Ecce (Look), Et exultavit spiritus meus, (and my spirit hath rejoiced).
It is a mecca of American sport, music and theater, fashion, and finance. Flying into New York City late on Thursday evening, our eyes opened wide to watch the sunset throw its rays eastward, bouncing around glass filled skyscrapers, disappearing in Atlantic ocean vistas. As the Lady Liberty Anthem filled my head with dashed hopes of seeing her, we began to descend into the most populous city in the United States. There is an old African proverb that goes something like, “The guest has big eyes and big ears,” which is not much different than what Jesus warned, “you have ears and do not hear and eyes that do not see”. We were about to descend into the bowels of the city’s humanity at its best, and worst.
De Profundis Clamavi Ad Te Domine (From the Depths, I Have Cried Out to You, O Lord) Quia respexit humilitatem (For he hath regarded the low estate)
We were a group of twelve who chose to fly with our director the fabulous Dr. Lorna Barker, her entourage. The other thirteen of our Christ Church choir had already arrived dispersing with friends and family living in and around the city. In the depths of the subway, we approached the city with some travel anxiety and humility. Our big eyes were opened wider. We were a bunch of white-haired southerners climbing over the subway stiles because we couldn’t figure out how to use a transit card. We needed a miracle–more on this later. My friend who I discovered grew up in India and had visited Nairobi in his youth, and who never had a thought he didn’t express, summed it up perfectly, “Our cover is blown. They now know we are tourists.”
Onward, there was a begging homeless guy in the elevator and after his impassioned plea for help, people pulled out their wallets. I felt like I was in an old time Jimmy Swaggart revival. The beggar ascending back up the elevator for a rerun prayer service and offering. A drunk stretched out on a seat of the subway car scratching himself in his sleep–in all the wrong places–frightening everyone from that side of the subway car. I stood to the side aghast at the whole situation. My New York friend reassured me New Yorkers know how to handle these situations.
Et misericordia eius in progenies et progenies timentibus eu (And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation)
You know you are going to be sleepless in the city that never sleeps when you enter your hotel room to find five pair of earplugs on your bed pillows. Ours was a corner room on the second floor overlooking 8th Avenue and 47th Streets, just blocks from Times Square. With windows for walls on all sides, covered in curtains that barely hid the bright lights of night, we were given a full view of endless traffic with its angry car horns, police, fire and emergency sirens, trash trucks, and even the 2 AM conversations–arguments–on the sidewalk below. We left the seven channel TV on all night as white noise. Who couldn’t go to sleep to Everybody Loves Raymond.
Fecit potentiam (He hath shewed strength)
The rehearsals began on Friday with intensity in the ballroom of the famous Carnegie Hall, and did not let up until the Sunday performance. One hundred and thirty singers from around the world spent two and a half days, crushed together like South Carolina boiled peanuts, with over 10 hours of rehearsal singing–and no bathroom breaks, temperatures rising.
Our conductor, Dr. Jonathan Griffith of Distinguished Concerts of New York City was an Orwellian-like conductor with authoritarian tendencies, shouting instructions. I was in Mr. Brouillete’s 8th-grade band class, all over again. “Do you understand?” Griffith asked over and over and over again. “Now say this to help your diction: The teeth, the lips, the tip of the tongue.” Say that 20 times. “Now hiss like snakes.” But don’t bite anyone.
Then he repeats, “I prefer NOT to give breaks because people talk too much. So if you have to go, get up and go; but, for the next 4 hours, we are going to rehearse. We want to reach a standard for the marvelous Carnegie Hall. Do you understand?” How many times could he ask that?
And we rehearsed, every breath, every crescendo, every vowel, every consonant, every entrance, every cut-off, until we were emotionally drained, ego deflated, hoarse, and vocal sinners in need of redemption, with very full bladders.
Gloria Patri (Glory be to the Father).
On Sunday we entered the magnificent Carnegie Hall a sanctuary of American architecture and classical music. Our conductor had transformed himself into a savior stretching out his arms in preparation as if laying himself on the cross and saying, ‘today you will be with me in paradise’. All of us emotionally bruised, broken and imperfect singers held hope that our music could be redeemed. And it was, filling the great sanctuary with a fullness of unified and magnificent glory. At the penultimate phrases, someone must have held down the fabulous Dr. Lorna Barker who wanted to raise her hands in praise–wrong time, wrong place for that. I was just glad we made it to the end without falling apart or missing an entrance.
Then it was over. Frozen in time with our scores in hand we were covered in a sound wash of adulation from an appreciative audience. There was not a New York Times or Variety musical critic present, just supportive friends, and family, 2000 people strong. We walked down the street to the Rosie O’Grady restaurant for a reception and final meal together, a fitting end to a concert on Saint Patrick’s Day in New York City, at Carnegie Hall.
Miserere autem miseretur pauperis. Have mercy on the needy. Miraculum. The Miracle
I cannot end without returning to our experience in the subway station, my most memorable experience. If you remember our group was lodged in the turnstiles like a really bad fumble of the Carolina Panthers vs.The Philadelphia Eagles in midseason. By now one of our members who was caught in the metal turnstile and was surrounded by several members trying to help her out of the pile until she was twisted in the metal bars tighter than a fresh Philadelphia Street pretzel. We were losing the game. It was every person for his/herself as we shoved luggage through the turnstiles. You would have thought the New York transit system would have planned a passenger–with luggage–door. They did and we didn’t see it.
Suddenly there appeared an angel–a small man quite different than us–carrying a hot cup of Starbucks coffee and a fresh bagel. He moved quickly to the pileup and parted the waters of confusion one by one helping with cards, luggage, and unraveling our precious living pretzel. My friend–the one who never had a thought he didn’t express–became a prophet and asked our angel the question we all must be thinking. “Why are you helping us?”
The angel/savior stood very still. Had there been spotlights on our group they would have quickly focused on him as he spoke in a soft assuring voice.
“I am an immigrant. I have traveled to many places, even North and South Carolina. And everywhere I go there are nice people who have helped me. I want to return the favor.” We regrouped just in time to avoid the rush of alighting subway passengers converging on the stiles in a wave. And he quietly disappeared.
I could leave it at that. But I won’t. Through excellent food in local restaurants, fabulous Broadway productions, and a performance of the Magnificat on a stage designed to highlight the very best of musical performance, the messianic and angelic immigrant man was etched in my head and my heart. Here is a city that represents the future of America. Every language, social class, faith, ethnicity and gender on earth all in one place. The future of our world. And, as the weekend memory of 60 worshippers shot and killed by a single misguided young gunman in New Zealand, as the homeless slept on the street, and as fights broke out between drunken revelers, I thought, “God help us”. And God did. God appears in the persons we least expect, often so unlike ourselves—angels and Good Samaritans—unraveling the twisted pretzel shapes we find in our lives. Not in perfect performances. Not in a word. In living deed.
Many thanks to Christ Church, family and friends; and, the fabulous Dr. Lorna Barker for a lifelong memory, bonding together–through the Magnificat–our group of volunteer choir members. Magnificent.