This is my most recent column in the Catholic Free Press and Catholicmom.com.
What happens when you blend an iconic song with a powerful story of grace and forgiveness? You have “I Can Only Imagine,” the new movie directed by the Erwin brothers and starring J. Michael Finley as MercyMe front man and songwriter Bart Millard. The song “I Can Only Imagine” is the most played Christian song of all time; Millard wrote it after experiencing the graces of transformation and reconciliation regarding his abusive father, played by Dennis Quaid.
The gist of this reflection beyond reviewing this fine movie is how much it saddens me to think how many people lock sacred music away in the church building when it is here at our disposal through the wonders of technology. But more than that, it is available in our memories, to sing anytime we wish to our Lord.
NOTE: This story ran in the Catholic Free Press on October 21, 2016 in their Bereavement supplement.
Each Wednesday afternoon, eighteen men and women gather at the Congregational Church in Westborough to rehearse songs for performance. They have come from various churches, Catholic and Protestant, in Westborough, Northborough and Marlborough. Some come from the Westborough Community Chorus and the Assabet Valley Master Singers. The performances for which they rehearse are however, not meant for entertainment.
The Journey Home Singers sing in homes, hospitals and nursing homes to hospice patients. “Our intention is to bring comfort, beauty, caring and compassion with our singing to anyone who wants us to visit,” said Kathy Todd, director of the Journey Home Singers.
Todd started the group in June of 2009 after attending a singing workshop in the Berkshires. During that gathering, flyers were distributed for a workshop involving hospice singing. Todd was immediately intrigued, inspired by her own personal experience with caring for a dying sister.
“We started [the Journey Home Singers] in June of 2009, which was about six months after my oldest sister died,” recalls Todd. “My sister Martha had been ill with COPD for several years, and had just entered hospice care at her home in August 2008. On August 19 she fell and broke her hip and was taken to ICU at St. Vincent’s in Worcester. About a month later, doctors determined there was nothing more they could do for her, other than having her live attached to a ventilator. My youngest sister and I kept a vigil with her that night after she decided not to go with a ventilator. Time spent by her bedside was the first catalyst that led me to realize a vision that became the hospice choir.”
The workshop was run by Hallowell from Brattleboro, VT. Their mission is to offer support to the dying by bringing comfort, calm and beauty. After attending, Todd felt compelled to start a group. “I thought about it for a long time, I had no experience as a director,” she said. She decided to call her choir the Journey Home Singers, inspired by a song she heard at the workshop, “Angels Hovering Round”: “We’re on our journey home…”
Todd began her search for members, beginning with her choir at the Congregational Church in Westborough. She expanded that search to other church choirs and community choruses. Mary Beland, member of the St. Luke the Evangelist Choir in Westborough, was one of the first to join.
“I received notice from Betsy Sowers (a friend of Todd) that the Journey Home Singers was just being conceived and Kathy was searching around for singers to join,” said Beland who is also a member of the Assabet Valley Master Singers. Recently she invited fellow church choir members Jim Nolan and John McCann to join.
Once assembled, Todde sought to publicize the group. “I work for the Community Advocate (out of Northborough) and they were very supportive,” she said. The newspaper did a story on the Journey Home Singers in 2010 and granted Todd time off as needed to do the performances.
Because they seek to personalize their song selections for each patient, The Journey Home Singers offer a wide repertoire of songs taken from both Christian and Jewish traditions. Soon after the article ran, Todd connected with Mary Poole, once the hospice chaplain at Beaumont Nursing Home in Westborough who assisted Todd in in this effort by supplying the patient’s first name and last initial, faith tradition and condition (responsive/unresponsive).
Beland’s motivation for joining the group was similar to Todd’s. “I was already comfortable with the idea because I sat with my sister while she was dying. She and I shared the same love for music.” She knows that as a ministry, one may not always get feedback from a patient. “If you want applause, you might not get it,” she said.
Nolan feels it is a way to continue to have music in his life while helping others. He too understands that responses will vary although he has noted a “flutter of an eye, a tear, a raised hand” from those to whom he has sung.
McCann was motivated to join because of a rather involved experience he had years ago traveling to Guatemala with his then teenaged son only to return and discover that his brother had unexpectedly passed away. He recalled a moment when he was alone during the trip, surrounded by the wind, noting the quiet and sensing that something was happening.
“In Lo De Bran in the early afternoon, I was sitting alone by a well, on a wall. No one was near me. I was surrounded by a gentle soft warm wind which engulfed me. I felt a little different, but did not think much of it, other than it was very hot … I … felt a very quiet peace.”
When he learned when his brother had been stricken, he realized it had happened while he was sitting by that well. “The Good Lord kept Jim in our presence for three more days, allowing my son Aidan and me to return safely from Guatemala and to be with him. I could never explain how even in the horrors of Jim’s death that God can be so good so as to allow Aidan and me such special moments with Jim just before he died.” It was this experience that prompted McCann to minister to other such people through the Journey Home Singers.
Stories abound of experiences with patients. Todd recalls a man who kept a hymnal near his bedside but was unable to hold the book open due to his condition. “He was a singer – after one song, he joined in even though he really couldn’t hold the book. It made him so happy,” she said.
One experience involved a little girl. “We went into Boston Children’s Hospital to sing for a seven-year-old girl — one of our toughest. She was not conscious and had seizures three to four times a day. The whole family was there, so upbeat. They put their arms around her and sang to her – they would sing along with us,” recalls Beland.
The Journey Home Singers thus fulfills a much needed mission. “If can we talk about dying and be aware of our own death, we can become more comfortable with it and use the time have now in a much more effective, more beautiful way. We’ll live well,” says Todd.
If you are interested in joining The Journey Home Singers, you can contact Kathy Todd at email@example.com or call 508-335-1043.
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River of Grace Audio book with soundtrack music available now on Bandcamp. Listen to the preface of the book, and all the songs.
FEBRUARY 26, 2016–Glad to be back in the choir loft
Last night was choir practice. Another night driving in the rain. I’m not good at this going-out-at-night thing; it makes getting up the next morning harder somehow.
I knew that was going to be a stumbling block to joining choir. But I am so glad I joined the choir.
I love how the music lingers in my memory after practice. The radio in my head plays the songs in a constant loop. It creates this peaceful little buzz.
I’ve been listening almost exclusively to choral and classical music for the past several years. Having been in choirs before, I know what it takes to learn these pieces. There’s a lot of tedium involved (and a LOT of waiting if you’re a soprano like me). I didn’t think I had the patience to learn the music. Besides, despite five years of piano as a kid and a lifetime making music, I don’t read music well.
I also haven’t been in a choir since the 1990s. I did solo singing all that time and now I have learn all over again how to work in a group. It has been a challenge.
A good challenge. A humbling challenge. And a very interesting challenge. And a pleasurable challenge.
One of the first things I had to learn was how to breathe in a group. Believe it or not, it’s quite different breathing in a group versus solo singing. One night I nearly passed out during rehearsal because I didn’t do it properly (luckily nobody noticed!).
Next, I had to learn to balance the volume of my singing between blending with everyone around me and contributing something to the group. My first inclination was to totally lose myself in the voices around me–that was pulling back too much. Now I am starting to push forward again, still looking for that balance, but contributing more to the group.
Blending with others when you have a heavy vibrato is a challenge! It’s impossible to smooth out my voice completely (and I probably shouldn’t) and I have yet to strike the proper balance. But it will come.
As we learn the pieces, I love meditating on the words. When the music comes together and we sing the song from beginning to end, the prayer becomes sublime.
And then it lingers in my head for days to come.
Yeah, so worth going out at night. So worth getting to church early. So nice being with others at mass, making a joyful noise for the Lord. So great being part of a community.
Lent is already well underway but perhaps you are still in need of ideas for your reflection. Click on any of the images below for blog posts, songs, videos podcast presentations and Flow Lesson exercises to enhance your Lenten experience:
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Have you ever wondered just how a song is recorded? It’s rather like building a building from the ground up, or making a layer cake. Here’s a simple demonstration from the recording of “Spirit of Life” (written by Carolyn McDade, Surtsey Publishing Company) for my River of Grace Soundtrack CD:
Recording is a long and tedious process of such layering but it’s fun and rewarding too when you hear the final product. Besides the layering of vocals, instruments are added in (more than you can imagine!). Then the engineer (in this case Ron) makes sure every little piece can be heard – this is done by something called panning. When you listen to a stereo recording through headphones you can pick out how there’s a little guitar here, a little percussion there … it’s all quite fascinating to figure out just what is in a recording of your favorite song.
Special effects are added in as well (such as putting a little echo into the voice, known as reverb. Without reverb, it sounds like you’re singing in a small room. With reverb, it can sound like you’re singing in a cathedral with slate floors (or something a little smaller).
This is just the beginning of the process for “Spirit of Life;” very soon I can show you the final result.
By the way, here’s a peak at the cover for the CD. Longtime readers of Be as One will recognize it:
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Some of the most wonderful gifts from God come in the form of whispers.
They are the small gifts. The gifts for a particular moment, not to be grasped at, but merely accepted. And if the taker is alert and awake, the heart will swell with gratitude.
On a Sunday not too long ago, I was the fortunate recipient of a bevy of such gifts.
First, a little background. For most of my life, I was a vocalist and songwriter …
The greatest joy as a vocalist was leading the singing at Sunday mass. My parish, St. Luke the Evangelist in Westborough, MA is a blessed community full of active, generous and loving people.
The church building is a minor cathedral, acoustically perfect with high concrete ceilings, carved pillars supporting graceful Corinthian arches, and shiny slate floors. Voices ring and linger in that sacred space.
Each Sunday I enjoyed the privilege of choosing the music and leading the congregation in prayer through song …
I led music for most of my adult life. In 2010, all that changed …