A Church Choir is a Symbol of Togetherness
photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

I sing in a celestial choir. No, I’m not a member of the heavenly host (yet). The celestial choir at my church is a dozen dedicated volunteers (them) and one earnest wannabe (me) who, when someone dies, gather to sing at the funeral when the regular church choir isn’t available. Because I can’t sing a C without cracking and croaking, the celestial choir is my only shot at donning one of those impressive robes, processing grandly down the aisle, settling in the choir stall, and getting a bird’s-eye view in the slanting mirror suspended on the opposite wall that lets us see the director’s guiding hands. Also, to see the neato miniature fans fastened to the hymnal rail. A choir is a little like a newsroom, or a restaurant kitchen, or a sport’s team locker room: Outsiders are always, well, dying to know what goes on behind the scenes.

Arguably, choirs are the most visible aspect of a church service. There’s one minister, preacher, or pastor, and dozens of choir members. There they go, a troupe of vocally choreographed and colorfully clad (purple, red, gold, white, royal blue) songbirds, claiming the best seats in the house, and rightly so.

But before you’re designated as alto, soprano, or hopeless, choir experience begins with junior choir, and belting out “Jesus Loves Me” to beaming parents and tolerant congregations. Or standing on wobbly risers in the school choir, where my second-grade classmates and I somewhat harmoniously warbled, The little flowers came through the ground, at Easter time, at Easter time. In the eighth-grade choir, singing Irving Berlin’s Statue of Liberty song — Give me your tired, your poor … I lift my lamp beside the golden door! — made me realize, perhaps for the first time, what it meant to be an American. By ninth-grade, assigned, as an act of mercy, to the chorus of our Down in the Valley opera production, my aspirations to a real Choir, with a capital C, had evaporated. Which explains the celestial choir, and my fascination with and admiration for choirs. (Learning that some choir members are paid was a low, low day in my life.)

I always look to see which members carry their personal hymnal, its leather cover cracked, its corners dog-eared; and at the crosses that dangle from chains or silken ropes across their surplices, a personal expression of faith made of silver or wood or wire.

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Children’s choirs are charming, but boys’ choirs take the prize for the sweetest, clearest expression of combined voices. Post-puberty, stick around for a capella presentations. Then again, it’s hard to beat the swinging, swaying, sometimes stomping performance of a gospel choir, urging you to clap and join the joy. Or be awed by a chancel or cathedral choir, formal and solemn, eyes forward and minds focused. If you can’t discern a melody — never mind the words — assume it’s in Latin or German. Choir members have dreams, too: One choir friend has admitted to me that all she ever wants to do is sing the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

We’re a state of singers, and at Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall, within the magnificence of Duke Chapel, and at a dozen other venues — both holy and secular — practiced, professional choirs are raising their voices in unison to inspire, awe, and entertain. But five miles down the road, at a church or auditorium, a choir composed of friends and strangers blessed with the gift of voice is doing the same, just on a smaller scale. And as for the talentless ones, like myself, we also serve — by listening and appreciating. On Easter, as I pass before the choir on the way to the altar, the deep basses and ethereal descant giving me chills, I’ll grip the railing, close my eyes, and know that proximity to a choir might be the closest we can get to heaven on Earth.

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Kelly is a frequent contributor to Our State. She is the author of By Accident and the novels Now You Know, The Last of Something, Even Now, and How Close We Come, winner of the Carolina Novel Award and an alternate selection of Book-of-the-Month Club. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lives in Greensboro.