Building a House with Song
Dónal P. Noonan
Dónal Noonan, originally from Ireland, is the music minister at the Catholic Shrine of the
Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta, the archdiocesan choir director for the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, the president of the National Alliance for Music in Vulnerable
Communities (www.NAMVC.org), and the executive director of the Atlanta Homeward Choir.
“Homeless is what we are—not who we are. We are homeless now, but we will not be homeless in six months or even a year.”
For many years we have seen the power of song move people to create change in their world. We have seen music help people to survive or tolerate an intolerable world, and we have seen music cross the divides of time, space, and geography.
Like the diverse faces and hearts we meet at worship, we must create space for all forms of worship. To center a worship service on a particular genre of worship or music is divisive. Gone are the days of worship compartmentalization—traditional service at 10:00, contemporary service at 12:00, for example.
“When I was hungry you fed me. When I was thirsty you gave me something to drink. When I was naked you gave me clothes.”
I knew how to direct choirs. I knew how to make a group of people sing pretty. I didn’t know how to handle the needs of a group of people who came to the door with so little.
“Let us build a house where love can dwell, and all can safely live.” The opening lines of Marty Haugen’s fantastic hymn “All Are Welcome” lays out the foundation of what we as Christians are called to do when building the church of God. In our music we sing songs of welcome, we sing songs of feeding the poor, and we sing about embracing those who are different from us and those who walk a path that is alien to our own.
It’s easy to stand in church and sing about such things, finish the service, battle the parking lot, and head to brunch. What happens when we are called to put these words into action? What would it look like if we did build a house where love can dwell—where everyone can come in, hang out, find a place where they belong, and find commonality and community with the person journeying beside them? Am I describing utopia? Am I describing church? Or am I just describing an idea of church that is far flung from our lived reality? Enough with the questions. I’ll graduate to bold statements. If we sing about it, then we need to figure out how to live it.
In 2012, I accepted the position of director of music ministries at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta. Before my move to Atlanta, I spent ten years in the Tampa Bay area of Florida where I had moved from my homeland of Ireland. Homelessness was never a part of my world. I grew up in a small town of seven thousand people just outside Dublin; and when I immigrated, I moved to an island in the Gulf of Mexico to teach and work at a school and church where silver spoons were plentiful. Of course, just because I was not aware of it does not mean that homelessness did not exist there. Many people were living below the poverty line, but the poor and the privileged didn’t share the same spaces. When I arrived on Capitol Hill in downtown Atlanta nearly a decade later, a new reality was waiting for me. On one of my first days on the job, I met a person who was sleeping in the doorway of the church office. I was a little perplexed and disoriented, not knowing what to do, so I went with the “Excuse me please” approach. The person was having none of it. They didn’t move an inch, remaining in the doorway with their blanket over their head and body. I tried a few more times to rouse them, but my inquiries were ignored until finally I heard a voice say, “Just step over me” with a lovely expletive to accompany the instruction. I did as I was told, entered the building, and walked into my office. I sat behind my desk for a minute and felt the experience wash over me. It didn’t sit well at all. What had just happened bothered me, not just in my head but in my heart and in my soul too. The weight of this experience grew heavier and heavier as the days and weeks went on. I spoke about the incident with a dear friend who has since passed away, the formidable Katie Bashor, who was the director of the Central Night Shelter (a joint ministry between Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Atlanta and the Catholic Shrine). When I told Katie what had happened, she laughed and, without missing a beat, said, “I don’t blame him. I hate getting out of bed some mornings too.” Her analysis was so real and steeped in her more than twenty years of compassion and ministry on the streets of Atlanta. I realized that I was now part of a community of people who were there long before I was. I had entered a community that had established a way of life and, as an outsider, I needed to learn, adapt, and become a part of this community. I needed to contribute in the context I was suddenly immersed in. I only knew one thing, and that was music. I was going to start a choir.
Later that year, the Atlanta Homeward Choir was born. We started the first rehearsal with twenty-seven men, all residents of the Central Night Shelter. I had taken great care to make sure all my ducks were in a row; the music was picked and purchased, the name tags printed, and I had a binder with a fantastic cover on it that read “The Atlanta Homeless Choir,” complete with colored dividers—I was ready to go.
We sang “Amazing Grace” to start the rehearsal. It sounded terrible, but it was a start. During the song, I noticed one of the men looking at my binder, tilting his head to read the cover and then making a face that could only be described as “ugh.” I clocked this reaction and saved it for later. At a stopping point in the rehearsal I asked the men to have a conversation with me about our name. The same guy spoke and said, “Homeless is what we are—not who we are. We are homeless now, but we will not be homeless in six months or even a year.” This powerful statement showed me for the first time the humanity of those living in homeless situations, which I would continue to learn about and prioritize above all things. To this day I thank God for that. The conversation continued within the group, and we decided that we wanted to name ourselves something that we aspired to, something positive and something with a forward-moving motion. We found that the word “homeward” met all of these requirements and dreams, and thus the Atlanta Homeward Choir became our name and mission.
Over the next few years, the Spirit was moving. We gradually found our groove, and like many who are looking for guidance, we were presented with multiple directions. In 2015, we received notice that at the request of Congressman John Lewis’s office, we were invited to sing at the White House during the holiday season. The news of a choir made up of men living in homelessness spread across the country and even around the world. The national news broadcaster of Ireland sent a journalist from Washington, DC, to interview the choir and me in Atlanta. The BBC sent a reporter from their affiliate in Atlanta who, upon meeting me, said, “The BBC told me I had to come to this concert, but I don’t know why I’m here. Who are you?” I remember laughing and saying, “I’m no one and I don’t know either.” To this day, I still don’t see why this was such a big deal. Why wouldn’t a group of men who happened to be unhoused be invited to sing at the White House? Why is a group like this an exception in the choral world instead of a rule or the norm? Here I go with the questions again—allow me one more. As music ministers, organists, accompanists, composers, choral ensembles, and so forth, why have we not been creating space in our worship for the “All” whom we sing and pray about in the words of “All Are Welcome”?
For many years we have seen the power of song move people to create change in their world. We have seen music help people to survive or tolerate an intolerable world, and we have seen music cross the divides of time, space, and geography. The repertoires in many of our choral libraries come from many cultures. There has been very interesting and important conversation over the last number of years over the legitimacy of an Anglocentric congregation singing such spectacular hymns and spirituals as “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” “Fix Me, Jesus,” “Steal Away,” or “I’m So Glad.” This list could go on and on. The conversation has centered around the question, “Is singing songs from cultures other than your own appropriation or appreciation?”
I don’t know the answer to this question, but I do know that when I experience the lived music and culture of a people who grew up differently than I did, I “feel the spirit triggered in my soul,” as Monsignor Henry Gracz of the Catholic Shrine here in Atlanta says. Earlier this year, I attended a concert here with singer Callie Day and the Georgia State University Choral Union, Central Presbyterian Church Chancel Choir, the Catholic Shrine Music Ministry Choir, and the Columbia Theological Seminary Choir. The final piece was “Order My Steps” written by Glenn Burleigh in 1991. To set the scene, I was exhausted the weekend of the concert. My sister was in town from Ireland with her husband and three children, I was teaching classes all that week, and I had concerts and rehearsals back-to-back leading up to the event. In the church that day, I remember looking for the nearest exit so I could slip out in the most epic Irish goodbye of my life—don’t judge me; we have all done it! But when the music started, I was glued to my seat. I couldn’t and didn’t want to move. I was immediately called to prayer by the spirit and the song in that place.
Around the middle of March every year, to mark St. Patrick’s Day I have my church choir sing Shaun Davey’s “The Deer’s Cry.” It is a beautiful rendition of St. Patrick’s Breastplate for solo and SATB choir put to music by Davey in 1990. If you don’t know it, I highly recommend a listen. Every time this American choir sings this Irish piece, people are moved to prayer. I look at the faces of the people in the congregation, some with their eyes closed, others glued to the singers, and others fixed on the cross, and I know that it is vital that we (1) keep these genres of music alive in our sacred halls and pass them down to the next generation as the precious gems they are, and (2) like Burleigh and Davey, continue writing and programming with influences from many styles so the people of God hear and see themselves in worship and find multiple paths to prayer. There needs to be room within and outside the walls of worship for all genres. Like the diverse faces and hearts we meet at worship, we must create space for all forms of worship. To center a worship service on a particular genre of worship or music is divisive. Gone are the days of worship compartmentalization—traditional service at 10:00, contemporary service at 12:00, for example. To me this is like saying, when we eat dinner on Sunday, “We will have protein at 3:00, vegetables at 4:00, and our mashed potatoes will be served at 5:00.” What happens when we put it all on the same plate? I know there are people out there who cannot handle different foods touching, and I know there are people out there who don’t like contemporary music or traditional hymnody or chant. But is worship style about what we like? Or is it about being together in the presence of God? If we continue to be divisive and compartmentalize our worship style or genre, how do we learn, grow, and most importantly share our love across contexts?
Catholic music composer and lecturer at Emory University Dr. Antonio Alonso wrote a magnificent setting of text from Matthew 25 called “What You Have Done,” published by GIA Publications. Some years ago the Homeward Choir did a concert with Tony that included this song. At the end of the concert, he shared that he wrote this piece as a teenager and has been singing it for many years. But for the first time, it came from the mouths of those living on the streets and in shelters, those who wondered where their next meal was coming from, and, he said, for the first time he actually heard the words of Matthew on which the text was based. “When I was hungry you fed me. When I was thirsty you gave me something to drink. When I was naked you gave me clothes.” The songs we sing can bring Scripture to life outside of what we may call worship when we allow them to, when we let the Spirit move our perceived barriers out of the way. Sacred and holy space could be behind a dumpster, under a bridge, on the back steps of a church, in the alcove of a government building, in the front seat of a car that is parked and filled with all the worldly belongings of a person who can no longer afford rent. It is in those sanctuaries that the music we sing, no matter where it comes from, the genre, or who sings it, brings us into the presence of God and sees us home.
The music of worship, that is, the music that I and so many others have found a home in for so many years, started to become a lifeblood for the Atlanta Homeward Choir. I witnessed how the music that we prayed together in church lived beyond the church choir. It moved the soul and propelled the lives of these men beyond a moment within the walls of a building. This music became a place of safety, a refuge from reality, and a vessel for change. By joining this choir, these men learned how to be a part of “something” again—as one singer once put it, “It gave me something to look forward to, coming in and busting my pipes open twice a week.” The men remembered that they were worth so much more than their current situation. It was a powerful and very different choir. It was a choir where the music was secondary; the community of the group was primary. I was in over my head.
I knew how to direct choirs. I knew how to make a group of people sing pretty. I didn’t know how to handle the needs of a group of people who came to the door with so little. When my regular church choirs were asked to perform outside of a service, I would normally tell them to “wear all black” or “wear black with a splash of color.” I couldn’t do that with this group. They had the clothes on their backs and that was it. Sometimes men came to rehearsal with no shoes or coats because they had been stolen when they fell asleep the night before. I found myself keeping a box in the trunk of my car with boots, sneakers, sweaters, T-shirts, and even underwear in it. I needed help, so I went asking for it. Yet again, I recognized the Spirit among us, bringing together another community of helpers who wanted nothing more than to support the men in the choir. Community was forming wherever I looked. Walls were being taken down and connections were being made.
“Let us build a house where love can dwell, and all can safely live.” The community that was now the Homeward Choir was building a church within a church. It was creating a space where all can find a place, where all can live, where all can belong, and where all can just be.
Just be—such a simple phrase that means so much to someone who has nowhere to just be. As word spread about the choir, we made friends in local organizations that wanted to help the men in the choir. They helped them find homes and jobs. News channels did interviews and stories about the choir. I was unsure about that; was it my place to tell other people’s stories? I was unsure until one day my office phone rang and it was the mother of one of the guys in the choir. She saw the story of the choir in Seattle, Washington. She told me that she knew he was in Atlanta, but she had no way of contacting him. She gave me her number and asked me to pass it on to him. At the next rehearsal, I pulled him aside and said “So, your mom called, and she’d like for you to phone home. Here is the number; here is my phone. If you want to use it, you are welcome to it. If not, that’s fine too.” Two days later, we put him on a Greyhound bus back to Seattle.
My life took a turn in 2012. I didn’t know that meeting another person seeking a night’s rest would turn everything upside down and inside out. While we work to eradicate systemic poverty and homelessness, to build a house where all can safely live, we also seek human connection in the midst of the problem of homelessness. I am so grateful for those I have met who are, with me, traveling homeward. Because one person refused to get up out of the doorway and caused me to see in them my neighbor, people have found a community, a home, and a safe place within the music of worship. I will never know who that person was, and I will never be able to hear their story. I wish I could. But they taught me that the call to worship comes in many ways, through many voices, and on many faces, and sometimes it comes accompanied by expletives. I recall hearing it said that when you look into the face of the person beside you, you should see the face of Christ first.
Let us build a house where love can dwell, and all can safely live, find a home, be together, laugh, cry, sing, and see the face of Christ in each other. Amen.