I know, that's an odd headline, since it's been so quiet around here. I've been really focussed on my writing, since I'm on the homestretch now. Last week I got the final chapter (s?) organized and started writing, including one quiet and productive afternoon spent in the Bibliotheque. Our terrible weather continued until late yesterday; today is bright and sunny and I can't wait to go out for a walk although I'm sure it is really cold.
Last night we went with friends to a Gospel concert at a Pentecostal church in another part of the city - and it was quite an experience. The concert was a benefit for one of the church members, a woman who is a preacher and singer who is raising money to cut her first CD. She was the main performer but didn't appear until the third hour; before that we heard maybe eight other singers, small groups and choruses, interspersed with a little preaching and humor and warmth from the two MCs, a large wide woman and a very skinny tall man, both with great singing voices too. There was an often-stated understanding that they see and intend the music they make to be a ministry; not commercial. The congregation was entirely black - in addition to the four of us there were maybe four other white people there - and everyone was dressed up for the occasion and ready to "praise" - which they did. or maybe I should say, we did, since it was impossible to keep hands and feet still. By the end, everyone was up on their feet, dancing and singing. The atmosphere was a combination of reverent and ecstatic - these folks are serious about their personal relationship with Jesus and praising God, which was pretty much the extent of the message we heard. And music is their medium. There were some wonderful voices, and one performance in particular, by a woman who came out of the backup gospel chorus of about a dozen women dressed in cream-colored satin blouses and long brown skirts, all different, was extraordinary. She had a fantastic voice, and sang a song called "City of God", about a vision of heaven, and not only got totally into it vocally, but ended up on her knees on the stage, hands up, belting out the chorus with eyes closed while the whole audience swayed, on their feet, hands raised, singing with her in reprise after reprise.
I'm an Episcopalian, but I grew up with Gospel music, at least in its northern, white church version. My paternal grandfather, born in the 1880s, was a Methodist minister who, in hsi young days, had been a circuit-rider, traveling from church to church for revival meetings in the upper reaches of Appalachia in northen Pennsylvania and southern New York. In my father's family, everyone sang and played instruments, and my father and his brothers and sister often performed in church as a Gospel quartet. As a young person I was often at the piano harmonizing with my Dad on old Methodist and Gospel hymns like "In the Garden" and "His Eye is on the Sparrrow", and we still love to do that when we get together. So although I may have spent my adulthood singing liturgical works by Mozart and Fauré, I'm not snobby about church music so long as it's not the repetitive, insipid, mindless dreck that's billed as "contemporary praise music" these days in mainline churches. Singing along last night and getting up and dancing in the pew cheered me up after a long week. The message -- well, I have some problems there. And without hearing any real sermonizing, I wasn't sure what kind of theology this particular church represented. But for one evening, I wanted to suspend any judgement and just enjoy, observe, and allow myself to be touched by the simple faith and generosity that flowed out of all the singing throats, reminded of the significant role Gospel played my own musical formation. Nevertheless, it felt like an evening immersed in a totally different culture.
The final chorus was still rolling when we stepped out into the cold snowy air at 10:00 pm. Our friends' friend, who had told them about the concert, followed us out to thank us for coming. He was a handsome man in a suit; his wife - petite, very pretty, with a glowing face - had been one of the singers in the gospel chorus. Together, they clean our friends' apartment each week.