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Friday, August 7, 2015

Singing and making music—meaning beyond words at MMA2015


I am afraid to say too much about my experience serving among the 180 or so teens and adults who lived the Music Ministry Alive 2015 experience last week at St. Catherine's University in St. Paul. I don't mean that it's a secret like a kairos retreat, or that there's some gnostic experiential handshake I might inadvertently reveal. I just mean that I might damn it with faint praise, or by seeking to put it into words say too little or give the impression that an emotional jolt precipitated some florid prose.

My experience instead was of a community with a history of carefully imagined encounter around intentional polarities of spirituality, liturgy, leadership, music, and evangelizing service, gathering again and renewing its bonds while lavishing its loving attention on new members.

MMA core team: Matt, Tim, Lori, David, Jess
Among the many people who are the heartbeat and nervous system of this body, David Haas and Lori True have gathered some very talented multi-tasking professionals who not only radiate joy and mutual respect for each others' many gifts and talents, but many of whom have emerged spiritually and professionally from the matrix of MMA, now about a generation "old." Lest I leave out anyone important, I hope that you who are part of MMA will recognize whom I mean, and those of who you do not will forgive my reticence. In addition, dozens of adult staff members and chaperones see to the safety and happiness of the youth attendees, and adult track participants, all of whom have brought youth with them from their church communities, lend their considerable experience and (at least) another week of their lifetimes toward the optimal outcome for the youth participants.

What is really phenomenal, to anyone who takes the time to consider it, is the level of personal expertise and attention youth receive from spiritual and musical mentors in every aspect of these ministries. Composers getting personal attention from people like Marty Haugen and Lynn Trapp, keyboard players getting private lessons and advice from the amazing Tom Franzak, guitarists learning from Steve Petrunak and Jaime Cortez, and equally expert advice and lessons for string, trumpet, and woodwind players. Singers received group and individualized help from Bonnie Faber, Terry Donohoo, Anna Betancourt, George Miller and others, all under the energetic direction of Tim Westerhaus, an MMA alum and now professor and choral conductor at Gonzaga University. A handful of youth were given a leadership seminar led by Lori True.

But I want to emphasize that undergirding all the urging toward musical excellence is a liturgical spirituality and gospel love that pervades every aspect of life at MMA. Every day begins and ends in musical prayer, planned, rehearsed, and often led by the youth themselves in presidential, intercessory, cantor, choir, and instrumental ministries. There is an institute "pastor"—in this case, the ebullient and inspiring Msgr. Ray East, dubbed "love on legs" in a moment of improvised inspiration by a young participant this week. 

There is a level of integrity and rootedness provided by a perennially substantial contingent from St. Rita parish, located in the Hawaiian homelands on Oahu, led by the expansively kind and wonderful Fr Alapaki Kim. There were about 8 youth in the program from St Rita's, and as many adults. Some were in the adult track, others worked overseeing and ministering to the youth. Joe Camacho, from Volcano HI on the Big Island, was also at MMA lending his special spirituality with embodied prayer and music through hula. All of these folks, from a remarkably generous community of very little means, exude an active hospitality that reaches out with host-like generosity even when they are visitors, and everyone at MMA was a recipient of gifts of bone leis, flowers, candy, and lots of kisses and hugs. There was even a night when the Hawaiian contingent put on an evening for the rest of us, giving lei-making lessons, singing Hawaiian songs with ukulele, telling stories with hula, and lots of puupuu, including a homemade coconut custard-like dessert that was delish. But the overriding takeaway from being among the Hawaiians was of being the beneficiary of unconditional love that was as physical as it was spiritual; being in the presence of people of transparent benevolence, gifted with an inner warmth that they share without restriction.

I was busy with the adult track most of the time, and am not certain at all what the youth were up to beyond their music lessons and choral and instrumental rehearsals for the end-of-week concert. What was clear all along the way was the emergence of community among the participants, genuine care for one another, support for each other and desire for the individual and mutual success of the whole group. In the adult track, we spent time breaking open the movement of the eucharistic liturgy as articulated as the dynamics of Henri Nouwen's modern epistle to the secular, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World . I spelled that out in a little detail earlier this week in a blog post entitled, "Taken, Blessed, Broken, and Shared." This turned out, I think, to be a good choice by David Haas, this choosing of Nouwen's book to be the week's kerygmatic touchstone. None of us realized how much all of us, not just the youth by any means, needed to hear Nouwen's message about the non-competitive, universal love of God that is lavished on us all as it calls us to live for one another in a world that devalues the human person wants us to believe we can never be good enough, smart enough, rich enough, and pretty enough. Watching that message unfold during the week and dawn on the hearts of young and adult alike was quite a revelation.

All of that having been said, none of my words comes close to expressing what we experienced there in the the way that the pervasiveness of music itself brought the message home. From morning to night, in every aspect of our time together, sacred song helped us give voice to the transformation that was taking place in so many hearts and lives. It was a song sung in English, Spanish, Latin, and Kiswahili (at least), embodied in dance and gesture, begun in prayer but breaking out in all kinds of places from dormitories to dining room. Whether singing Lori's touching theme song, or Michael Joncas's heart-wrenchingly beautiful "Tableprayer: the Winter Name of God," or "Hamba Nathi Kululu wetu" from one of John Bell's world music collections, this group of no-longer-strangers found its voice to express the gospel truth over and over that "You are my chosen, the beloved, in you I am well pleased," in a remarkably inclusive and uplifting way.

I'm not sure how to end this, knowing that nothing I say can really communicate the essence of blessing that Music Ministry Alive 2015 became for the 100+ youth participants, 30+ adult track participants, and dozens of team members and support staff. I hope that they all experienced and will interiorize over time a prophetic church, a church conscious of its calling, conscious of its blessing, convinced that its weakness is strength in the hands of a God who creates from nothing and brings resurrection from disaster and shame, all in order to bring life to a world unconvinced of any power except the failed, miserable power of arms and greed. What I hope the participants come to realize is that service through music and art is a sacrament of participation, which is God's method of choice for saving the world. The great 20th century prophet of musical collaboration and the voice of the people, Pete Seeger, may not have known what he said when he said it best in a documentary interview before he died: "I've never sung anywhere without giving the people listening to me a chance to join in. As a kid, as a lefty, as a man touring the U.S.A. and the world, as an oldster. I guess it's kind of a religion with me. Participation. That's what's going to save the human race." 

Participation in music reveals the truth that the whole of us is greater than the sum of the parts of our individual gifts. It turns isolation into community, introversion into ecstasy. When that music is put at the service of the God-who-bows, it begins to subvert the false authority of civilization and its Idol-atrous cult of virtuosity, stardom, and perfection. 

May I urge you, please, to investigate what MMA has to offer your students, your community, and you, and urge you to make a donation to their work? Next summer's institute is the last full week of July, July 26-31, 2016. Lives will be changed. The influence of the week will last a lifetime. Join Terry and me, please, in supporting the life and mission of Music Ministry Alive, for the life of the world.