An abbreviated version of an essay by Gail A. Ricciuti, D.D., Associate Professor of Homiletics, was published in the October 19, 2015 edition of The Christian Century. Read Dr. Ricciuti's post here: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2015-10/song
The full text of Dr. Ricciuti's essay is available here:
I didn’t expect to be converted all over again by their singing, or struck breathless in spirit by their songs. After more than thirty years of being a quiet house church meeting in various city venues, the small congregation had purchased a vacant lot a few blocks down our street and nestled a new church building there; and as Presbyterian ministers of some forty years, my husband and I walked through their doors one bright Sunday morning to “check out that little Mennonite fellowship.”
In that first moment, we encountered an entirely genuine welcome, even when they– a congregation that eschews a called pastorate in favor of intentionally shared leadership– learned who we are. Ironically, long generations ago our spiritual ancestors were the persecutors of theirs; and yet it was so joyful a welcome that we were never again strangers. It was the singing, and the songs, that helped magnify the hospitality. Songs from around the world, different eras, diverse traditions: soaring four-part harmony, often unaccompanied and as unselfconscious as the tangible sense of community among the singers. “Over my head, I hear music in the air,” we sang; and “Beauty for brokenness, Hope for despair…” From the glad, driving rhythm of “What is this place, where we are meeting? Only a house…Yet it becomes a body that lives when we are gathered here…” to the Swahili “Siyahamba,” we sang, and sing, ourselves into fresh faith.
Compared to our years in churches with practiced choirs and magnificent music programs, this was new for us– the whole congregation itself a choir. “They sing like angels!” I remarked to myself that first Sunday. It has now become our common joke: after my husband’s retirement the month before (my own work having shifted some years ago to teaching on a seminary faculty), I had said “On the weeks I’m not preaching elsewhere, I might occasionally take a leisurely Sunday morning off.” But just twenty minutes into what would become our settled sojourn among the Mennonites, a wry inner voice whispered “Oh, drat. There go my Sundays!” As one whose heart had been reached (“like a bell that is lifted and struck,” in Annie Dillard’s words), I knew that I could not stay away from this fellowship or their songs.
Singing such a wide array, eight or ten every Sunday morning, is a metaphor for our life together. In the way each voice supports the songline of the others, this is real community. With all its expectable quirks and quarks, it is “church” in the best sense: a strong core with permeable boundaries, not only reaching out but gladly gathering in anyone who happens to show up (and often feeding them, as well). They eat together the way they sing!– with gusto and love, around a lavish potluck table that invites and represents the world. While different members plan and lead worship each week, a rotation of volunteer songleaders draws out our best: one week a bright, personable young truck driver who happens to have perfect pitch leads in his energetic style, while the next might find us under the more meditative direction of a newly-minted Ph.D. in musicology, her two-year-old son hugging her left leg. With each service stitched together in song, we pray, proclaim, protest– and are changed. My initially shaky alto has been gradually bolstered and strengthened by all the other voices, as I discover that I’m a better person for being among them: more faith-full, more cognizant of what it means to be the body of Christ. They are converting me again and again by being a singing, serving community. As an anonymous poet wrote generations ago, they are helping “to make…out of the works of my every day not a reproach but a song.”
Gail A. Ricciuti
Rochester, New York