This reflection is another section of “Bread and Concrete: Connecting Sacraments and Service”that was not published last year in Ministry and Liturgy Magazine. As I listen attentively to Psalm 95 today, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts”, I recall the sounds of violence and chaos that lead to echoes of God’s love. In this Lenten season, listen carefully. This reflection comes from my experiences in Portland, OR.
Our sound equipment
“Come, let us sing joyfully to the Lord” Psalm 95
Our neighborhood is immersed in noise. Squad cars with squawking sirens zip by our corner parish building all during the night and become most disturbing at Mass time. The sirens are a call to deeper prayer, reminding us in the ringing of our ears that suffering is nearby, that someone overdosed or passed out on the street corner or may even have died. The constant sirens become the continuation of our only church bell, calling us all into profound awareness that we are powerless to fix our neighbors ourselves or to change the reality of peoples’ daily circumstances.
Screams from the sidewalks from people on the sidewalks raging against thieves echo into our chapel. The streets operate with a strict pecking order. Women remain targets of rape and theft even in daylight. Men who are considered weak or vulnerable or mentally ill remain constant targets for stronger men who may steal a blanket or a backpack or an identification card.
Music from a nightclub’s afternoon concert shakes up our routines or reminds us at dusk that the weekend has arrived once again. The nightclub music even rattles our windows in the rectory and our dishes in the kitchen cabinets. I sleep with a fan next to my head to try and drown out the thunder of rock, the beat of people dancing the night away.
Several years ago the nightclub behind and adjacent to the sanctuary wall in our chapel started its festivities at midnight. Music blared through the walls even upstairs in the rectory until 6:00 a.m. We complained to the police and they sent their sound expert to assess the noise in our chapel and rectory. The loud music was not just our imagination; the noise was eight and a half times over the legal limit even within our own walls. This measurement helped shut down the business. We later found out that the nightclub was actually a cover for a cocaine ring.
People come to our chapel searching for silence as an antidote to the violence of the streets. People who nestle up against our outside walls teach me that silence is sacred. They ache for a space to not only feel physically safe, but also spiritually safe. This desire for silence as I discover in these quiet conversations is holy, sacred and a path to prayer. I cannot image that silence in a monastery or seminary is as sacred as the silence people in poverty yearn for so they may feel the safety of God’s presence and pray for the miracles they desire.
We all wait for the healing touch of Christ. My experience in the parish opens me up now to really hearing the silence of the nine lepers who did not come back to Jesus in gratitude. The cloud of grateful praise of one overwhelms me as our Eucharist today begins. I feel the silence of Jesus in the desert waiting for his passageway into ministry knowing that people were waiting for his healing touch. I hear the words of praise to the Father as Jesus carried one lost sheep on his shoulders.
As a healing balm from the chaos, clutter and noise of the streets, people sing out to begin the sacred Eucharist. People sing in our parish community because they simply need God. Many people who gather for prayer are shy and withdrawn. Depression overtakes several people in our community. Some people are lonely and fearful. Others have difficulty believing that they are welcome to be present at Mass in the first place. Many voices are squelched by past abuse or silenced because of feelings of being marginalized by society. However, when we all gather in the pews we raise our voices in gusto, in a rich sound of prayer. For many people singing wipes away the anxiety of feeling unheard in life.
Our common voices sing us into a new vibrant identity. Our hymns, familiar or not to our congregation, are sung from the ground of despair. Our procession to the Eucharist forms people into an identity in Christ Jesus. We are the living text of the hymns that offer us the story of redemption from our suffering.
I realize at the beginning of the Eucharist that singing also creates a new label for our community. So many of our people live under negative labels. They are viewed as “those poor” or the “those lazy homeless” or “those druggies, or dykes or fags or alcoholics”. The voices that utter these put-downs are themselves hurting and lonely. I know firsthand that such put-downs may silence our human voices. So many people take those put-downs to heart; they hold them in their bodies and within the soft sounds of their voices. However, at Eucharist a new voice is heard, coming from the Body of Christ assembled in our pews. People sing from such sin and offense. People sing out from being silenced in society. People hit the high notes because they suffer the lowliness of poverty, the act of being silenced, shunned and cast off to the sides of society and the Church.
I carry in my body and in my silent prayer much fear. In my years of experience in ministry I know that this fear unites me with many people. If we are serious as a Church to reach out to people who are waiting for God, then we must invite people to bring their fears into the heart of every worshipping community. I sing so to silence the fear inside me. We all sing to release our fear into the hands of God and the Holy Spirit creates genuine communion from our voices. This is the heart of genuine and real evangelization. Creating communion from fear is the Eucharist in action for all God’s people.
As I begin the procession to the Eucharist Table, I sing out as if my own life depends upon it. After I open my mouth and begin the processional hymn, I look around at our congregation. I realize that my life does depend on receiving the grace of people who ache for God. I find myself part of the people who sing from our weakness.
For many years a joint in my jaw has grown stressed and weak. I have worn apparatuses to move my jaw into a more functional position and to alleviate its pain. Singing and preaching put stress on my jaw and mouth. I sing out with a weak jaw. My voice among people in poverty reminds me that I too, need physical and emotional healing. I begin a hymn of gathering, a song of praise to God believing in my entire being that we are all journeying from suffering to the promise of God’s real presence for every person.
Not every person is willing to add a voice of praise to God. I recently listened to a man bemoaning the label of “homeless”. He voiced from his recent unfortunate circumstance a reluctance to pray in our parish. He does not want to be counted among people who smell. He does not want to be reminded that he is bound by his poverty. He does not want to hear from me at Mass that our ministry is among people who sleep outside or who battle the marks of other peoples’ negative judgments.
He spoke slurring his words because his teeth are rotting. He drew my attention to his mouth because he said that his teeth are a giveaway that he cannot take care of himself because he is poor. He told me through his bleeding gums that he is so angry about the labels that his body reveals to other people. His voice was a reminder for me that we all need to be free of the labels that corrode our perspectives of other people. He wants desperately to sing to God even with few teeth, with a full and rich voice and so he hopes to find a parish that will not remind him that he is homeless.
Many of our people hear inner voices. The many forms of mental illness are manifest here among the lost and fragile. Some people do not know how to interpret the sounds of the bell as a call to worship or the musicians beginning the hymn as the entrance into common prayer. So many inner voices isolate people because the voices cause fear in their daily lives and routines. For many other people just their self-talk reminds them that they feel unworthy. This unworthiness shows itself by keeping some people locked in their rooms or expresses itself to others who creep into church feeling lost and timid. The voices heard in silence are so often the guide to people living in mistrust and fear. We all pray that our common voice may be heard in the healing hymns we sing together in the procession. The hymn does not always cover the bruises of the mind or squelch the inner voices of self-hatred and fear.
Our worship music is real and authentic. We do not have microphones, loudspeakers, or electric guitars. Our musicians are not performers. We do not try to compete with the rock bands across the street. Music ministry bends the notion that louder is better, that artificial sound is holy. Our musicians understand that so many of our people come to our parish longing for simple truth. They realize that sound can jar people with various forms of mental illness. So often people who suffer from various forms of mental illness cannot stand loud music, or abrupt changes in sound. Some cannot stand a particular style of music because it sets off horrific memories. However, our musicians all believe that worship in our community comes from a deep awareness that our hymns need to be a better alternative to the lonely silence in hearts of all who worship here.
Our church bell rings on cue to begin our procession to the altar of God. This bell is our noisemaker to the neighborhood. It rings fifty-two times echoing across the streets and into the lives of people in the single room occupancy hotels in our neighborhood. The sound of the bell is heard even on the thirty-eighth floor of the bank building across the street at high noon on weekdays. I hear the bell in the parking garage where I park my car on the days that another priest is presiding at Mass. The lonely bell from our simple building has a history long before it sat atop of our building. The bell goes back to one of the five locations our parish has occupied since it’s beginning, just after World War I. The sound of the bell that floats through the neighborhood is the only public sound we create. It is a reminder for many that the sounds of worship may be the only healing that will stifle the sirens in daylight and the stirring of people who hear voices in their apartments on a quiet Sunday morning.
Few people make their way into our chapel after the bell stops. Most people arrive early to find time to pray or to catch up with friends. When the bell rings, all of the lights are flicked on from the panel of switches in the sacristy. There is urgency in the desire to gather again because we all ache to belong to something greater than ourselves.
Our procession to the Table of Life is simple. Only the priest makes his way down the aisle on Sunday. The small aisle and limited space does not make for easy processions. However, I pray that people do not feel left out. Under the banner of our song, members of the assembly settle into their place here believing that the hymn is the call to gather as we are, lonely and afraid, silent or despairing, showered or not. The common hunger of our folks compels us all to unite at the altar of God. I sing with coffee breath and a tight jaw longing for all of us to find our place at the foot of the altar.
I sing because so many people are silenced in our culture. Our Church seldom wants to hear from mothers who speak out about their children in times of war in various corners of the world. We struggle to hear voices that cry out from behind prison bars about the injustices of our society. We may even be deaf to people who are mentally ill, who want a decent place to live and who cry out to us on street corners or other public places. The stories in our culture that are formed in silence and despair must be told in the songs of hope and liberation in the healing story of Christ Jesus. Every parish community must risk letting go of their silence so to sing of such victory and love in Jesus.
When we sing at Mass, every voice is heard. We carry the love of Christ in our voices. Singing is one of the ways we remain in communion with one another. When we sing out in our hymns, songs and psalms, we are telling people that we are open to voices that we have not heard before. This act of singing and listening is one way in which we learn to be open to the real needs of people. Our voices are the divinely inspired instruments of evangelizing people in their hardened and negative silences.
I yearn for our singing voices to soften the individual voices of people that say they are unworthy to be at the foot of the altar. I pray at the sanctuary step that our song may cover a multitude of shamed silences. I pray for people who sing even when English is not their first language. I hope our common voices ease the pain for many women who feel their voices are squelched within the decision making process of many parishes. I sing believing that people may find healing from the hurtful words and actions of clergy. I open my mouth because singing is a moment of truth that we share in common. This moment of song becomes an echo for all eternity that we believe and that our community is worthwhile. This is the unity of song, the cloud of healing hymnody that hovers around our pews from the depths of all of our wounded hearts.