Where I come from, they know how to sing

If I had a near-death experience, I bet it would sound like this:

These are students at Goshen College, my alma mater, a private college of about a thousand in northern Indiana. They’re singing a piece by Biebl that Chanticleer made popular on a Christmas CD. (I think they could give Chanticleer a run for their money.)

The college is Mennonite. When I was a Mennonite we were different, but maybe not in the ways you think. We looked like everyone else. We just sang differently. Because musical instruments were banned in churches until fifty or so years ago, Mennonites sang unaccompanied four-part harmony. To this day a crowd of hundreds can break into pitch-perfect four-part renditions of favorite songs.

When I was enrolled at Goshen, students loved singing so much they would gather in dorm rooms by the dozens to sing hymns, for pete’s sake. If you’ve never experienced blending your voice with a choir, you might not understand the rush. To feel such harmonies vibrating in your own flesh—well, it’s a fast track to oneness for the mystically inclined. A yoga of sound.

Because I started college as a music major, I got to immerse myself daily in superb musical experiences. Some of my favorite memories are of choir tours, especially concerts in chapels where the acoustics made us sound like angels.

Did I mention that this Mennonite school is where I got radicalized? It was the seventies, and religion profs fresh from Boston brought the latest biblical criticism and feminist theology. Not to mention that international education was a requirement. When 90 percent of the student body has lived for a few months in a Third World or (at the time) Eastern European country, it lends a different political flavor to a campus. Getting radicalized at a church college—through theology, if you can believe it—means I have never once doubted that religion can be progressive.

The year after I graduated, Reagan was elected, and the religious lines hardened at the school as they did elsewhere in the country. But these videos tell me that the music is still magic.

And now for something completely different from some of the same voices:


4 Responses to Where I come from, they know how to sing

  1. Hystery says:December 18, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    Ah, more evidence for why I enjoy your writing so much. My family was also spiritually”radicalized” in the ’70s as my father completed his graduate work at seminaries in Richmond, Boston, and Rochester. I spent my childhood and adolescence in the midst of his feminist ministry in little country churches in Upstate NY. And my father’s rich baritone from the pulpit and in the choir is one of my fondest memories.

  2. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:December 19, 2009 at 8:16 am

    Those seminaries–hotbeds of radicalism! The rabidly anti-religion folks have no idea, do they.

  3. Beth Hayden says:December 20, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    Priscilla – Thanks so much for posting this, it made my night!! I sang in a coed a cappella group all through college (Penn State), and I too appreciate groups of students who gather to sing just because it’s fun and we love the sound we can make!! YAY YAY!!!

    Cheers, Beth

  4. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:December 21, 2009 at 9:13 am

    Beth, I knew there were some singers out there who would connect with this! Is a cappella singing enjoying a revival?