“Opening New Chapters” by Jake Street | July 1, 2020
This past weekend, a dozen choir members and I met to sing music by composer Mark Miller. We gathered in the church, windows open, masks on, and spaced ten feet apart (via carefully placed hula hoops). We sang three of Mark’s many songs written on social justice themes. “Lament” was composed in response to the murder of George Floyd: “my heart is breaking, my fury shaking, my soul is tired, my breath is gone.”
Singing words like “we refuse to let hatred in” and “no matter what people say, you are a child of God” was powerful. It crystallized the conversation I’ve had with our singers for several weeks: what does a choir do when people are taking to the streets demanding an end to racial injustice? What obligation do we have to respond, both today and in the future?
These are questions that I hope will lead to growth, not necessarily answers. There is no perfect way forward in this moment, and it’s particularly difficult to discern what’s next for a community of singers, given that singing is such a dangerous activity in a pandemic. Instead of looking for solutions to today’s unknowns, I’m working to imagine and explore how the choir, and St. Paul’s, can keep leaning into the powerful work we do already.
Saturday’s choir gathering called to mind “Let Justice Roll,” an event hosted here in 2019. Mark himself came to lead the choir and congregation in singing his music. The Race and Social Justice Coalition shared powerful passages from books they had read together, and also shared their experiences of race in America–stories that were by turns inspiring, upsetting, and haunting. It was an evening of extraordinary highs and lows, and it didn’t look like anything we have ever done before or since. When I look back, though, it feels like the best that St. Paul’s can be: it was powerful, challenging, educational, and community-building; it inspired everyone gathered to go out the doors more committed to one another, and to the work of justice for all.
I want the music at St. Paul’s to capture that sort of spirit all the time. I’m no perfect vessel for that work; my background and education were overwhelmingly centered on white musical traditions, and I’ve got blind spots and unconscious prejudices galore, like all humans do. I’m up for committing to do more, though: to having tough conversations, exploring those things that I don’t yet know, and confronting my biases when I discover them. As a leader in the church, I also pledge to keep pushing the conversation, to try new things, and to discover where our communal boundaries and blind spots may be.
If the intersection of music and race is a topic you’d like to explore, read the Black Voices Matter pledge. It’s a powerful document that I hope will permanently shift the conversation in the choral music world. It reflects what Mark Miller puts in his online bio: that “music, social justice, and the beloved community are inextricably tied.” It’s a challenging read for me, and it may be for you, too. I heard from one singer, though, who believes it “opens up a whole new chapter” for choral singing. If we’re doing the work right, I believe the days ahead will both challenge us and open new chapters; I am excited to see, and hear, what’s on the next page.