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For Some Church-Goers, Singing Hymns In Isolation Is Not A Solo Act

As people of Jewish faith observe Passover this week on Zoom, for Christians it is Holy Week, ending with Easter Sunday. Music is at the core of many religious rituals.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, congregants at one western Massachusetts church haven’t been singing in the same room over the past few weeks. But their voices are still being heard in unison.

"I call it the Hymn Singing in Isolation Project,” said Christopher White, the organist at the North Hadley Congregational Church.

A few days before Easter, White was the only person inside the building. Sitting at the organ, he played and recorded several hymns, including “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”

“A traditional Easter hymn that will be sung, or would be sung, in almost every church this coming Sunday,” he said.

But of course it won’t be, as the pandemic shut down houses of worship, among other places where people gather.  

The Hymn Singing in Isolation Project is yet another workaround during this era of staying at home.

White, who teaches music theory at UMass Amherst, has been popping into the church over the last few weeks, recording himself playing the coming Sunday’s hymns, then putting an mp3 of the music and hymn lyrics on the church website for parishioners – or anyone really – to find.

A sandwich board outside the church invites passerbys to add their voice — and White also put the invite out on social media. About a dozen people so far have gotten involved.

North Hadley Congregational has only about 25 regular members. Some from the church are singing; some are singing from other parts of the country.

It’s technically a bit complicated, White said. People record themselves while listening to the organ music, but the instrument can’t bleed onto their track. Singers then send him their voices via email or a text, and by Sunday church time (since early March), he’s made podcasts of the sound of people in a small, rural church, imperfectly singing in unison, along with the pastor's sermon, and people in prayer. 

Finding ways to connect is a challenge for everyone right now, said Gordon Pullan, the church pastor. But for some people, he said, it’s critical they do.

“A lot of our members are single,” Pullan said. “They're older. They may be a widow or widower, and the sense of isolation is compounded by that.”

Holding a church service this way is not what anyone wants, Pullan said, but unexpected community has come about because of the podcast.

A longtime congregant with ties to the founding of the church recently moved to an assisted living community in Tennessee, Pullan said, and they miss her dearly. She called him right after Palm Sunday.

“She told me that in the assisted living center, that there’s no interaction at this point. There's no longer common meals, there's nothing,” Pullan said. “And what she did -- she had a number of people in her hall who opened their doors and listened to Palm Sunday service.”

As Pullan prepared to write his Easter Sunday sermon, he said he was struggling with the joyful message of Jesus's resurrection. The pandemic will end, but this is a hard time, he said, and when people come back to church, there will be a new normal. There will be scars. He almost wishes Easter were two months from now. 

“We're looking at the long haul here. We're not looking at this metaphor being something that is relevant this coming Sunday,” Pullan said.

Other metaphors from various religions can help us get through difficult times, Pullan said. He may even title his sermon "Easter has Come Too Soon, and the Exodus" — referring to how Jews sought their freedom from slavery which is the Passover story — "...Cannot Come Soon Enough." 

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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