Saturday, April 23, 2011

After tragedy, a message in the music

By 7 p.m., the choir is robed, and Jimmy Jones goes over some last-moment details. Always, there are details – who will sit where, when their voices will rise in unison, when harmony will deliver their message.

In 30 minutes, they will be performing John Rutter’s Requiem, one of eight Holy Week services through Easter Sunday at Myers Park United Methodist Church. “This is a mass for the dead,” says Jones, the church’s director of music. “It’s kind of a singing someone to heaven.”

It’s something he doesn’t often reflect on during the bustle of his busiest week. But now, yes.

Last Saturday afternoon, as Jones was driving back from Winston-Salem, his phone began ringing with calls from Lee County, where he was born and raised. It’s where his family still lives – parents and sister, aunts and uncles and cousins, all within a mile or two of each other in an unincorporated farming community southeast of Raleigh.

Some of them had watched minutes before as a tornado destroyed his sister Susie’s house and a cousin’s home next door. Susie and her family thankfully weren’t home, but his cousin, Mike Hunter, was pulled from his house and dropped in the woods nearby. He was 42 years old, a lover of the outdoors, and now, one of 22 fatalities from Saturday’s storms.

“They’re still in shock,” Jones says. “We’ve never had a tragedy like this.”

He drove back home, of course, to the community that’s about half the size of his congregation here. It was where his mom would take him to choir practice, where he fell in love with sacred music and the organ that made it. He was the baby of the family, a prodigy on the electronic organ his parents eventually bought for their basement.

Now, they picked through the rubble of his sister’s house. They cut up fallen trees in the yards. They mourned.

“Hold that note,” he says Thursday, back in Charlotte with his choir. The church is filling. The choir is rehearsing, one more time, pieces of the requiem to come.

Jones, who is 28, came back Wednesday night, after his cousin’s wake, to prepare for all the services this week. In a way, he says, it’s been good to busy himself with the usual worries about tempo and timing.

But this year, he also has noticed the requiem’s plaintive cello – “an anguished kind of sound,” he says. The voices and the songs are a warm hand on his shoulder. “I hear it and I conduct it differently,” he says.

And the message? He remembered this week a sermon at his last church, in Greensboro, where his pastor talked about the 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” We don’t just walk into that valley, the pastor told him. “There is another side,” Jones says.

In moments, his 45-member choir will sing those words in the requiem. And no, the music doesn’t provide the answers to his questions – why this tragedy happened, how God allows you to mourn a cousin but be thankful about a sister. But it is a reminder this holy week of what he does believe. “A strengthening,” he says.

And this is what he tells his choir. “A requiem,” he reminds them, “is a Mass for the dead. It’s not happy. But in the end, there is hope.” Then he leads them to the sanctuary, and he leads them in song, blending in harmony and rising in unison. Grant them rest eternal, Lord our God, we pray to thee.


I have an idea... said...

I live in California now, but was born in South Carolina just cross the border in Rock Hill. Thank you for this beautiful column. I have sung parts of Rutter's requim and remember its somber beauty. What a moving contrast in the sorrow and relief of your story.