For What and for Whom Do You Pray? Coercion, Consent, and the Healing of Ableism

Whenever I teach a course on Christian worship, my students and I spend time together talking about healing prayers and liturgies. I prioritize these discussions both because liturgy can help to heal the painful webs of violence in which we find ourselves and because it is imperative that worship leaders reflect on the potential violence of ritual practices of healing. My hope is that future pastors and other leaders will imagine healing in ways that do not objectify particular kinds of body-minds and will foster liturgical practices that awaken our desires for the depth and breadth of what it means to be embodied together in relationship with God and others. Thus, I hope to identify some of the symptoms of ableism that shape many Christian imaginaries in order to liberate liturgical impulses as my students respond to harm and loss among the people with whom they worship. Such work requires making connections between the bodies of the people who gather for healing and the kinds of spaces that promote or prohibit nonviolent practices of healing.

My own liturgical imagination regarding ableism and healing was transformed by a community with whom I prayed regularly for many years, first as an intern and later as an ethnographic researcher.[1]  Sacred Family,[2] as I shall call them, was an unusual congregation where people with and without mental illness and other disabilities, many of whom came to the church from group homes and experienced poverty. They assembled throughout the week for Holy Eucharist, Morning and Noonday Prayer, as well as other special services. In addition to worship services, congregants gathered twice a week for day programs and meals, which included art programs, gardening, Bingo, singing, and yoga, among other activities.

During my time with this congregation I participated in a liturgical practice that was new to me. Every other Wednesday, during a service of healing, after scriptures were read and prayers spoken, many congregants eagerly went forward to offer their individual concerns and to allow another to pray for healing. One by one a deacon, priest, or lay leader would lay hands on each one prompted by a request from the person standing before them.

I was initially wary of these liturgies. My suspicion was shaped by critiques from disabled scholars and activists. These criticisms identify the ways that healing rituals participate in the misnaming of disability as either tragedy or inspiration.[3] They expose the harm of healing prayers that would eradicate rather than the conserve disability. Disability scholars David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder argue that Christian desires to imagine healing through the cure of disabled bodies and minds distracts from the more difficult work of imagining a world with the kinds of resources and structures of support that empower disabled people’s flourishing in the world.[4] Theologian and philosopher Sharon Betcher emphasizes the harsh effects on those often targeted by prayers for “the Spirit and its healing efficacy” as disabled persons are subject “to the fervor of its promise and the bite of its rejection when our bodies proved heretically resistant to cure.”[5] Even when some liberal Christian theologies deny supernatural powers to heal, they often promote other healing practices invested in ableism: “our close alliance with the miracle of modern medicine leaves us with a comparable anticipation of health as normalcy. But to wish me normal is no kindness, no generosity of spirit.”[6]

Informed by such powerful warnings regarding the violence of healing practices, I initially hesitated to participate in prayers with the potential to reinforce patterns of stigma regarding body-minds that do not confirm to social expectations. Only when a disabled Sacred Family congregant urged me to go forward for healing, assuring me that I could pray for whatever I wanted to pray for, did I choose to join the lines of people waiting to be prayed for at the front of the sanctuary. The eagerness of those around me to participate in healing prayer as well as their ways of reflecting on their own participation nuanced my understandings of the complicated relationships between desires for healing and the divides of ableism that shape many Christian communities.

Sacred Family congregants named for me a wide range of situations and relationships that healing prayers might address. Kayla explained to me that when she prayed for healing she asked for marriage for herself and for others as she anticipated the healing qualities of everyday companionship, play, and obligation that surpassed conventional bonds of friendship. Rose described healing as something that happened not only through prayers for healing but because of the kinds of help that people at the church received through food, clothes, and other forms of assistance. Miriam discussed the care and respect she received from people who helped her to choose life rather than death. Wallace prayed for healing for his friends and family.

The eagerness of those around me to participate in healing prayer as well as their ways of reflecting on their own participation nuanced my understandings of the complicated relationships between desires for healing and the divides of ableism that shape many Christian communities.

Ginny, a lay person who frequently offered prayers of healing for others, spoke of her work not as support for the eradication of congregants’ disabilities but as the intention to bring a complicated set of desires regarding health and well-being to God and to invite God to work with those desires in a way that only God could do. In her mind, healing prayers at Sacred Family did not seek to remove disability but played a role in the acceptance that congregants claimed for themselves and for others. She imagined healing prayers creating a safe space for desires that neither the petitioner nor the one who prays for healing fully understand. Those who came forward for healing prayers sought access to the wisdom and affirmation of God through practices of trust and through the help of another’s breath and touch.

While no single definition or experience of healing emerged among congregants at Sacred Family, those who participated in healing prayers resisted ways of speaking about their desires for their lives or the lives of others with the pity, condescension, or hopes for able-bodiedness that typify many worshipping communities. In my observation, non-violent practices of healing at Sacred Family assumed that those who gathered for prayer identified themselves and others through a wide range of names and relationships. Those who prayed for one another were not praying for “the poor,” “the disabled,” or “the mentally ill” but for those with whom they prayed together each week. Through growing in knowledge and love for each other in different ways across the span of a week, congregants with and without disabilities claimed the worth and beauty of their own lives together. rather than perceiving some people’s lives as problems to be solved or saved by others.

Sacred Family’s liturgy thus raised a broader set of questions for me about the communal conditions that foster ecclesial practices of consensual rather than coercive healing.[7] What kinds of healing practices might shape desires for the transformation of one’s body-mind in ways that were not constrained and defined by dreams for normality or ablebodiedness? In what ways do communities refuse to use some kinds of bodies to imagine the healing of others?  From my vantage point at Sacred Family, weekly practices for consensual healing prayers were made possible because of other forms of solidarity that happened across the week as those who gathered transformed their attitudes regarding mental illness and neurodiversity. For these Wednesday prayer services were only one small movement in a life together that extended across the week and month. Such rhythms included Sunday Eucharist, Wednesday services, morning and noonday prayers as well as day programs, and many, many meals together. Without congregants singing, praying, sitting, eating, painting, playing, doing yoga, laughing, and arguing together across a week-long liturgy, the healing rites might not have emerged from daily artistries of social interaction and from relationships of trust and mutuality. In this sense, consensual healing necessitated proactive attention to the wounds of ableism; such “creative attention”[8] involved the intentional creation of spaces where congregants could bring both their dreams and their experiences of loss and pain without fear that another would turn them into an object of pity or charity, or as some congregants put it, that someone would “treat them like a child” or “throw their lives away.” Such practices helped to liberate the hopes and dreams that those who gathered had for themselves and one another.

Without congregants singing, praying, sitting, eating, painting, playing, doing yoga, laughing, and arguing together across a week-long liturgy, the healing rites might not have emerged from daily artistries of social interaction and from relationships of trust and mutuality.

At the same time, status and power dynamics in the community continuously challenged desires for relationships that fostered consensual healing. As one congregant, Aisha, explained to me, while she had experienced powerful transformation in herself and others through her interactions with others Sacred Family, she was also frustrated with constraints on the relationships she was able to have, particularly with those who came to work at the church for a season and then left. When I asked her what made it difficult to be a community here, she talked about building trust:

I don’t like how you may build a real friendship, but there are statuses, and when the person has a certain status, you can probably keep up with them, but it’s not the same as a true friendship where you could go and have dinner or lunch or hang out. It’s not that type of friendship. It’s more like I care about you, but we’re a different status, so that hurts.

She expressed hope that in time she might share more permanent bonds with people of a different social status outside of ecclesial space and time. I observed the tensions in her experiences of herself within this community, a community that is a church, and yet where some congregants still experience themselves at times as “clients” rather than as persons who are desirable to, and on equal standing with, others. Aisha acknowledged that the boundaries of church space serve as the boundaries of some “friendships”: “I feel like the people I come to see, as long as I come here I get to see them, but if I don’t come here, I don’t get to see them.” While she wanted to identify her relationships with other Christians as experiences of blessing and mutuality, she was also frustrated by the implicit rules that govern relationships in times and spaces outside church gatherings, when some congregants returned to places where others would never live or socialize.

In speaking with Aisha and others, I noted that the consensual practices that seek to heal ableism within the boundaries of the church are often threatened or undermined by clear divides that occur outside the spaces and times of the church. Relationships formed within the congregation did not significantly transform other patterns for living and healing together outside the church. Thus while Sacred Family offered vital spaces for transforming practices of ableism both within and outside of its formal liturgies, it also illumined the persistent violence of a city in which some congregants lives are worth more than others and where social statuses and material resources continue to divide those who gather for prayer. To establish the conditions for consensual healing within congregational time and space also meant the more difficult work of interrogating and transforming coercive practices of ableism into which congregants are sent. [ix]  Sacred Family fostered dreams for the healing of relationships between people with and without disabilities, yet it also anticipated a different kind of ecclesial work that is necessary to create the conditions for the consensual healing of all who gather for prayer.


Dr. Rebecca F. Spurrier is Associate Dean for Worship Life and Assistant Professor of Worship at Columbia Theological Seminary. She is interested in a theology and practice of public worship that reflects the beauty and tension human difference brings to Christian liturgy. Engaging ethnographic theology, disability studies, and liturgical aesthetics, her research explores the hope of human interdependence and the importance of liturgical access for religious practice and Christian community. She is the author of The Disabled Church: Human Difference and the Art of Communal Worship.

 

[1] For a more detailed account of this research, see Rebecca F. Spurrier, The Disabled Church: Human Difference and the Art of Communal Worship (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019).

[2] The name of the church and all names of persons have been changed to protect confidentiality.

[3] Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 70–75.

[4] David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, “‘Jesus Thrown Everything Off Balance’: Disability and Redemption in Biblical Literature,” in This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies, ed. Hector Avalos, Sarah J. Melcher, and Jeremy Schipper (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 178–79.

[5] Sharon V. Betcher, Spirit and the Politics of Disablement (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 70.

[6] Betcher, 71.

[7]  I borrow the phrase “consensual healing” from Claire Cunningham. See Claire Cunningham, “Consensual Healing,” Guide Gods Digital Collection (audio), August 22, 2019, https://www.clairecunningham.co.uk/guide-gods-digital-collection/consensual-healing/.

[8] I draw on the concept of “creative attention” in Simone Weil’s writings. See Simone Weil, Waiting for God (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009), 87, 91–92.

[9] See also Julia Watts Belser, “Violence, Disability, and the Politics of Healing: The Inaugural Nancy Eiesland Endowment Lecture,” Journal of Disability & Religion, 19, no. 3 (2015): 177–97.

This material is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Spurrier, Rebecca F. (2019): “For What and for Whom Do You Pray? Coercion, Consent, and the Healing of Ableism” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 11. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu

The Making of Street Symphony

“Son, don’t you know any songs we know?”

I had just finished playing Bach’s glorious Chaconne in D Minor, the violinist’s Mount Everest, for about two hundred hospital inmates in San Bernardino, California. The Patton State Hospital was one of the last remaining state hospitals and had a notoriously dark history: according to a 2017 article in The Atlantic, “During the height of the eugenics movement, California sterilized tens of thousands of patients deemed feeble-minded or insane.” Records retrieved from Patton indicate that nearly 20,000 patients were recommended for sterilization from 1919 to 1952.[1] Everyone incarcerated at Patton today has been involved in an offense—often a violent one—directly related to a severe mental illness.

The question was posed to me by an inmate, an older black man, wearing a brown jumpsuit. I was shocked: after the epic fifteen-minute Chaconne, I couldn’t think of any songs that he might know—at least any that wouldn’t be horribly cheesy or inappropriate to play for that audience. I felt like a failure as a musician. What the hell was I doing there?

Through my baffled silence, he sang out in a clear baritone:

I know Jesus is on that mainline
Tell him what you want
Jesus is on that mainline
Tell him what you want
Jesus is on that mainline
Tell him what you want
Call him up and tell him what you want. . .

And if you’re feeling down and out
Tell him what you want
Call him up and tell him what you want. . .

It was, by far, the greatest music lesson of my life.

Seventy miles west of Patton lies the largest county-jail system on the planet: also, effectively, one the planet’s largest psychiatric institutions. In America today, our de facto “treatment” of mental illness is, in many cases, incarceration. Los Angeles warehouses over 17,000 prison inmates, nearly a third of whom experience some form of mental illness. There is a revolving door between being incarcerated in a county jail like Men’s Central and Twin Towers and living down-and-out on Skid Row—a  fifty square block area within walking distance of the downtown incarceration hubs that make Los Angeles the epicenter of the crisis of homelessness in America today.[2]

Many people emerging from incarceration in prisons all over California are dropped off in the heart of Skid Row, at the intersection of East Fifth and South San Pedro streets, known as The Nickel. They step off a Greyhound bus only to be greeted by thousands of people grappling with crime, prostitution, and addiction; and welcomed by demons that have been haunting them and their families for generations.

In late August of this year, Darrell Fields, a guitarist who brought joy to the Skid Row community by deftly covering Jimi Hendrix songs for celebrations at the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), died of injuries sustained from being set on fire inside his tent.[3]

For many, Skid Row is the end of the line.

Within walking distance of hip downtown restaurants and galleries and just over a mile from the shining beacon of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, live the people that we think of as the least among us, people we throw away. They are mostly poor and people of color, shattered by lost hopes and broken dreams, recovering from decades of being locked away in cages real and metaphorical. We easily dismiss them as the Other, the bum, the “problem.” They live on the other side of the American Dream and make our glitzy lives a little less glitzy. “Not in my backyard,” we say.

During the past decade of making music in this community, I have found that we ostracize the most fragile and vulnerable among us, because we have, in some way, locked away the most fragile and vulnerable parts of ourselves. The Skid Row outside us reflects a Skid Row within: a place of dark shame, neglect, fear, and our not-enoughness. This is the place we must look if we want to heal. It is the fertile womb of our humanity, the place of our connection. Skid Row is the beginning of that healing, at least for some.

It was the place where I was taught the meaning of a Hindu aphorism I grew up with but always took for granted: Namaste. Namaste, or Namaskar, is a word colonized by well-intentioned hippies and the yoga industry. It is a phrase that I assumed was merely a formal greeting—something found in the sacred texts I chanted as a child. It literally means “I bow to you” and is usually presented with folded hands pressed to the chest.

But the people of Skid Row have taught me the true meaning of this word. Deprived of homes, they nevertheless create a sense of place and community. Abandoned at the terminus of a collective, learned apathy, they nonetheless forge resilient cultures. Stripped of creature comforts, they find their humanity. And they share their lives generously.

Block Party 2019 – A community celebration in Skid Row, featuring six musical ensembles performing from a flatbed truck. Pictured here: Las Colibrí, an all-women Mariachi ensemble. In collaboration with The Midnight Mission, Block Party served over 2,000 members of the Skid Row community with food, dancing and live music. Photo by May Rigler.

Skid Row has been for me a place of friends, guides and teachers, of community members like Christopher Mack and Brian Palmer[4], musicians whom I met through the Urban Voices Project, a Skid Row community choir. Christopher, a Skid Row outreach worker says, “Skid Row is the beginning for some. Leave a man with his dignity; he’ll come around.” And Brian Palmer says, “Listening is an act of love.” Skid Row is the home of Sir Oliver, a reggae DJ, and Linda Leigh, a vocalist, artist, activist, and community member. Skid Row was the place where the composer Benjamin Shirley found his pathway to recovery and a new spiritual life.

This is a community where I get to make my music—the community of my greatest musical and human teachers. It is a place where listening, paying attention, and showing up wholeheartedly is an act of radical, transformative love.

***

In 2007, in the last free days after my final exams and before graduation as a Master’s student at the Yale School of Music, I auditioned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I had never played an audition for a professional orchestra in my life. Although I believed that a career in music, especially in the tradition of Baroque performance practice, was unlikely for me, I thought, what the hell.

They offered me the job.

Joining the Philharmonic was a dream I didn’t even know I could have: a life performing with the greatest living conductors and soloists, an opportunity to play ”the repertoire” with musicians of my teacher’s generation and even a generation older. The musicians adopted me, brought me into their families, guided, taught, cajoled, and accepted me wholeheartedly. As a kid who had often felt unseen, I felt as though I finally belonged.

I met my family in that circle, but I hadn’t yet met my city. Skid Row was as far away and foreign and Other to me as a foreign country. I acquired the learned apathy characteristic of what I thought it meant to live in Los Angeles: I learned to clench my jaw and double-check that my doors are locked at Freeway underpasses and exits; to walk by quickly when someone asks for money on the street, my eyes blankly focused on some far horizon; to not to let my nose visibly wrinkle when I walk past the smell of human excrement.

I had to show up with my humanity first, and my ideas about musicianship second. This was a place to come and own my shadow—to stand fast in my own utterly fragile and vulnerable humanity and connect to others through it.

In 2008, several months into my probation period at the Philharmonic and on my way to earning tenure, I met Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, the brilliant, Juilliard-trained musician who became the subject of The Soloist, a book and subsequent movie by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. Many members of the Philharmonic family, including my orchestra colleagues and then-public relations director Adam Crane, became Nathaniel’s bridge of re-connection to a musical life—a community that he thought had thoroughly rejected and ejected him after decades of homelessness on the streets of Los Angeles. He now pushed his instrument-laden shopping cart to the concert hall for rehearsals, concerts—and eventually for violin lessons with me.

Nathaniel’s story as a performer was told far and wide. But for me and my colleagues, Nathaniel became our first guide in the world of Skid Row, and to the vibrant community that exists there. Through Nathaniel, I encountered a community, not just a slum. Nathaniel taught me to walk in that community in humility. This was not a place to celebrate my own virtuosity or expertise; this was a place of dialogue and transformation. I had to show up with my humanity first, and my ideas about musicianship second. This was a place to come and own my shadow—to stand fast in my own utterly fragile and vulnerable humanity and connect to others through it.

When professional musicians, or other Good Samaritans who are dedicated to charitable acts, show up in places like Skid Row, the outside world regards us as heroes. We are celebrated for deigning to come “down” to that neighborhood. It can be an easy and gilded path to self-congratulation, one that is rarely questioned or challenged. I began to see that typical view of outreach as “drive-by Beethoven.”

Audience members and social workers, however, would always look at us a bit warily when we entered with our instruments and music stands—with polished shoes and shiny instruments—wondering when we were going to bail. Even when, in 2011, I tentatively started a non-profit organization dedicated to making music in Skid Row, it was difficult to gain the trust of audiences and clinicians: they smiled brittle smiles. They wondered when we would get tired of them and depart, filled with self-congratulation. They had seen it happen many times before.

Street Symphony Fellow Christina Collier, a member of the Skid Row community, performs a solo at Messiah Project 2017. The Messiah Project is a free singalong of Handel’s Messiah at Skid Row’s The Midnight Mission, a 12-step recovery shelter. Photo by Kat Bawden.

People in places like Skid Row, or even those underserved communities in nursing homes, or Veterans Administration hospitals, become conditioned to think that they somehow matter more on the days when our public consumerism reaches an apex during the year-end holidays. Our guilt consumes us, and we want to “do something for the homeless.” We show up with turkey, a bag of clothes, and temporary good cheer. We’re often making it worse: we reinforce the myth of separation between “us” and “them.”

I have been told that the morning after Thanksgiving is one of the saddest days on Skid Row. The thousands of pounds of free turkey leave six-foot high mounds of rotting trash, a haven for rats. The smell is overpowering. My mentors challenged us: “You really want to help? Come by on the morning after Thanksgiving. Come when you’re not gonna be congratulated for it. Come after the photo-op. Stay. Learn about us.”

***

One time when we took a string quartet by Robert Schumann into Twin Towers jail in downtown Los Angeles, an inmate in the front row said, “You know why I love this classical music? All those composers went through some real shit. Bach was an orphan, Beethoven’s dad beat him . . . and Schumann? Schumann died in a place like this. You can hear it in the music, man.”

He wasn’t wrong. Schumann did indeed die in an asylum. He heard choirs of angels in his head and, at the end of his life, demons. He wrote music in a manic frenzy—at a pace that even outstripped Mozart. “You can hear it in the music, man.” In that moment, Schumann was no longer a marble bust of some dead white guy in a conservatory textbook. We were connected—performer, audience, composer—by that glowing thread of music.

Schumann’s deeply human, fragile, devastating story is what I personally love in him: this is the soul and pathos and realness of the music that I felt for myself as a performer. But I had never imagined that Schumann’s devastated psychological landscape would be a connecting point for an audience member.

Sharing a deeply personal understanding of this composer’s life and music simply would not have happened under normal circumstances. I had even felt a little reluctant to share my own passionate regard for Schumann with my colleagues, masking myself in didactic conversations about technique and intonation and type of vibrato. Yet this man wearing a yellow jumpsuit in a county jail—a man I’ll probably never see again—somehow saw into the core of my musical heart in a way that no paying audience member had ever expressed. We left the jail in tears.

Again I heard the mysterious call and invitation from our audience: get to know us. Stay. Keep showing up.

I started an organization called Street Symphony. We were going to play intimate, monthly chamber music concerts at a Skid Row clinic. The concerts quickly became conversations, and we started to see how that dialogue challenged us to think more deeply—to go beneath the veneer of our professionalism, the bright lights and formal attire, and into the heart of why we became musicians in the first place, and why the composers wrote the music that we performed. We were challenged to think about how a place like Skid Row could ever exist, and why we felt more connected to audiences in clinics and shelters and county jails than we did in concert halls . . . and of all things, why, why it was that we left after experiencing such deep, soulful connection to our audiences, often to never see their faces again.

***

We began to challenge learned apathy in our daily lives. We couldn’t drive or walk past someone pushing a shopping cart on the street and not wonder about their story. What was life like for Malek, or Shugga, or Linda, or Christina, or Will, or Mick, or Kayo? When we talked to affluent friends or donors they would sometimes tell us the stories of their pain or addiction too. We came to wonder about our own histories of trauma and abuse. We began to honor each other more and see each other more clearly.

Ashe Asé Drummers from the Heart, perform at Block Party 2019. A community celebration in Skid Row, featuring six musical ensembles performing from a flatbed truck. Pictured here: Ashe Asé Drummers from the Heart, a West African drumming ensemble. In collaboration with The Midnight Mission, Block Party served over 2,000 members of the Skid Row community with food, dancing and live music. Photo by May Rigler.

As our community of musicians grew to encompass musicians from jazz, mariachi, and choral traditions, we began to see the effect of Street Symphony’s programs on the dozens of professional musicians who joined us for programs in county jails and shelters. Musicians would tell us that at Street Symphony programs the audience affirmed them as human beings, asked them how they were feeling that day, and welcomed them to come back. Our former Composer in Residence, Reena Esmail, found that “for people living in Skid Row, music wasn’t a form of entertainment. It was a lifeline.”

Our generous audiences welcomed us into that lifeline, and compelled us to move from outreach into engagement: from that armored one-off “benefit concert” into the willingness to embrace what we couldn’t control. The musical events became as much about our need to transform ourselves as they were about how our music transformed our audiences. We were compelled, by the sheer force of raw humanity and generosity of audiences in clinics, shelters, jails and prisons, to embrace the unexpected, vulnerable mutuality of what it means to be most human in this world: to listen and receive, and to show up wholeheartedly.

***

When I started attending Juilliard Pre-College, one of the first CDs that my dad bought for me was Robert Shaw’s recording of Messiah. I learned every chorus as a boy soprano, delving into this world of Handel as a safe haven, a way of understanding what it meant to be a musician. As I developed a love for Baroque performance practice, I found myself listening to the recordings of Christopher Hogwood, in which he sought to recreate the vocal and instrumental style of the mid-1700s in a more pure form of period performance practice. This was the first time I heard the glorious sound of instruments with gut strings, the A tuned down from a frequency of 440 to 415, and singers like Emma Kirkby.

But, as I learned how to make phrases with a Baroque bow, I wondered how it was that, despite being dedicated to recreating the artistic parameters of the period of Handel, Vivaldi, and Bach, we didn’t take into account the social parameters that gave life to the pieces we venerated. Why had we, in our modern, affluent, conservatory-trained wisdom, chosen to divorce ourselves from the very community-based conditions and practices which made these works root themselves in a cultural consciousness for centuries?

Vivaldi’s Gloria would not exist without the orphaned girls of Ospedale della Pietá. Bach’s Cantatas and Passions wouldn’t exist without the devoted Lutheran communities who knew the hymns he included within them. In the same way, Reena Esmail’s “Take What You Need,” a collaborative work for community choirs and professionals to sing with their audiences and tell their stories, would not exist without the Skid Row community of Los Angeles.

Street Symphony’s annual “Messiah Project” seeks to make a new Messiah for our time. Excerpts of Handel’s oratorio are interspersed with offerings from the Skid Row community and the wide network of Street Symphony’s artists: we start with a set from an all-women Mariachi ensemble. Our Vocal Fellows, members of the Skid Row choir, sing the solos—either selections from Messiah, songs from Broadway musicals, or their own compositions.

Street Symphony Founder/Artistic Director Vijay Gupta and 2018 Composer-In-Residence Reena Esmail perform Take What You Need, written by Reena Esmail, at Messiah Project 2017. Photo by Kat Bawden

Patrons from beyond Skid Row who come to hear Street Symphony don’t get preferential parking. They walk through the neighborhood guided by the sound of West African drums, before arriving at The Midnight Mission, where they will have a chance to sing the beloved choruses with community members who have attended our free workshops in advance of our final performance in the gymnasium. We sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” because our community asked to sing it.[5]

***

A few years after the event I played at the Patton State Hospital, I couldn’t shake what happened in that room. I had considered my performance in that event a quiet failure, and I kept thinking of what the man had asked me: “Son, don’t you know any songs we know?” What was he really asking for?

Years later, as I looked up the history of “Jesus on the Main Line,” I realized that this elderly black man wasn’t asking me to entertain him; he was asking me to see him. He was asking me to acknowledge that while I stood on that stage, I also had the opportunity to make room for his history to matter. “Jesus on the Main Line” was one of the freedom songs, sung during the Civil Rights marches by Dr. Martin Luther King and his companions as they rallied for freedom.

The issue wasn’t that he didn’t want to hear Bach. It was that he wanted to hear why Bach mattered to me. And it wasn’t even that I should care about “Jesus on the Main Line”; it was that I should care about why that song mattered to him.

So now, when an audience member asks, “Do you know any songs we know?” we respond, “Well, why don’t you share something with us?”

We’ve had women in prison sing some of Adele’s songs, men speak their poetry and tell us about their love of the late Los Angeles rapper Nipsey Hussle, and we’ve made arrangements of Bob Marley for string orchestra and Reggae DJ to perform at Jamaican Independence Day celebrations in Skid Row parks. We learned how to use our expertise to become part of an existing culture—to write a new definition of how we, as classically trained musicians, might be part of making something beautiful with the community we serve.

Before our 2017 Messiah Project, a man who had spent the night in the courtyard didn’t want to come up to hear us play Handel. He muttered something in Spanish about gringo music as he reluctantly entered the hall. We didn’t tell him that we started Messiah with a thirty-minute set from Las Colibrí, an all-women Mariachi ensemble, but he soon found out. As they sang “Guantanamera,” he stood up in the back row and wiped tears from his eyes. He asked a violinist in Las Colibrí, our coordinator Jazmín Morales, how they knew to sing “his song”? He hadn’t heard it live since he left Cuba, and was certainly not expecting to hear “his music” in Skid Row.

This is our performance practice. As artists in our world today—a world filled with growing disconnection, alienation and violence—we serve as bridges, cultural translators, and meaning-makers. As we discard the brittle armor of artistic “product” and embrace the artistic “process” that informs the collaborative power and grace of the music that we love, we provide a pathway to belonging—for ourselves, our patrons, and our audiences. As we move from outreach and engagement into the radically mutual space of exchange, we become part of the creation of new cultures—restorative spaces for us to feel, to heal, to be.


Vijay Gupta is a violinist and social justice advocate. An esteemed performer, communicator, educator and citizen-artist, Gupta is a leading advocate for the role of the arts and music to heal, inspire, provoke change, and foster social connection. Gupta (Yale School of Music M.M. ’07) is the founder and Artistic Director of Street Symphony, a non-profit organization providing musical engagement, dialogue and teaching artistry for homeless and incarcerated communities in Los Angeles.

Vijay Gupta is a 2018 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellow. Gupta is a passionate and dedicated educator, and an active recitalist, soloist and chamber musician.

 

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/01/california-sterilization-records/511718/

[2] https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-08-24/jail-replacement-mental-health-facility-inmate-supervisors-criminal-justice-reform

[3] https://www.lataco.com/darrell-fields-beloved-guitarist-living-in-skid-row-burned-to-death-while-inside-his-tent/?fbclid=IwAR0ix8zPVVv49Si2EcSavCdX9YiNHOuNJhdmythGQRxu-lN1RV8vPipIGmI

[4] “I celebrate the resilience of your ever-expanding souls, and I pray that you see the light within you, and give it permission to shine.” —Brian Palmer

Since the writing of this essay, the Skid Row community and Street Symphony family experienced the loss of our friend Brian Palmer, who died due to an accidental overdose. Brian was a member of Urban Voices Project, a Skid Row community choir, and had come to Los Angeles in 2015 with a month clean from a seven year heroin addiction. In 2017, Brian began a vocal fellowship with Street Symphony, and performed the aria “The People Who Walked in Darkness” from Messiah, and received critical acclaim for his performance in The New Yorker in a piece by Alex Ross. He sang that Handel aria as if it was his own story—because it was his story: Brian taught us how to shine, how to love, and how to listen. In exchange for his friendship and fellowship, we learned human lessons—that the daily work of our lives is in connection and relationship, to ourselves and the world around us.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eH8-nhIlocA&t=165s (cued to Brian Palmer singing “The People. . .”)

[5] Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sw-KyglMNoQ

This material is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Gupta, Vijay (2019): “The Making of Street Symphony” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 9. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu

Liturgy in Hard Times

The Sunday morning after the horrendous events of September 11, 2001, my husband and I made our way to church in England’s Cheshire countryside. It was a long way from New York City where I had lived in the 1980s and 90s before we were married. Disoriented and upset, feeling far away and powerless to help, I was looking for connection, solace and acknowledgement of loss in a congregation I’d known for five years.

Moments before the service began, the minister came over to me and whispered in my ear: “I feel we should carry on as normal this morning.” I felt my stomach turn over and my back stiffen. What followed was a service with barely a mention of events an ocean away. Prayers towards the end of the service included a few generic words about what was taking up 24/7 television coverage on almost every channel. There was no sign of the specific prayer request for my young goddaughter in New York City whose best friend’s mother had been missing since the attacks. I felt sick. Following the service, individual congregation members sought me out and kindly asked about family and friends in the United States. However, by that point, my husband and I couldn’t get out of that sanctuary fast enough. We didn’t go back for more than a decade.

I have never forgotten the feeling of devastation I felt that morning in church. The lack of any real mention of these terrible events during an act of worship, where I expected them to be acknowledged and prayed over, made it worse.

I came away from that Sunday morning with some valuable lessons that I’ve carried with me ever since, especially into my work as a chaplain in Britain’s National Health Service.

One morning I arrived at a specialist mental health facility to the terrible news that a young doctor on her very first day had collapsed on the wards within hours of her arrival. She died never regaining consciousness. The medics on duty immediately had begun CPR compressions within a minute of her collapse—right there on the ward in front of staff, patients, and visitors. They continued heroically for the better part of thirty minutes, until the ambulance arrived.

New East Window of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Shirazeh Houshiary, 2008. Photo by David Hawgood. License CC BY-SA 2.0.

What seemed to make it worse was that no one who knew her personally was present in this catastrophic moment. The very first thing I did was to confirm her name and how to spell it. Within a few hours I managed to find a staff member in another part of the organization who trained with her. He told me she was in her early 30s, married with two young children and had hopes of a career as a general practitioner. He also let me know that she was a practicing Muslim and that her body would likely be flown back to her home country of Pakistan for her funeral. In the facility’s small multi-faith room I set out electric candles, a book of condolences and a single white rose on the table. I wrote a brief paragraph about this young doctor and placed it next to the rose. I sent out a message to staff and patients welcoming them to stop by that multi-faith room for a chat or just a moment on their own, should they need it.

Two days later my Muslim chaplaincy colleague and I held a ten-minute “time of reflection.” It wasn’t a religious service but included prayers from the Koran recited in both English and Arabic. The gathering spilled out into the hallway. Afterwards, it was the medics, usually the first to leave to get back to their clinics, who lingered to talk. They received multiple reassurances from others that they had done everything they possibly could have to save a colleague whom they would never know.

It was terrible that this doctor’s life ended so suddenly and unexpectedly and that in that moment we hadn’t been able to do more for her. But together, we could say that her death mattered. We could name a sense of loss and acknowledge the pain of powerlessness, wishing this young woman’s first day with us could have gone in a different way for her, her family and for those who will never know her as colleague, doctor, or friend.

In a 2007 New England Journal of Medicine article called “The Code,” Dr. Katherine Treadway described the evolution of her own simple ritual following the death of a patient. As a young trainee hospital doctor, she was frequently called to drop everything and run to assist in emergency resuscitations of patients who had “coded”—meaning that their hearts had stopped beating. After one such failed attempt, and on her own in the resuscitation room, Treadway recalls that “half remembered words from the end of a Requiem Mass came into my head and I said out loud: ‘May choirs of angels greet thee at thy coming’—less a statement of faith than a simple attempt to acknowledge the passing of a life. Since that day, I have never had a patient die and not said those words—my small attempt to remember what it is that we are ultimately doing: trying to protect our patients’ lives.”[1]

Too often the shared Christian rituals that we call liturgy or worship become spaces where only certain forms of words belong.

The article that she wrote about this received an unprecedented response from the medical community. Many clinicians wrote to say that they applauded Dr. Treadway for acknowledging the emotional toll that such work takes. A number of them went on to describe their own personal rituals and processes for honoring the end of a patient’s life. Such a response underscores the need for the ritual marking of significant moments in life, whether in secular or religious settings, in some meaningful way. And yet, sadly, there are many people who do not find their losses and struggles explicitly named or acknowledged within traditional worship settings. Nor do they carry away potentially important words of support from that worship into their everyday lives.

Too often the shared Christian rituals that we call liturgy or worship become spaces where only certain forms of words belong. We are used to praying together in specific ways and with familiar words. There is a richness and power in such repetition and familiarity. However, what’s “missing in action” is often exactly the less formal words associated with the pain and challenges as well as the joys of ordinary life—the work and experiences that make up our lifetimes.

This came home to me not long ago when I received a phone call from a parish-based clergy colleague whom I’ll call Caroline. She was looking for liturgical resources that address marital breakdown. “I’ve come to realize that most of the real-life troubles and pain that our people live with are just not addressed in our traditional liturgies,” she lamented.

In the past, she and I have talked at length about the challenges of supporting families who are grieving over less visible losses such as a failed fertility treatment, or struggling with crippling regret over breaches that they can no longer rectify with parents, children, or partners. Both of us agreed that too little of our worship directly and explicitly mentions the circumstances of some of our deepest losses and suffering.

Caroline explained that she had been supporting a woman who was struggling with guilt over leaving a marriage in which she had known years of domestic abuse. While supportive pastoral conversation and informal prayer had helped, her parishioner continued to feel beyond God’s forgiveness for breaking her marriage vows. A gifted liturgist herself, Caroline had suggested that the two of them might create a liturgy together that could acknowledge her parishioner’s feelings of guilt and offer solace and release within a formal act of worship.

Hands holding candle

A week later, Caroline got back in touch. Making use of both her denomination’s worship tradition and more contemporary liturgical resources found online, she was able to create what I believe was a sensitive, powerful and specific piece of liturgy that flowed from relationship and tears shared in pastoral conversation and a deep longing for a new beginning and release. Caroline’s parishioner read through the service and liked it, but after consideration, decided not to invite anyone else to take part. It would just be just the two of them together in the sanctuary, a sacred space where her parishioner had first made her wedding vows. They lit candles. Caroline put on a recording of some appropriate contemplative music. Then, together, they began the liturgy that they had created, drawing on long, cherished church tradition, but also naming explicitly the painful life experience that had brought them to that place. Shared prayers expressed desire for healing, wholeness, and, at her parishioner’s specific request, forgiveness.

“Jesus gave authority to the Church to bind and to loose, so we loosed her from her marriage vows,” reflected Caroline. “Lighting the candle, playing some music, creating a prayerful place of worship. . . .  [my parishioner] left knowing that she would still have to come to terms with her emotions. They would not disappear overnight. But she had that sense of an actual release happening. And she can go back to those words again and again when she feels overwhelmed. . . . The formality of liturgy offers a way of looking at what we believe in a form that we can go back to and use as an anchor to carry us through difficult times.”

This intimate and personalized liturgical experience provided acknowledgement and release for Caroline’s parishioner in a particular way that nothing else had. But in other circumstances sharing a scarring or traumatic experience also can be healing precisely because it is shared with others who have lived through that experience.

Conor Stainton-Polland is a Roman Catholic priest who understands a thing or two about the important role that shared ritual and liturgy play in the life of whole communities who live with trauma. He grew up in Belfast as the son of one of Northern Ireland’s few Catholic police officers during the violent years of The Troubles. He laughs, observing, “I had a very balanced upbringing in that nobody [neither Catholics nor Protestants] liked us.”

Today, Stainton-Polland is priest in charge of two Liverpool parishes, one of which is on the doorstep of the Liverpool Football Club (a professional soccer team). In 1989, during a league match at the Hillsborough Stadium, ninety-six Liverpool supporters—including many children and young people—were crushed to death in what has come to be referred to as the “Hillsborough Disaster.” For years, he has supported this community in public and private acts of worship as they live with lasting effects of unresolved trauma and grief. In both large public and smaller church settings, finding well-chosen words, as well as the poignant silences—something he learned from his Quaker education—has been integral to his regular professional parish life.

Stainton-Polland says he is grateful that Catholicism has centuries of tradition that have instructed and informed the set liturgy. “Liturgy can provide words and formats where the weakness of us as ministers and members fails,” he explains. But he also says that it is crucial to “make room for people.” He describes the set liturgy as “scaffolding” around which there is an opportunity to “dress it” for different individuals and their experience. Fr. Conor believes without question that you “can’t just stick to the rules” and that the Christian message “must always be the assurance that no one is alone.”

In March 2019, Stainton-Polland took part in an ecumenical service at London’s Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, supporting a different community: those affected by suicide. This annual service is called “A Time to Talk,” and people attending come from across London and beyond. He was there to tell his story about the night that he considered taking his own life.

The church’s vicar, The Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells says that Stainton-Polland’s talk of “his own near-suicide was an electric experience of one who many might think of as a judge becoming a fellow sufferer—a truly incarnational moment.” He adds, “Sometimes you just have to create the right context and let the Holy Spirit do the rest, and this was one such moment.”

Wells maintains that “more than anything, the service is an opportunity to overcome isolation” for those who have lived with suicidal thoughts, been bereaved by suicide and those supporting such bereaved people. In his book, Liturgy on the Edge, Wells emphasizes the importance including shared informal time over coffee after such services to help extend the time of support and sharing.[2]

Some, understandably, may feel suicide is not a word or subject that belongs in a formal liturgical setting. Stainton-Polland, however, believes that excluding it, “excludes [people’s] grief and pain from the Christian experience, which is about reaching people in their darkest places with compassion (suffering with) and communion (unity with).”

I couldn’t agree more. In her essay, “Ritual Formation,” worship designer and professor Marcia McFee asks if we really invite our communities of worship to speak about “the deepest things.” “Do we truly believe God invites us to speak honestly in the context of our rituals of worship, of pain and uncertainty? . . . We need rituals of care that provide safe spaces in which to feel the full range of emotions.”[3]

Pacific School of Religion professor Dr. Karen Lebacqz explains why this is essential: “Bland worship avoids both pain and joy. In our anesthetized life, we are so afraid of pain that, in our desire to mute suffering, we sometimes stifle joy. The gospel is good news. But it is good news in the midst of pain and suffering. If we try to avoid pain and suffering, we will not be able to hear or embody the gospel. We will not be able to incarnate the Word.”[4]

We can never really know the full extent of what people, even those whom we have known for many years, bring with them into worship—what need or connection or grief or joy or doubt or hope they come looking for. But those needs, griefs, and joys will be there in the room, in the sanctuary. We cannot know who will linger for a moment and, seeing little of their life in the worship experience, never return. They turn away not so much in reaction to what is there, but to what has been left out or glossed over, not named, or simply not noticed of their life and the life of the wider world.

Our liturgies, informed by rich tradition and reflection, can make space to name and reflect on our present real-life struggles with personal disillusionment, terrible losses, and difficult emotions that are hard to acknowledge even to ourselves. They can be amazing places of connection and comfort and healing. They can be something “that we can go back to and use as an anchor to carry us through difficult times,” as Caroline observed. They can be a place of an “incarnational moment.” Or not. Even to begin to try to acknowledge more of life’s hard times in our liturgies is an act of faith and healing.


Kathleen LaCamera (Yale M.Div.’83) is a writer, film-maker and healthcare chaplain based in Manchester, England.  She has a special interest in conflict resolution in communities divided by race, religion, culture, and poverty and has reported from troubled regions including Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and sub-Saharan Africa.  For the past thirteen years she has also worked as a chaplain in specialist multifaith mental health and general hospital settings within England’s National Health Service.  Chaplaincy has formed a major influence on her writing and film-making over the past decade, including the award-winning series of national public information films using comedy to tackle taboos around dying and bereavement. An ordained Methodist minister since 1981, she has official standing within both the United Methodist Church and British Methodist Church.

[1] Katharine Treadway, M.D., “The Code,” New England Journal of Medicine (September 27, 2007), 357.

[2] The Christian Century (February 19, 2019), reprinted from Samuel Wells’s forthcoming book,  Liturgy on the Edge: Pastoral and Attractional Worship  (New York: Church Publishing, 2019). https://www.christiancentury.org/article/first-person/liturgy-people-affected-suicide

[3] Marcia McFee, “Ritual Formation: Liturgical Practices and the Practice of Peacebuilding” in Conflict and Communion, Reconciliation and Restorative Justice at Christ’s Table, Porter Thomas, ed., (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2006), 67–77.

[4] Karen Lebacqz, Word, Worship, World, and Wonder: Reflections on Christian Living (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 72–73.

This material is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: LaCamera, Kathleen (2019): “Liturgy in Hard Times” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 10. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu