Thursday, June 10, 2004

The a cappella stage--screen memories from a Campbellite dreamer

I grew up between 8 Mile and 9 Mile in suburban Detroit. Strangely, I lived in a neighborhood with about seven households who worshipped with the Church of Christ. In case you are not familiar with the Church of Christ, most congregations of this “tribe” worship a cappella. Other than those seven households, there was one Lutheran family, and EVERYONE else I knew was Catholic. After I got out of high school, I met a Presbyterian.

My senior year in high school, our congregation was in a period of what seemed to me spiritual vigor, and my best friend, Beverly Birdwell Blair and I happily invited our public school friends to worship. When a handful of Catholic friends showed up, my anxiety spiked, especially when I thought about the singing. After all, it was Sunday night. The crowd boasted the usual ½ of Sunday morning, and the song leader, well, no boasting there. If I recall, possible selections, sweet and meaningful to me, consisted mostly of “gospel music” of which, I have heard critics assert, was “not really gospel and not music either.” I held my breath momentarily when the singing started. What would our friends think? They, accustomed to the majestic organ of St. Mark’s Catholic Church. In spite of the small crowd, teenaged song leader, and less than elegant music, we truly sensed a sweet spirit in the place. Heartfelt prayers and sermon uttered by men with Jackson County Tennessee accents, provided an audio and spiritual feast for our Polish and Italian pals.

Afterwards I felt rather sheepish about my trepidation. My friends’ response was so warm and reflective. They marveled at the sincerity, spontaneity, and the laity of it all.

I saw it as a treasure.

For weeks before my wedding, thirty years ago this August, I had a recurring bad dream. The dream always took place at the church. I stood in the second floor nursery, looking down from the enormous window up there, over the ceremony. The music turned out to be bizarre in some way. I don't know if what made it bizarre was the avocado green carpet and curtain, but an analyst might find at the root some psychospiritual infantile experience of singing a hymn along with an instrument and later hearing from church members the eternal danger of anything but a cappella. Adding to the psychological damage might have been the hermeneutics double-bind created by being told to obey all kinds of Old Testament examples, but to avoid at the possible cost of hell, clapping or use of the harp, lyre, and cymbal.

No interpretation of dreams took place, but I must admit, in my most conscious state, to experiencing waves of anxiety about the effect of the a cappella music on my wedding guests who came from very different traditions.

The guest I worried the most about, was Mrs. Dorsett. Mrs. Dorsett, in her early eighties, played the organ for a large Presbyterian Church in Detroit. She was an extraordinary music teacher. Among her credits, back in the late 30s and early 40s she was an adjunct music professor at Harding university who taught diction to none other than Dr. Kenneth “Uncle Bud” Davis. I do believe the factor of being a Presbyterian teaching at what was then a small church of Christ related college is the reason for the adjunct in her title.

As we contemplated the music for the ceremony, we would think of this fellow or that fellow who might perform, but each one we would consider, we would say, “No, he’s in the wedding.” After saying this six times we decided to have the groomsmen sing. Each of them had been vocal performers in colleges with a strong tradition of great a cappella music. For the bridesmaids’ processional they sang “O God our Help in Ages Past” and for the bride (me!) they sang “God of Our Fathers.”

Weeks later Ken and I went to visit Mrs. Dorsett, music teacher and organist extraordinaire who asked us in a most formal tone and her Michigan accent, “By the way, where did you find that ‘mah-vel-ous' ensemble to perform for your wedding?” She could hear better than she could see.

These two experiences lightened my load of self-consciousness about our tradition of a cappella singing, opening my eyes to the unique beauty of it. Knowing spirit-filled folks from many communions and hearing great Bible teaching released me to enjoy many other expressions of music in worship. I think the more we outgrow self-consciousness and the need to make our identity by boundary markers from other believers, the more we can confidently revel in the wonder of worship.


Jeff said...

Excellent thoughts, Beverly.

What church did you attend in the Detroit area? I am guessing Van Dyke. I grew up in Royal Oak, mostly at the Royal Oak Church of Christ. Were you in the Metro Detroit Youth Chorus?

It is always good to hear stories from metro Detroit. It brings back good memories.

Grace and Peace,


Beverly Choate Dowdy said...

I grew up at the Van Dyke Church of Christ.I sang in the Metropolitan Detroit Youth Chorus from 1966-1971. Sometimes I meet people, from the South in particular, who imagine growing up in Detroit a lonely a experience for someone from our tradition. On the contrary, the MDYC, associations with Michigan Christian College, Michigan Christian Youth Camp, and many articulate non-sectarian saints gave me a rich joyful youth in Christ.

Are you related to Frank Slater?

Jeff said...

There is certainly a strong Church of Christ presence in the metro Detroit area. I guess it was all those folks who moved up from the south to work in the auto industry (my Dad was one of them).

I preached for the Van Dyke Church on an interim basis for a few months last year. They only have about 100 present on Sunday morning now. It is sad to see that huge facility mostly empty on Sundays.

Yes, I am related to Frank Slater. He is my cousin.

Beverly Choate Dowdy said...

Sad, sad. My Daddy played a key role in that buidling project. He worked for General Motors, as did many of our foiks.
Nice to hear from you. Give my best to Frank and his wife!