She looked a little dowdy in her white Salvation Army shirt and blue skirt. Her guitar was too loud as she strummed it in plain down-strokes, but oh the joy in her face as she closed her eyes, smiled, and sang of her love for God in a clear, high voice that could have been an angel’s. Her name was Corrin. Her husband Nathan, a fuzzy-faced man also in Salvation Army garb, sang along behind me. The Holy Spirit was there, I swear.
Corrin was one of several acts at the Christian music festival and potluck held Saturday at First Presbyterian in Newport as a benefit for Inter-Christian Outreach. I was the opening act because I had to scoot to Sacred Heart to play piano for the 5:00 Mass. Like Corrine, I played alone. Getting our choir together for Mass is challenge enough; with their busy schedules, an extra performance requiring extra practices was not going to happen.
I played guitar and sang “Pescador de Hombres (Lord You have Come)” and “Alleluia! Give the Glory.” My voice was better at the dress rehearsal. My throat felt dry after the long wait for the show to begin. But it was all right. Used to singing from the corner or at the piano, I stood up on that polished wood altar in front of the fancy organ, the grand piano, and all kinds of sound equipment facing an audience of mostly Protestants and represented the Catholics. The words to the refrains for my songs appeared on giant screens behind me, and people sang along. We didn’t have as much of a crowd as I had hoped. The other performers made up most of the audience, but we all sang and shared the joy.
I introduced the next act, the group from Newport Christian Church, some of whom I knew from the monthly South Beach open mic. They had fiddle, bass, and guitar. Two women sang harmony in the middle. A tall barefoot woman sat on a box drum and kept the beat. None of them dressed up, but they led with a prayer and finished their songs with heartfelt amens. They were good. Tight. In tune. Filled with grace.
Even better was the group from First Baptist. Such harmony! They had several guitars, a young man on a box drum and another man on the piano. They sang without sheet music, one of the altos often raising her hand toward heaven. I didn’t know the songs, but I found myself singing along anyway.
Then came Corrin, followed by First Baptist’s Hispanic group, all dressed up in red and black, including a little girl who played a massive white tambourine. They had guitar and piano, too, with one man and five women singing. Their sound was a little shrill, but they too seemed to be filled with joy, the older woman closing her eyes as she sang.
As I left to play at my own church, four girls in flowy white costumes did a liturgical dance. I knew a collection and a sing-along would follow. Then folks would adjourn to the hall where plates of cookies, vegetables and fruit awaited.
It was warm at First Pres. I was sweating under Mom’s teal sweater and shaking a little as I snuck out with my ratty duct-taped guitar case, breathed in the cool air, and drove to Sacred Heart. As I put up the song numbers, Father Palmer sat in the back room hearing confessions. Gregorian chant played through the speakers.
Catholics are different. They are not comfortable showing their faith or talking about it outside of church. We don’t know the same songs the Protestants share. We do chants and our “services” are the same every time. We don’t do Christian rock songs that go on for 10 minutes. They don’t fit into the liturgy, and in Fr. Palmer’s view, they’re not appropriate. There’s comfort in the familiar routine; we always know what to expect, but sometimes I worry that we’re lacking the joy I saw in the others at the concert.
That joy doesn’t exist just in church. Yesterday we had our monthly open mic and jam session at the South Beach Community Center. A friend of mine who tried it last month declared it too noisy, but I loved it. This month, we had two mandolins, a ukulele, a cello, two fiddles, three guitars and a saxophone. Renae Richmond, who announced her retirement as our leader, traded among her mandolin, flute and harmonica. We all sang and played on everything we could. Sometimes it came together beautifully. Sometimes it was just a joyful noise, not always in tune or in time but full out. My fingers and my strumming arm are weary. My vocal cords, too, but it doesn’t matter.
We sat in a circle around the green rug in the center of the hardwood dance floor. Spencer, the Beckers’ dachshund, visited everyone then dozed at Randy’s feet. We sang bluegrass, Jackson Browne, Keb Mo, Rod McKuen, a jazzy “Summertime,” old-time fiddle tunes, an original, “Worried Man Blues” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” It was raucous and wonderful. It didn’t matter if you screwed up. In fact, it was almost required.
Some of us just met while others have known each other since the turn of the 21st century. People have died, babies have been born, and marriages have begun and ended. We just keep playing. It’s never the same two jams in a row, and that’s the glory of it. Like a big soup into which you add whatever you have, whether it’s delicious or so-so, you can’t quite duplicate it ever again.
The South Beach jam takes place on the second Sunday of the month from 2 to 5 p.m. at the South Beach Community Center on Ferry Slip Road across from Pirate’s Plunder.
Don’t be afraid to sing. Whatever voice you have, it’s the one God gave you, so to Him, it’s beautiful.