Today I rerun an essay from my Facebook page, originally published about three years ago, when I was still a Methodist, attending a church undergoing severe upheaval. Our music minister, Bill White, was fired suddenly, for no apparent reason. Below the original essay, I present an update.
Most people understand there is a difference between people who are creative and those who are not. Those who are not often wish they were able to think up wonderfully entertaining things so they might be lauded as geniuses and artists. Those of us who do think creatively know it’s not really like that. I look at people who have stable lives and who are able to keep the imagination from wandering all over where the boogeyman lurks, and wish for that sort of peace. I would trade all my so-called talents for just one marketable skill.
But I’m not here to whine about my ADD. I want to talk about our church’s music minister, who was let go this week for reasons unknown to me. Bill worked for us for nearly twenty years, hired originally as our organist, then as our music minister when the woman in that job left. He is a local professional musician, which in Nashville means quite a lot. The day in 1994 he first played for the choir at practice, he gave us an improvisational rendition of Amazing Grace that was so sublime it made that tired old tune seem fresh. When he was done, I knelt, genuflected, and cried like Wayne and Garth, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” And it was true. He had a special talent none of us had ever seen in that church, and I believe we will never see again.
Bill thinks in music. He sometimes has difficulty with the spoken word, but in his writing and playing of music he is able to express things that the rest of us can only feel. He’s the epitome of the sort of person who thinks creatively, and for those of us who receive spiritual message best through the medium of music, he was, literally, a Godsend.
I am a Christian not because my parents made me go to church when I was a child (they didn’t). I am one because when I was in high school I was given a little, red New Testament, and that made me curious. I then borrowed a copy of the rock opera Jesus Christ, Superstar, and played the music until I had every word and every note memorized. Internalized. To this day, whenever a bit of that Gospel story is mentioned in church, my mind brings up the relevant phrases of that music. This is how I access my religion. Without music, I would not have had a clue. When I joined this church nearly thirty years ago, the first thing I did was to join the handbell choir, and the second thing was to join the Chancel Choir. For some of us, the sermon is secondary to the music, and I truly believe church music exists for the sake of reaching people like me.
Having Bill for a music minister was special enough for me, and for many other members of the choir, to stay at this church during the past several years while other church members were unhappy enough with the new minister to leave for other churches. Our church musicians, especially, were under attack for being “too traditional.”
And yet the Chancel Choir hung on, rather than find other churches as did 400 other church families. To hear the offertory, which Bill always executed without sheet music, letting the music simply flow from brain to fingers and on out through the piano, was by itself worth getting up at dawn to serve in the choir of a church that made us increasingly uncomfortable. We hung on because most of us had been members for decades and we at least had Bill to guide us through this rough patch.
But we no longer have Bill. His last choir practice was on Wednesday, and instead of practicing that night most of us cleared out our folders. I estimate about half the choir won’t ever be back, and those who would stay won’t have a choir in which to serve. The church administration has made it clear that they don’t want a traditional choir. There may never again be a Chancel Choir in that church, or a handbell choir.
I was in the handbell choir for nearly thirty years. My children grew up in that church. It was the first church in my life I attended more than twice. It was the first place I ever had that gave me any stability in my life, and it was the only sanctuary I had from the difficulties of culture shock when I first moved to Tennessee. I’d intended to die a member of that church. What has been done to it is unconscionable. What was done to Bill was unimaginable, even by someone with an imagination like mine.
About three years have passed since that dark Wednesday when my spiritual world crumbled. When I said I thought half the choir would return the following week, I was wrong. Only four of the nearly fifty remained. The rest of us left and stayed gone. The handbell choir finished up our season and went on our usual hiatus, but the following fall only one third of us returned. The new music director, who knew nothing about handbells (or reading music, for that matter), wasn’t expecting any of us to return. It was an uphill struggle to play at all.
Now, three years later, many of the choir members are singing in the community chorus directed by Bill White. He’s now a published music arranger. Our group, The Hendersonville Community Singers, will be performing some of his arrangements in our Spring Concert this coming Tuesday. (PM me for information.) While we miss the old days, there is once again the deep sense of continuity that had suddenly gone missing when he was fired from the church. Most of the folks who left the choir have found other churches. Some have passed away. For myself, I’ve gone to another denomination and am now an Episcopalian. At my new church, “traditional” is not a pejorative. It’s a tiny church, where the choir has only eight voices and I feel deeply appreciated for my strong alto voice. I’ve also formed a handbell choir there, with borrowed bells and borrowed music, and have reassembled the old carillon the Methodist Church didn’t want. We friends have played together for thirty years, and look forward to many more.
Our priest is intelligent, educated, and kind. The atmosphere in that small congregation is welcoming and non-judgmental. They’ve given us creative types a safe place where we can worship musically, the way some people are intended.