For most of my life, I have sung in choirs. Most of the time, my experience of choir follows this format: show up, sing, engage in some polite chatter with the person sitting next to me, and leave. Choir rehearsal is not a place where I generally form friendships; there usually isn’t a social event after the rehearsals. And honestly, as a somewhat undisciplined person who does not enjoy the early stages of learning a musical piece – banging out notes, waiting patiently as a soprano while all the others struggle to master their harmonies – I struggle to stay engaged. Often I bring a book to rehearsal, or at least a stack of papers to grade while those pesky tenors and basses learn their parts!
All of this changed when I joined Univox, a Toronto choir geared toward people in their 20’s and 30’s. From the very beginning, people in the group talked to me. They were curious about me and wanted to know who I was. I learned that the choir had three components to its mandate: musical excellence, community building and social responsibility. They were equally committed to all three. The music we sang was challenging and rewarding – we sang in languages from Haitian creole to Latvian; we did our own arrangements of rock and pop music (I still consider my arrangement of Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure to be one of the greatest achievements of my life thus far); we performed three concerts each year plus a local tour each summer. On one occasion, we participated in a huge professional production of a huge choral, orchestral and dance piece by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer based on the Book of Revelation.
Meanwhile, some of us made it a custom to go out for dinner after every weekly rehearsal (and of course, all were invited). We were not like-minded, bringing to the table different cultures, beliefs and values. But we came together through the music. During our concerts, the director would speak to the audience about current events and social problems in a way that was more engaging and inspiring than 99% of the priests’ homilies I’ve ever heard. We began partnering with charities, donating a portion of our proceeds from very concert we put on. When I moved from Toronto to Dubuque in 2015, I knew that I would miss this choir greatly, and I have.
So, in short, my dream of what the Church could be looks a lot like this choir: a community where all are enthusiastically welcomed, where all come together in our diversity, unified by our love for Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, this has not been my lived reality of parish life. In general, my experience has been similar to how it is in most choirs: I show up, sit for an hour praying with a group of people I don’t know, and go home, week after week. Though I attend weekly, I don’t think the priest knows my name. Most of the time, I attend Mass somewhat begrudgingly, treating it as another task to check off my weekly to-do list alongside grocery shopping and bill paying.
This is not for lack of trying to get involved in parish life– I’ve sung in more than one church choir since moving to Iowa; I’ve stuck around after Mass to try and meet people. In the Spanish-speaking parish I now attend, I have encountered a spirit of welcome; in December I got up early to sing the mañanitas for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and hosted a posada in my home.
But I still feel like something is missing. At most Masses, the preaching is bland and uninspired. Though well intentioned, the priests often seem disconnected from the congregation. I don’t know the people around me in the pews. If the Eucharist is supposed to be like a big family dinner, the commemoration of Jesus’s Passover meal with his disciples…honestly, it is rare that Mass for me feels truly celebratory; more often than not it seems like so many of us are just going through the motions. My dream is a Church that truly feels like a warm, loving family, a place where all are welcome, where there is room at the table for everyone. I’d like to learn more about what I can do, in my own small way, to help transform this dream into a reality.