Telling Our Stories
Check here for the latest thoughts, ideas, and information about what’s going on at GPPC and for faith stories shared by some of our members.
Check here for the latest thoughts, ideas, and information about what’s going on at GPPC and for faith stories shared by some of our members.
About twenty years ago, I sang in a chorus that was preparing performances of Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the same time. Like any musician, I knew that Mendelssohn was no Beethoven. Beethoven was a revolutionary genius, and Mendelssohn wrote some beautiful music. There is nothing in Mendelssohn’s works list that can compare to the sublime late string quartets of Beethoven; none of Mendelssohn’s symphonic works can keep up with the spectacular genius of Beethoven’s third or seventh symphonies. In his fifth symphony Beethoven introduced three instruments into the symphony orchestra for the first time like some kind of Chuck Norris of orchestration, and the listening public had to nod in agreement. Beethoven was Beethoven, and Mendelssohn was just Mendelssohn.
But, as I sang those two works in rehearsal each Tuesday night, I realized that Beethoven did have weaknesses. For most of us, Beethoven’s Ninth is no treat to sing. I associate the piece with being crammed onto a too-small stage, trying to muster dozens of high Fs with my middle-C voice, and longing for choral music that lives and breathes like a singer.
Longing for Mendelssohn.
Mendelssohn choral music is luxurious. It feels Swiss-made. The phrases breathe; it’s like God created the human lung after singing a Mendelssohn alto line. Mendelssohn can spin out an eight-part choral setting with drool-worthy voice leading. And his gift for melody is extraordinary. He sails through Elijah, burning through beautiful tune after beautiful tune: “He watching over Israel slumbers not nor sleeps”, “If with all your hearts”, “Hear ye, Israel”, “Lift thine eyes, O lift thine eyes”.
Yet, in my imagined battle between the ghosts of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, the older master can point out quite rightly that composing one of the two greatest oratorios of all time hardly makes him a composer of the very highest order. “Do oratorios really matter?” a ghostly Beethoven might ask.
“Maybe not,” the ghost of Mendelssohn might answer, “but did I mention that my oratorio has an overture?”
And there is no overture like the overture to Elijah. Mendelssohn channels Beethoven at the outset; he starts with just two notes, or half the number of notes Beethoven needed to begin his iconic Fifth Symphony. It’s just an ascending half-step, like some kind of 19th-century Jaws, loaded with Great-White gravity and impending doom. The two notes turn out to be the opening of a fugue subject (Beethoven knew something about orchestral fugues). What sets Mendelssohn’s orchestral fugue apart is its unparalleled drive. Even though Mendelssohn never composed an opera, he knew quite a bit about drama. From its very start, the overture tips the listener on an 89-degree incline into the dramatic action of the narrative that follows. It is so inextricably tied to its place in the larger work that no one, including the composer himself, has been able to arrange the overture to stand on its own without its inevitable plummet into the first choral movement. The only suitable ending for this three-minute overture is two hours of a perfectly told story in music.
Beethoven never did that, and I’d like to think that he’s a little jealous.
On June 4 at 3:00 PM in the GPPC sanctuary, the combined choirs of Ginter Park and Three Chopt Presbyterian Churches will sing Elijah (abridged) with Joan Lee Pi, conducting; Douglas Brown, organist; and brass and percussion from the Richmond Symphony. A free-will offering will be taken. Thanks to Doug for his always entertaining and insightful words on the music of our church.
In the fall of 2006, GPPC’s Pastor Nominating Committee set up a conference call with a candidate who sounded promising: one Carla Pratt Keyes, an associate in a church on the outskirts of Atlanta. In hindsight, we wish we’d set up a video-chat, but then again, some might say God meant for our first conversation with Carla to be audio-only…
The interview was going well, as we recall. Good questions and thoughtful answers flowing in both directions, both parties searching for a fit, listening for a Call. Carla was talking from her home office and we were huddled around a speakerphone in Richmond. It was early evening.
Then we heard background noises. A mini-ruckus. Something going on at Carla’s end, and we couldn’t see what. Carla laughed. Then she apologized. Then came the sound of a door closing, and again she said, “I’m so sorry,” but her voice didn’t sound sorry. She was clearly trying to muffle some giggles. She explained that her young son had run from the bathtub straight into her office, naked, and her husband had chased him with a towel, eventually catching him and carrying him out.
In that moment, everyone on the PNC wanted to meet this Carla face to face.
Before that, we’d listened to recordings of her sermons. We’d heard a fresh, new approach to preaching. We knew her C.V. and had read articles she’d written. But it was the phone call that brought her to life and into our hearts. She was so genuine. So honest. So down to earth. And her husband bathed the children? We loved it!
We arranged for Carla to visit Richmond, and as is the custom, the prospective candidate preaches in a church other than the one considering her. Southminster Presbyterian agreed to host Carla, and we drove down to meet her. Now, truth be told, although the PNC’s stated mission is to listen for a Call, some among us admitted to a practical, perhaps skeptical, attitude: GPPC had a job opening and the PNC’s task was to fill it. But Carla changed us. That winter morning, she delivered a message that was clear and concise, and also quite challenging. Somehow she captured the very essence of Christianity, and her words brought us to tears. No longer did GPPC’s opening feel like a job. It felt like a Call. God was guiding us. And afterward, Isabel Rogers summed up the sermon by declaring, “I would say that was an A+.”
New members at GPPC won’t remember Izzy Rogers, as she died in 2007, but getting an A+ from her meant a lot. She’d been a professor at what was formerly the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, and she had a spirit and intellect that would light a room. Between Izzy and Carla, there was a wonderful chemistry—a palpable sense of joy and excitement. Izzy had been excluded from a career in the pastorate because of her gender, and now, here was Carla, about to live out a call that Izzy would have cherished.
When we brought Carla to visit GPPC, she didn’t ask to see the office. She wanted to spend time alone in the sanctuary. She noticed our welcoming statement and was eager to hear how we lived it. She talked about setting out one empty chair at Session meetings at her church—a chair in honor and support of an openly gay congregant whose sexual orientation precluded him from service as an elder. We learned how much she valued the process of trying to reconcile with church members who disagreed with her or with each other.
Soon after her visit, we extended a Call to Carla in writing and scheduled a conference call as a follow-up. We offered to give her a week to think it over, but Carla said no, she didn’t need a week. She’d also felt a Call, and she accepted on the spot. She would begin at GPPC in May of 2007. The PNC was elated! The jubilation we shared truly felt like a gift from God.
This month GPPC celebrates ten years with Carla as our pastor. We don’t take for granted her inspirational sermons, her way of bringing the varied elements of worship into a unified whole, her excitement about new approaches to ministry (think NEXT Church), her calm presence, her faithful witness to Christ, her ability to listen… we could go on and on. Ten years. How we’ve grown in our understanding of God’s Call to our church and to us individually!
Ten years of ministry here. Thank you, Carla Pratt Keyes. Thank you!
GPPC’s 2005-06 Pastor Nominating Committee
Edward Dail, Randy Hallman, Lisa Harr, Sterling Lloyd, Anne Westrick, Eleanor Workman, and in absentia Steven Dalle Mura, Ellen Goodpasture, and Isabel Rogers
Telling Our Stories is grateful for Carla’s ongoing ministry, and for the PNC’s willingness to knit together recollections of their work and discernment all those years ago. We will celebrate Carla’s GPPC anniversary with fellowship and refreshments after Sunday worship on June 4, but you needn’t wait till then to share some words of appreciation with her!
I have a friend, Martha, who has as her email address “livingintheand”. When she first told me, very excitedly, about it, I thought “o-kay–y…” and didn’t get it at all. But it started me thinking. Martha’s “and” was, at the time, Boaz & Ruth. Black & White. Rich & Poor. The blessings for all were in the “&”, I think. The “&” is always a connector. It is a holy thing. Martha lives in it.
A few years ago, another friend, Lorene, and I were approached separately, to consider being co-chairs of our very large PW Circle. She was newly retired and new to the Circle; I was pastor’s wife and feeling the need for closer, deeper ties with women. We both said, “Yes”, not knowing a thing about the other.
We found that we had opposite/complementary skills and temperaments, so division of responsibilities was straightforward. Politics and life experience, however, gave us major differences in perspectives (within our basic WASP-iness). Time after time as we planned for what we hoped would be rich and meaningful meetings for the women of our Circle, we experienced the space between us as our “Holy 3rd”. We became, in our planning, “Lorene&Marsha”, where we both knew the “&” was the Holy Spirit, oiling against friction, giving utterance to wisdom not our own, showers of joy and gladness.
What I felt most sure of was that as we gave honor/trust/expectation to the space between the two of us — or among the 35 at meetings — the “&” would supply a holy pot-luck that would prove more delicious than any carefully scripted menu we might set. So, we met, breathed deeply, invited Presence, made experiments in not being in control of at least some aspects of the agenda, and delighted in the space between us — the Lord’s Table, not our own. And we feasted there.
between your thoughts and mine
your hand and mine
your heart and mine
your life and mine, is
A whole universe of Spirit, big-bang creative explosions,
and dry dust particles holding the elements of
shimmer in that space.
Waters brood, waiting to drop onto dry dust.
“Take shape, Adam! Be born, Eve!”
Wind blows, dervish-swirls invade all un-chinked gaps.
“Gasp!” “Breathe!” “Receive!” “Sing!”
Connective tissue longs to leap onto disconnected bones.
“Dance, my Body!”
you and I are the poles between which the electric current flies when God says, “LIGHT!”
As for me, I will leave Space, offer time, look for the flashes of brilliance between us.
Marsha Summers started attending GPPC with husband, Charlie, after his retirement from Presbyterian pastoral ministry. They both feel at home in the warm and open-hearted congregation that is GPPC, and look forward to hearing and following God in this place. Marsha is mother of 3 and doting grandmother (“Mimi”) of 3; choir member ,soprano soloist, and voice teacher; active with Coming To The Table, and Richmonders for Peace in Israel and Palestine; and on very rare occasions is driven to poetry.
Century. Half of a century.
One morning last spring, it occurred to me that come the following fall, I would be a 50-year member of GPPC. Memo to self: blog topic.
Fall came and went and we had good contributors here on timely matters. I felt my imagined column would keep for whenever, envisioning sort of a sweet pudding of memories from the mists. I wanted to make sure to write about being a teenager in church when they’d ask the 30-year members to stand, and then the 40-year members, and then – the 50-year members! Man, I figured they had to be running on fumes!
Then came the past two weeks in America, and it felt as if the train for my happy-look-back little blog piece had left the station – for parts unknown. But then I considered what has seemed so important to me, coming into this strange, new year: to remember where I came from – the times, the experiences, the people.
I recall, still a teenager, a summer Sunday when the leadership was approached by a group who wanted to make a statement of conscience about the Vietnam War during worship. It was decided they could do so in a classroom after the service. Nancy Dawe stood up from her pew after announcements and said she could not reconcile the appropriateness of sharing church softball scores in worship but not matters of peacemaking. I’d been there long enough to know that extemporaneous speaking in services was exceedingly rare, especially – in those days – by a woman. Her witness remains with me.
A couple of years later, I came as a college student to the Christmas Eve service; and John Brown asked God for mercy – even as, he pointed out, our country dropped bombs on Southeast Asia. Soon after, I heard William Sloane Coffin up the street at the Seminary. He said he was often asked about his rationale for working so closely with the radicals in the anti-war movement when many of them were avowed atheists. “I say I don’t concern myself so much with who believes in God, but more who God believes in.”
In the early ‘80s as refugees fled Cambodia, GPPC sponsored Meth San and his family. The Arnettes, Ed Young, and my parents were the main ongoing hands. After learning our language, Meth told my dad he would have been killed had he remained in his homeland. Later, he was working a nightshift when Nari needed a ride to the delivery room for her 3rd child. My dad drove her and, at age 70, wound up witnessing his first live birth.
I recall our associate pastor, Mark Hinds, interrupting the flow of an ordination service because a visitor from one of the nearby adult homes wanted to make a statement of faith – she had been moved by the vows of the new elders. Mark had nothing like a script, but he introduced her to us and assured her of God’s love and care. He didn’t miss a beat. Running on the Spirit.
Our church adopted a welcoming statement, skillfully crafted by Davis Yeuell, well in advance of the denomination approving ordination of LGBTQ candidates. It stated there are no limits placed on God’s call to leadership, authoritatively dealing a higher hand than the Book of Order.
And I can still hear Carla’s voice, incorporating Nikki Finney’s bracing poem about abandoned Katrina victims – Left – into one of her sermons. It was a worship experience that made me sit up and listen – and know I was hearing a new thing in church, as with Nancy Dawe all those decades back.
I’m not sure where we’re headed, but I have a pretty good idea of where I’ve been. 50 years at GPPC is a good thing to have in one’s backpack, whether running on fumes – or just jogging in the mornings, and praying about the next good thing to do.
While a camper at Camp Hanover, I fell in love with Virginia’s rivers and pursued a career as an environmental biologist with the state. However, I hit the glass ceiling and was told I could never work in the field because I was a woman; so I ended up with a career teaching science. My concern for protection of our environment never wavered, and I wove it into many chemistry lessons. Today I pay attention to decisions I make every day and their impact on our planet. Plastic water bottles may be one of the worst decisions we as Americans have ever made.
Web MD describes BPA as a chemical that has been used” to harden plastics” for over forty years. They also state that 90% of Americans have BPA in their bodies and that it came from foods that were stored in plastic containers. BPA stands for bisphenol A. At this time there are no restrictions on the inclusion of this chemical in any containers although many baby bottles that contained the chemical have been removed from the market. Many researchers, including a scientist that I know personally, think that it works in the body like a hormone. Some scientists think that it will disrupt the hormonal balances in young children. It has been mentioned as a brain disrupter too. A very common thought is that it may affect egg maturation in females and increase the risk of erectile dysfunction in males. High levels of BPA in urine seem to be related to type 2 diabetes.
BPA is found in epoxy resins which are used to line food and drink cans and in many polycarbonate plastic food containers, water bottles and bottle tops. The Mayo Clinic offers these suggestions:
Use BPA-free products. Look for products labeled as BPA-free. Avoid plastics marked with recycle codes 3 or 7; they may be made with BPA.
Cut back on cans. Reduce your use of canned foods since most cans are lined with BPA-containing resin.
Avoid heat. Avoid microwaving polycarbonate plastics or putting them in the dishwasher, because the plastic may break down over time and allow BPA to leach into foods.
Use alternatives. Use glass, porcelain or stainless steel containers for hot foods and liquids instead of plastic containers.
Even if we do all of these things, the old containers and plastic bottles are going into landfills or into the ocean and affecting organisms there.
So the next time you are planning to buy a case of bottled water or just one bottle at a store; reconsider and think about getting and using one good BPA free water bottle and eating fresh vegetables rather than canned ones. You may be doing yourself and your planet a big favor.
Your scientist with a heart, Mary Frances Hobbs
I have been a member of GPPC since 1979. Tom and I raised our two sons here and still enjoy being a part of this community. I was a classroom chemistry teacher for many years, then a visiting science teacher in chemistry, environmental science, and nanoscience, and finally a mentor to other science teachers. Four years ago, I began training as a Feldenkrais teacher and practitioner and have now graduated and am enjoying helping people [see photo] with joint issues, accident recovery, and a desire to move easier. The best part is the Feldenkrais work allows me to be active and spend time with my grandchildren – who range in age from 16 months to twenty years old.
There was some real energy for titling this piece “2016 Did Not Totally Suck”. Then Carla pointed us to comments from Wendell Berry, made earlier this month in Baltimore:
“I can’t give anybody hope. Hope has to come up out of you … To find something worth hoping for is a very good place to start. There are things worth hoping for, there are good people, this is still a very beautiful world.”
Good people, things worth hoping for, glimpses of a beautiful world amidst evolving faith – a reasonable setup for our year-end review.
One of my professors, Paul Galbreath, taught me to think of the Lord’s Supper as an eyes-wide-open prayer. That when we do the liturgy in thanking God, remembering Christ, and praying for the Holy Spirit to make broken places whole, we keep our eyes open to the vision of a table where all are welcome and invited, where swords are beaten into plowshares and the meal of grace and interconnected wholeness is bountiful and enough. So we open our eyes. We grab the hand of another. We keep marching forward, saying to our siblings in the faith, “Keep your eyes open. Feel the pain and feel the cries. Hear the voices of those who are weeping, and know that it is for the sake of all of creation that we amplify such voices rather than muffle them out. Keep believing that the triune God is at work in this broken world, weeping with those who weep and ushering us forward to do what needs to be done so that we all might gather at the table of justice and faithfulness in God’s family made known and restored.”
Last night, and every Monday night here in Round Pond [Maine], there is music. This Friday and every Friday in Floyd [Virginia], there is music. Between those two places, and even in each place by itself, the left-to-right political spectrum is, I believe, nearly complete. Let the music prevail. It’s in us all. And there are other elements, shared and uniting. We must find ways to let the transcendent transcend.
That’s my sign and I’m sticking to it.
As I drove, we listened, and we talked. We talked about Brahms’ love of cross rhythms and the beauty of having the cellos play above the violas for certain passages and how sometimes the trombones were like Jesus. We talked about moments we heard the ghost of Beethoven and moments we heard the influence of Bach. This wasn’t a normal conversation at this stage in my dad’s struggle with dementia; holding onto a complete thought was painfully difficult for him. But, he’s a musician, and music has a peculiar power to make rough places plain.
It has been such a joy to watch the youth of Ginter Park experience this musical. … they have been working for months with energy, care and joy. This has been an incredible process, full of growth and hard work – and believe me, Saturday night is going to ROCK!
Now in their 20th season, City Singers has a growing endowment fund, increasing donor support, and strong community partnerships — making the way for their next 20 seasons. For all you have made possible, a huge THANK YOU to Ginter Park Presbyterian Church!
Here in the USA, most of us would be locked away in our houses watching TV. I doubt many of these Haitians had TVs with cable providers that stream all types of “entertainment” 24 hours a day. These people were living. Life is connecting, sharing, interacting, negotiating, trading, helping. Do we even realize what we are missing?
I love my church and I love being there. I’m grateful, this week, for the understanding that people can love church anywhere – a chapel, a park, a bar– when they experience that which is Holy through themselves and those nearby.
I struggle with the complex, ancient words of our creeds and confessions. On the other hand, I’m not comfortable with oversimplication, either. I try to avoid a bumper sticker approach to religion — mysterious notions about our relationship with God boiled down to one-liner litmus tests. So I find myself torn between parsing the words in the ancient creeds, and shying away from easy explanation.
Yet there is one short, quick phrase that I return to, when religion starts to get too confusing for me. My own little bumper sticker-style simplification. When the polity and doctrines feel overwhelming, I return to this simple grounding of my faith: God is love.
I often consider the mountains my second home for worship, GPPC being my home church. Walking a trail is like going to church. … Leaving the trail comes with its own closure too. Trail worship can provide a settled, renewed spirit better poised to accept the challenges ahead. When I leave the trail, a bit of the Peace of God that passes all understanding typically accompanies me.
I’m drawn to activities that help me connect with GPPC members, our neighbors, and the world around us: Caritas, Spring Retreat, manning the water station at the marathon, talks with Ruth Brown and Cindy Corell about their mission experiences, even filling cocoa cups at the Love Feast. This is the kind of stuff – the kind of human connection – that I missed during my years away. The solidarity I experience at GPPC comforts me when I get a little too focused on the constant stream of bad news emanating from my various electronic devices these days.
It may sound trite but I do feel I get more than I give when I visit the Palace.
… I can pray informally, randomly, accidentally – maybe even without ceasing. And when I do, my God listens. My God laughs at and with me, is disappointed in me, ignores me at times as an exasperated parent might and clearly turns me down at other times. And sometimes my God holds me close – celebrating, reveling, grieving, comforting, sharing.
Two [turtle] hatchlings just refused to make their way to the ocean—they kept turning around and heading back to the nest—back toward the light instead of toward the dark ocean. Isn’t that really what all of God’s creatures seek? Safety in the light instead of fear in the stormy ocean? Even if facing the turbulent waters brings us closer to the lives we were meant to live? It had me thinking about all of those people on the beach—people of different backgrounds and ideologies– there loving those seven tiny creatures. What if we loved a family from Aleppo the way we loved those turtles? What if we loved people in the poor neighborhoods of Rio? What might that look like?
… my point with this story is the complexity of life when the ordinary Christian lives as a citizen of two worlds. What is the right answer? Is it an infringement on patients’ religious liberties to offer public prayer in the Health Care breakfast room where the patients must come to eat? What about the patients who desire, indeed, ask for, prayer? Could it be that the Administration, consciously or unconsciously, is standing in the Kingdom when it safeguards the religious liberties of patients who may be incapable of protecting their liberties?
I am coming to accept that every difficult circumstance in my life is something God uses for my good and for His glory. I may not understand the why and how, but I am working to trust more completely that God’s promises for his people and my life will be fulfilled.
Even as a white person, even in my lifetime – it’s a long haul to think things might be getting better, and then to see where we are and to hear the voices echoing the fear and ignorance of more than 50 years ago. I think fatigue is fair. But maybe that’s what naps are for. Maybe that’s part of the good in listening to a multi-racial 8th grade class recite Dr. King – a powerful reminder that his agenda is known but not finished. Maybe that’s some of the value in once a year pausing to recall his life – and some of his many inspiring, invigorating words.
Consider the safety pin, how, before it’s secure, it can wound you. For what are we willing to suffer, even to bleed? I think Jesus might ask us that in The Parable of the Safety Pin. Consider how, once a safety pin is fastened, it holds things together. In Jesus Christ, all things hold together, the Bible says. In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female, no longer “able” and disabled, no longer African American or Hispanic or European, no longer rich and poor or red and blue, for all are one. All are held together in Christ.
Bury strains of discord made by tongues that lie.
Bury songs that sing of triumph while your children die.
May our praises ever come to you
With lives that sing:
“You and I — we and they — All are God’s!”
Everything that happens has happened before, and all that will be has already been – God does everything over and over again.
My dad and I drove down to High Point, North Carolina, a couple years ago. We were going to take a look at a pipe organ in a Methodist Church there. I wasn’t sure what my dad and I would talk about for the three-and-a-half hour drive; his dementia and memory issues had become pretty pronounced by that point. So, I brought a stack of CDs of Brahms orchestral music: four symphonies, a pair of serenades, and a couple overtures. As I drove, we listened, and we talked. We talked about Brahms’ love of cross rhythms and the beauty of having the cellos play above the violas for certain passages and how sometimes the trombones were like Jesus. We talked about moments we heard the ghost of Beethoven and moments we heard the influence of Bach. This wasn’t a normal conversation at this stage in my dad’s struggle with dementia; holding onto a complete thought was painfully difficult for him. But, he’s a musician, and music has a peculiar power to make rough places plain.
And, if music has that power, the music of Brahms would seem to have it in quantity. Brahms is big. Bach is perfect, and Mozart is brilliant, and Beethoven is revolutionary, but Brahms is all of those things. Brahms is big.
Despite his legendary white beard, Brahms was not a composer of Christmas music. Assembling a lessons and carols service of music by Brahms seemed impossible at first glance. There is the thick and thorny Advent motet, “O Savior Rend the Heavens Wide”, which will follow the first lesson with suitable gravitas. There is a lovely early setting of Ave Maria, which the women of the choir will sing from the balcony. “The White Dove” is a simple Marian text set exquisitely to a German folksong. I could find nothing to complement the lesson about Jesus’ birth until I ran across Brahms’ miniature canon setting of an old German lullaby: “The sky draws the sheep, the little stars are the little lambs, the moon, that is the little shepherd.” It is not about Christmas, but it will be ready to be suspended in that moment in the narrative like a tiny, hand-painted ornament on a tree.
Brahms never set a Gloria, but he composed a phenomenal setting of a secular text that snags the drama of the shepherds feeding their flocks by night perfectly: “Do you hear, apprehensive heart, the whispering voices of angels?” And, the distinctively Love Feast text, the passage from 1 John about love, can be answered beautifully with the last of Brahms’ Four Serious Songs. These were his Opus 121, out of a total of 122; it seems fitting to end that portion of the service with his final setting of a text, the familiar passage about love from 1 Corinthians. Not wanting to leave out the composer’s symphonic voice, I programmed the organ to perform the much-loved finale from his first symphony to accompany the feasting at the end of the service.
So, Brahms and Christmas will come together like never before, and I hope you will find beauty in this unusual pairing. The Love Feast service will be at 6:30 PM on Sunday, December 18, in the Ginter Park Presbyterian Church sanctuary.
As GPPC embarks upon a new round of self-examination in terms of its future, I am reminded of an earlier time in its life of which I was very much a part. I’d like to share the story of NSA (full name later).
The year was 1993, about this time of year. Wishing to expand the church’s outreach after a very successful financial campaign, Session challenged its various committees to develop proposals toward that goal. Learning of a program at a prominent Presbyterian church in Charlotte which had developed an eventually free-standing community wide program in music and arts for children and youth, the Worship and Music committee requested and received a $10,000 grant from the Session to explore and initiate such a program. A particular target would be families in the many apartment buildings near the church, though open to all. The executive director of the Charlotte program was brought to Richmond to consult with GPPC’s committee and help plan a summer program for the ensuing year; thus the Neighborhood School of the Arts (NSA) was born.
A tangible result of the first summer program is the banner of batik squares which hangs on the left wall near the stage in Fellowship Hall. That experience spawned a series of short-term art classes during the school year in our education building. Learning of our work, Richmond Public Schools asked if our teachers could bring their expertise to supplemental classes in elementary schools. Partial funding for these classes (I remember Fox and Ginter Park schools) came from the Community Foundation, the Jackson Foundation, and others.
From the beginning, a choral group of children and youth was an essential component of our programming; thus City Singers Children’s Choir was born, presenting its first concert in December of 1996. By the late ’90s, Neighborhood School of the Arts was serving 1,000 individuals each year, and an Executive Director was hired – part-time at first and eventually full time. Financial aid was always available to qualifying low-income families.
For a variety of reasons, the early years of this century were not a good period for the organization, with City Singers eventually remaining as the only viable element. When in 2007 the financial situation became dismal enough to cause the board to vote to dissolve NSA, an active parents group – convinced that the musical, cultural and personal development benefits to their children could not be duplicated elsewhere – resolved that City Singers would not die. I agreed to serve as musical director on a volunteer basis while the parents group proceeded with the legal work required to register CS as a non-profit organization.
Over the years CS had a succession of musical directors. That summer of 2007 Leslie Dripps, who had developed an outstanding program at Chickahominy Middle School and was frequently engaged as choral clinician at regional festivals, volunteered to assist with our CS summer program. Her work was received so well that we hired her to be the musical director and eventually Executive Director of City Singers Youth Choirs, a title she still holds. In recent years she’s been joined by Mara Smith, who – in addition to her full time position as music teacher at Pearson’s Corner School in Hanover – became director of the grades 2-4 Neighborhood Singers.
Another important contribution to the future of music in the Richmond area was the engagement of two students in VCU’s music program as interns with CS: Kelsey Snyder, who grew up in CS, and Megan Ellenberger – both of whom are now teaching music in area public schools.
Under Leslie’s guidance, CS has expanded its footprint in the Richmond community. While its office and summer camp are both housed in the GPPC basement, rehearsals are now held at First Baptist Church. City Singers has also built partnerships with Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School, The Richmond Symphony, The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design, Richmond Choral Society, and many more organizations in every corner of the city. You can hear City Singers Youth Choirs with the Richmond Symphony this December 3 & 4 at the beloved annual Richmond traditional “Let it Snow!” concert. And of course, Leslie has been heard as a soloist in our worship services in addition to bringing the touring choir members of City Singers to sing in our worship services.
All of this would not have happened without GPPC’s partnership and financial support. Now in their 20th season, City Singers has a growing endowment fund, increasing donor support, and strong community partnerships — making the way for their next 20 seasons. For all you have made possible, a huge THANK YOU to Ginter Park Presbyterian Church!
David McCormick began his service as GPPC’s music director in 1976, retiring in May 2000. Remaining a member, he has since led the music programs in several area churches. He currently serves as interim part time assistant to the minister of music at First Presbyterian. (Photo of David with Sherry, a longtime choir member and clerk of our Session.)
Our pastor, Carla Pratt Keyes, offered the following thoughts – along with safety pins – during worship on November 13. We are grateful to have her text here on our blog, as requested by some who heard it in worship – and to share with other interested folks.
You were given a safety pin as you came into worship today. Some of you know: why a safety pin. In fact, some of you came here already wearing safety pins. If you’re tapped in to social media, there’s a good chance you’ve seen that the safety pin has become a symbol of safe spaces for people who’re afraid. We hope this congregation will be a safe place for people who’re afraid.
In recent days, folks in the United States have started wearing safety pins on a sweater or collar, as some people did in Britain after Brexit. After the UK voted to leave the European Union, police reported a spike in hate crimes directed against immigrants and ethnic and religious minorities, and folks started to wear these little pins as a gesture of silent reassurance that anyone who was being abused would not stand alone.
The pin also served to remind the person wearing it of the promise they’d made not to stand idly by while somebody else was being harassed, threatened or hurt.
Here in the United States, in recent days, reports of hateful harassment and intimidation have erupted. And all kinds of people are feeling threatened: African-Americans, Immigrants, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, women, disabled people. The safety pin is meant to say to these people: you are not alone.
Jesus was a storyteller, and so often his stories employed the stuff of daily life to tell us about God: seeds planted, trees providing shelter, sheep lost and found, bread broken and shared, wine poured out. I think he would have been all over the safety pin.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he might have said to people who were feeling troubled. “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.” “My love is a safe place for you to live in,” Christ says. “Abide in my love. And trust that in God’s house there is plenty of room. I am here to make sure there is a good and safe place for you.” That safe place with Christ is one thing to remember if you choose to wear this pin.
To people who already feel safe, I expect Jesus would say what he said to his disciples, that day Jesus bought a child before them and said: “whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me.” Children were so vulnerable in those days – not particularly treasured, and not pampered like they are in privileged communities today. Children were marginalized and at risk. “Whoever welcomes one such marginalized person in my name, welcomes me,” Jesus says.
What does it mean for us to welcome the marginalized? How do we work to make a safe place for our world’s vulnerable people? What do we learn about our own safety, as we seek to provide them safety? And are we willing to put ourselves and our livelihoods at risk to stand with people who feel threatened? Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like children,” – until you share their pain on the margins – “you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Consider the safety pin, how, before it’s secure, it can wound you. For what are we willing to suffer, even to bleed? I think Jesus might ask us that in The Parable of the Safety Pin.
Consider how, once a safety pin is fastened, it holds things together. In Jesus Christ, all things hold together, the Bible says. In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female, no longer “able” and disabled, no longer African American or Hispanic or European, no longer rich and poor or red and blue, for all are one. All are held together in Christ.
Consider the safety pin. And hold it, maybe, as we pray.