Dedicated singers ease the journey home

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.

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(L to R) Jim Nolan, Mary Beland and John McCann are members of the Journey Home Singers and all are members of the St. Luke the Evangelist choir in Westborough, MA. Beland invited both men to join the Journey Home Singers.

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 lightsong60@gmail.com or call 508-335-1043.

 

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Diving deep into River of Grace with Elizabeth Reardon, host of “An Engaging Faith”

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In this in-depth hour-long interview: we dive deep into River of Grace – gratitude in the midst of difficult times – obedience as a joyful “yes” to new adventures, new life after loss and restoring the joy of living, life metaphors for grace … Also, a quick sneak peak at Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message! Elizabeth Reardon really did her homework! Check it out.

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Review: Jeff Goins’ impressive new book, WRECKED “slams” into life as we know it

Pain, suffering and sacrifice are dirty words in today’s world, meant to be avoided at all costs. In the process, the meaning and value have been lost.

Wrecked: When a Broken World Slams into Your Comfortable Life, the impressive debut book by blogger Jeff Goins not only restores the meaning to suffering and sacrifice, but exhorts the reader to value, embrace and learn from them.

What does it mean to be “wrecked?”

Goins describes it as a painful, often messy experience that opens your eyes to a new life. It is transformative, introducing you to sacrificial love if you’re willing to go along for the ride.

He shares experiences in his life that have “wrecked” him, the first one taking place in Spain while spending a semester overseas.

Putting a name to the poor

Goins met a homeless man and quickly developed a relationship with him. The “poor” suddenly became a flesh and blood person with a name and Goins grew to care about him. It was a first of many experiences that would alter his life course forever.

Why Wrecked is important

  • It is a radical book, “slamming” into the conventions of
    21st century life
    :
    “Our culture is so individualistic and wired for success that we often miss the point of life. We think it’s about self-actualization, about becoming the best version of ourselves. It’s not. It’s about losing ourselves.” (pg. 40, ebook)
  • It is counter to everything society says is necessary for
    “the good life:”

    “We are conditioned to believe life is supposed to be comfortable. But ask anyone like my friend Matt who has radically changed his life, and they’ll tell you the best decisions they made were when they were uncomfortable … What we have to learn to do is lean into the things that hold us back, to move through the pain and push forward.” (pg. 42, ebook)
  • It gets to the core of the Gospel of Jesus, a core that is often sanitized, glossed over in favor of the warm and fuzzy “God loves you.”
    Instead it confronts the Cross:
     “If we are to follow the Jesus who suffered with us and bled for us, we too must suffer.” (pg. 33, ebook).

Christian without being “Christian”

Wrecked imparts the core message without mucking it up with a lot of “church speak.” This book, although produced by a Christian publisher, speaks clearly to all people with a language that anyone who is searching for the meaning of his or her life will understand.

A book for Millennials

Even though there is much written about mission work and social justice (as this is Goins’ experience), don’t be fooled by this emphasis – this is not a book on becoming a missionary. Wrecked is the handbook for the Millennial generation. A Millennial himself, Goins spells out the problems, diagnoses them and offers the cure.

Wrecked also shouldn’t be construed as just another self-help book or spiritual guide. It is rather the authentic account of someone who writes honestly, understands spirituality and has “been-there-done-that.”

Imperfections

Wrecked isn’t perfect. Goins’ trajectory for the journey of life (having adventures when you’re young and making long term commitments as you get older) is sound but maintains that if you don’t have these adventures when you are young, you will spend the rest of your life trying to recapture your youth or relive old dreams (pg. 71, ebook).

Obviously that is true in many cases but what he doesn’t take into account are late bloomers like me and the whole idea of second chances. I was too timid in my youth to have adventures and married young, raising two children. Losing my parents between 2003 and 2010 “wrecked” me and subsequently transformed my life. Now in my 50s I am pursing the creative vocation I believe God has called me to with total dedication, confidence and commitment. I did things backwards – committing first (to my vocations as wife and mother) and having my adventure later on.

Priorities

My other problem with Wrecked is one I see frequently with regards to Christians and service – that of the the cart being put before the horse.

When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment (Matthew 22), He presented two: loving God and then loving neighbor, making it clear that loving God needed to comes first. A close, loving relationship with our Creator results in a pouring forth of grace which empowers us to love and serve our neighbor. Being immersed in God allows us to see Him in others and the desire to serve becomes irresistible.

Goins mentions the Gospel story of Martha (the busy one) and Mary (the introspective one) but fails to mention Mary and the need to take the time to sit at the feet of God. I can’t be sure if he assumes the reader knows this or not. He does stress the importance of taking care of our inner lives and he also makes it clear we need to let go and allow God to lead but I was hoping for a more direct connection between taking care of ourselves and allowing God to take care of us.

Committed to Wrecked

That being said, I bought a copy of Wrecked as a going away present for my Millennial son who is heading to New York City from sleepy central Massachusetts at the end of this month.

I also got the Wrecked ten-week study guide which I intend to use with my eleventh-grade Sunday School class. And I’ve recommended it to a deacon friend of mine who runs a young adult book club at his church.

My advice: commit yourself to Wrecked.

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