The first time I ever truly contemplated direct service was shortly after I graduated from Luther College (‘08), during my year as a volunteer with the Lutheran Volunteer Corps. I was placed with an organization that facilitated service-learning programming in Washington, D.C., working to educate visitors about urban homelessness and poverty. One of my primary responsibilities was finding direct service opportunities for these large groups who would visit, usually for a week or less. It didn’t take long to uncover a broken system. Nonprofits were spending extra energy to create feel-good service opportunities for the groups, when what they truly needed was someone to help fund-raise, or to seal and stamp envelopes for a mass mailing. Setting up this volunteerism became extremely frustrating for me; who was I really working to serve?
Around this same time, my supervisor suggested that I find a way to get involved at the women’s homeless shelter across the street, getting to know the women and seeing homelessness first hand. I wanted to offer my gifts as a musician in some way, and before I knew it, I was the founder and director of Bethany’s Women of Praise, a choir of homeless and low-income women (See News Video). My own experience in organizing service opportunities had taught me a bit about entering such a situation with great humility, but still, I must admit that I started this choir with high expectations and the assumption that through serving the women with my musical prowess, we would accomplish incredible things.
We did accomplish incredible things, though not at all what I had imagined. Bethany’s Women of Praise completely changed the values I held about music, and my three years spent with this choir shaped me in ways that continue to direct my musical journey today. As I look back on those post-college years, I see a creative, energetic twenty-something, ready to change the world, yet embittered by a society longing to “serve” merely for selfish gain. With the gift of hindsight, it is so clear that a force was working on me, confronting me with the very challenges I was critiquing, and teaching me three key points:
Unexpectedly, my path has once again led me to a unique choral ensemble, where I have been given the opportunity to practice service through song. In October 2015, I met with 15 women at the prison in Shakopee, MN to discuss the possibility of starting a choir. A year and a half later, we are 37 women, rehearsing for two hours every Sunday afternoon. We call ourselves the Voices of Hope, and we believe in the power of our collective voice to reach beyond the prison walls, carrying a message of restorative justice and radical inclusivity through music.
Music is the tool we use, but let me be clear that it is far from my primary focus. Music gives us something to do, something to distract us from our inward-looking selves. It forces us to notice other people and to try to work together. On the surface, it appears that we are learning a song, but what we are really doing is building relationships with one another. Of course, all choral musicians know this to be true; music’s creation of community is why most of us entered this profession in the first place. But consider the added benefits for a choir of women in prison. 60% of incarcerated women have experienced abuse, but in choir, they are valued and lifted up. 17% of women in prison spent part of their childhood in and out of foster care, but in choir, they have found a lasting family. Almost 100% of the women in the Voices of Hope are mothers, stripped of their role as caregiver. Yet choir provides a safe space to be vulnerable with one another through the intimate discovery of our bodies as instruments. No matter our background, each one of us is learning that we can be instruments of destruction and chaos or instruments of kindness and peace. In this way, I am no different from the choir I conduct, and so we join together in caring for one another through song.
Of course, caring for each other takes time. It’s fascinating to watch the transformation of the Voices of Hope from the beginning of a quarter (when new singers are allowed to join) to the end, 12 weeks later. For the first few weeks, I often feel like a crazy version of myself, overly excited as I try to enliven the singers. I can only imagine the thoughts running through the heads of those who are new to choir! What did I get myself into?? Over time, we build trust in one another and in ourselves, granting permission to sing freely and learning the difference between healthy evaluation and negative critique. By the end of the quarter, the levels of energy have reversed, and it takes all I have left to calm down the excitement from the choir. At the end of this past quarter, I was shocked when one of my quiet, scowling singers asked to share something with the audience. She got up in front of 100 of her peers and said that choir has helped to turn her negative attitude around. She’s back for another quarter, and I can only imagine what the next twelve weeks will give her.
When we spend time with people who are different from us, transformation happens. What we see all too often with service is that a privileged group swoops in, valiantly offers their gifts, and leaves feeling good about themselves and the “difference” they have made in the world. This “day of service” can occur without even interacting with those in need and almost never includes the act of asking the question, What might I learn from those I am serving? Yet this is the most magical part of service! When we humble ourselves and show hospitality to a stranger, they become host and we become guest in the most extraordinary reversal of roles.
This has been my experience with the Voices of Hope. I may be the conductor of this choir, but there is an abundance of lessons for me to learn: that process trumps product always, that performing is not about perfection, that shared emotion and testimony are powerful, that someone’s past does not define who they are, that being a member of society includes the responsibility of helping give voice to those who have been silenced, that my own voice is beautiful and needed in the world. What a gift to be reminded of the importance and urgency of my work as a musician from such unexpected teachers who truly are voices of hope.