational hymn or a choir anthem, the choir did some sort of choreography. It wasn't usually very complicated, but it was done with gusto and panache.

The choir performed a few anthems. I pride myself in knowing more Swahili than my fellow travelers (this was my seventh time in East Africa); I am able to speak certain things in compelte sentences, and pick out bits of speech, but I'm not able to follow everything that's happening when someone is talking (or singing). However, the choir's choreography helped out immensely on one of the anthems. Their actions were highly suggestive that it was based on the text of Matthew 18:9 (or very similar passages elsewhere): "And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell." Not a text that most American church choirs would choose for an anthem, but this group stood up, sang, acted like they were pulling their eyeballs out of their sockets, pitched them away with a sidearm motion, then covered over where the eye had been with one hand, and repeated this on each of about a half-dozen choruses. Other songs had more rhythmic and less narrative choreography, usually involving either the arms or the feet, but not both. Four times they had a collection of money: for the general church fund, for a trip to a contest for the choir, and for a man whose son had been seriously injured. For each of these offerings, there was a hymn, some of which use tunes that will be familiar to many Americans from their churches, but with words in Swahili, and sung in a lilting African style, con portamento molto. And each time, the congregation stood up and walked to the front and center of the church to deposit their offering. This included the choir, who did their choreography all the while.

Some offering items were not money, but goods. They auctioned these off outside after the end of the service in order to liquidate them into cash. One generous soul bid on some potatoes, "elfu moja kwa wageni," meaning "one thousand for the guests." He paid one thousand shillings, or about 75 cents, for these potatoes to give to our group. I also got in on some of the bidding, managing to say "shilingi elfu moja na mia mbili" in order to pay just under a dollar for some corn still attached to the stalks. We ate it later--not sweet corn like we're used to, but tougher field corn that hadn't been ripened to its fully hardened state; it tasted fine.

I am sorry that I do not have any photographs of this experience. Photography is a touchy thing to do for many people there; we had permission for one person to do some videography, so I may later be able to post some footage taken by one of my traveling companions.

This was an exotic experience for those of us from the States, a feast for eyes, ears, and stomach. In my next installment, however, I will talk about the following Sunday, when our church venue was more rustic and possibly less eye-catching, but was an experience that shook body and soul.