As a teen, I cringed when I was forced to listen to a Christian youth band lead the audience in songs praising Jesus at a public school assembly. But as an adult, when the choice is mine, hearing music of other faiths can bring me to tears. I may not understand all of the words. What moves me is hearing others sing from the soul.
A few weeks ago, I was both participant and observer during the sixth annual Lexington Choral Festival. The name of the festival is a bit of a misnomer. It hides the event’s greatest beauty, the way it brings together choirs from institutions of numerous faiths in Lexington, Mass. The event is a festival of song. It is also a show of interfaith unity.
Over the course of two hours, 11 choirs took turns singing a few pieces. The religions represented give just a glimpse of the diversity of religion in our country through the lens of on Boston suburb. The institution names on the program were: Church of Our Redeemer [Episcopal]; Hancock United Church of Christ; First Baptist; Chinese Bible; First Parish (Unitarian); St. Brigid (Catholic); United Methodist; St. John’s Korean United Methodist; Sacred Heart (Catholic); Temple Emunah, a Conservative Jewish synagogue; and Temple Isaiah, the Reform Jewish temple where I sing and belong. We heard music in Latin, Korean, Chinese, and Hebrew.
The name of Jesus was sung in Latin. So was the name of Virgin Mary as each member of the Hancock Church Chancel Choir sang Ave Maria with passion. It was Ave Maria, a song I don’t know well, that brought tears to my eyes. The singing was beautiful. The singers’ skill was admirable, but it was the glow on their faces that struck me, that same glow I often feel rising on my cheeks when I sing a Hebrew melody I love. As the chorus sang Ave Maria, I glanced around the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church and saw the late afternoon sun glinting through the stained glass windows of Jesus. I wondered what it must have felt like for the singers who could look at those windows and embrace the beautiful images as they sang.
I recognized one of the Hancock singers from our community pool and complimented her on her voice and passion. I said I did not really know the words, but loved the song. She laughed and said she did not understand the words, either. Yet, I suspect her experience is the same as it is for me with many Hebrew pieces. Sing the same song enough times, and you grasp the spirit even if the words are hard to comprehend.
Bob Eaton, the First Baptist choral director, said he started the festival as a noncompetitive way to promote choral music. He was more interested in the music than the faith component. But when the festival started, some ministers and rabbis were concerned about the faith component.
“Jewish choirs singing in a Christian church with a cross or a church chorus singing about Jesus in a temple? You could understand from a theological point of view that it would raise some eyebrows,” Bob said when I called him to get the festival’s history. “What has truly evolved is a sharing of cultures. We’re not there to worship together. We’re there to share.”
And share we did. The Episcopal chorus sang an African-American spiritual. Temple Emunah’s chorus brought a klezmer flair to the festival when a clarinetist accompanied the group on L’cha Dodi, which means Come, My Beloved, and signals welcoming Shabbat. The entire sanctuary clapped along to the music sung in Hebrew. My chorus sang a different version of the same song as well as a piece called the Circle Chant, a non-religious acapella work by Linda Hirschhorn, who I wrote about in a previous post. Bob Eaton led his chorus through a folk piece, Peace Like a River, and Handel’s Sing unto God, reminding all of us of the bond between the history of music, great composers, and religion.
The end of the concert, as is festival tradition, brought all singers on stage for one piece. This year, the chosen work was The Promise of Living, from Aaron Copland’s opera, “The Tender Land.” Roughly 200 of us stood shoulder to shoulder at the front of the sanctuary. We had practiced the song with our own choirs. With a half hour of practice under Bob Eaton’s guidance, we learned how to breathe and sing as one.
The chorus directors chose a piece they thought would be amenable to numerous faiths. There was no mention of Jesus or of the Virgin Mary. The language was English. The message was one most religions could embrace. To quote a little from the song, its text by Horace Everett: “The promise of growing with faith and with knowing is born of our sharing our love with our neighbor.”
The promise of growing, too, is about sharing and learning about our faiths.