“I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart,” I sang, standing at the mic watching kids from kindergarten through fifth grade waving their arms and singing along. The setting sun was shining through the windows, and we were rocking the church. It doesn’t get better than this, I thought.
Every Wednesday, as part of my music minister duties at Sacred Heart Church in Newport, Oregon, I lead music for the children, singing and playing guitar. It’s usually only four songs, fifteen minutes before they adjourn to the classrooms for their religious education lessons. It takes me longer to set up before and put away my music afterward, but there’s a wild freedom to it that I love. I’m an aging woman with a Joan Baez voice, but to the little ones looking up at me, I’m a rock star. To Sandy Cramer, the religious education director, I’m the one who saves her from having to lead the singing herself. And I get to share my favorite religious songs with a new generation.
Grownups in Catholic churches are notoriously reluctant to sing. They sit in their pews staring at the missalettes, their lips firmly sealed. But the kids are young enough to let it out, even if they’re off-key. Some have big voices while other kids have little butterfly-wing voices, so soft you have to get within inches to hear them.
They don’t just sing. Sandy has paired gestures from American Sign Language with the songs. I’m often grateful that my hands are busy with my guitar because it can be like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. Joy: raise your arms high and wiggle your hands. Love: cross your hands over your chest. God: Point your index finger skyward. Work: Make like you’re hammering. Bird: make like you’re flying. If you’re five and can’t read the words projected on the screen, you can still wave your arms.
If only grownups put this much energy into the music. Sitting at the piano on a Sunday morning, I often hear only a few singers, with maybe one or two who sing extra loud, not necessarily on the beat. The best times are when I hear a wave of singing behind me and suddenly feel like we’re all together in this music, in this love of God, in this service. But usually when I look around, I see most people not singing. Somewhere between the “Joy, Joy, Joy” of fifth grade and now, the adults have decided they can’t sing, shouldn’t sing, have bad voices, or would be too embarrassed, so they sit silent no matter how much we urge them to let God hear the voices He gave them or tell them “he who sings prays twice.” Nope, not singing. Which is why our “choir” sometimes consists of two people with the courage to give it a shot.
Last week, I looked out and saw a pretty blonde third-grader singing her heart out. Behind her, a husky Mexican boy belted out the words. Right in front of me, a kindergarten girl didn’t know what she was singing, but she was making noises and waving her hands, smiling like crazy.
As was I. When I was a kid–back when we called it Catechism and our teachers were nuns in black habits–the music was my favorite part of our Saturday lessons. We’d file into the church to sing songs like “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” and “Immaculate Mary.” No gestures. No wiggling allowed. But that music filled me up. I took those songs home and figured out how to play them on the piano and sing them to myself. Today’s songs are more rowdy. We have no nuns at Sacred Heart, just Sandy and I in our jeans, projecting the words from a PowerPoint file onto the screen and singing that “Joy, Joy, Joy,” hoping these kids will never stop singing.
Post-Vatican II, the choirs in Catholic churches are not supposed to do all the singing. This is not a performance. We are leading the congregation, who should be singing with us. But that message has not trickled down to everyone yet, especially to those who grew up in the days when the priest spoke Latin and faced away from the people. I worry that as music programs get cut from the schools, church may be the only place the kids are exposed to music. But maybe, God willing, someday everybody will sing.
Meanwhile, I’m having a ball helping the kids rock out with Jesus.