Those of you who regularly read this column know we are a Buddhist family. Our children learn Buddhist teachings, stories and, starting at around age 4, how to meditate. At 10, they undergo a 9-day rite of passage at a Buddhist meditation center in Vermont.
So it may surprise you to learn that Max, Claude, Jules and I sing in a Christian church’s choir.
It all started with Hugo.
He first sang at Westminster Presbyterian Church the fall 2011, his freshman year at Firestone High School. The church is also the home of West Side Vocal Academy, which has an ongoing relationship with the vocal program at Firestone. That is how Hugo came to know the church’s music director and organist, Jim Mismas.
We met Jim and his husband, Bruce Stebner, while attending a concert at Westminster. For a couple of years, we’d run into them at performances, in the store where I work or around town. What started as friendly hellos became longer and longer chats until one November Jim and Bruce invited Max and me to a party at their house. Since then, we regularly have each other over for dinners and parties.
A Note to Parents of Young Children
You are in the trenches. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you children don’t get easier as they get older, they absolutely do. And if you are lucky (and by lucky I mean if you raise them to be enjoyable, curious people), your children may one day be vibrant additions to your social circle. Exhibit A: Our big boys have their own close relationships with Jim and Bruce, separate from our own.
Hugo, whose vocal talent first was recognized by Sue Wallin at the West Side Vocal Academy, studied both with Ms. Wallin and Jim. It was Jim who taught Hugo to sight read music, an important skill for a singer. When Hugo gave a recital at Westminster last spring, Jim automatically assumed he’d accompany Hugo on piano. That’s like having David Remnick insist on editing my manuscripts.
When our eldest son, Claude, was still in college, he went to France with Bruce. A professional artist, each summer Bruce takes a group of students to the Loire Valley. They set up easels alongside the river, in villages with cobblestone streets, or country lanes. Painting all day, they break only for lunch.
At night, they eat like the French–long dinners with plenty of wine and conversation. Claude, who’s been painting for several years, sold his first painting to the restaurateur of the establishment they visited most evenings.
Back in Akron, Claude and Bruce regularly paint together.
When our third son, Jules, was scheduling classes for his sophomore year in high school, choir conflicted with biology. Learning this, Jim said, “Well, he should join the church choir.”
The Westminster choir is full of professional singers. Vocalists at Firestone who show talent and industry are honored when asked to sing with the choir. Hugo wasn’t asked until his senior year.
Jules was appropriately grateful for the opportunity Jim gave him. Every Sunday, he put on a dress shirt and tie and walked to church while the rest of us drove to Cuyahoga Falls to meditate with our Buddhist “sangha,” or congregation.
Last June, we celebrated Bruce’s birthday with small party at the couple’s home. Along with other friends, Claude and Jules were there. Hugo would have attended were he not working for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Leif and Lyra stayed home with a sitter.
The dinner was as French-styled as the backyard—pea gravel pathways weave through herb and vegetable gardens. After sunset, strings of lights softly illuminated the long table covered with floral tablecloths where we sat. Whether or not it was the case, my memory’s soundtrack for the evening includes Edith Piaf and accordion café music.
Departing as late as it would all year, the sunlight was gone when Jim told us he had a secret announcement.
“I’ve been making arrangements with the church, but this won’t be public for a few weeks. I’m retiring after the upcoming season. For 53 years of Sundays I’ve made music for Jesus and it’s time to let someone else take over.”
Stunned, we were all stunned. And full of food, wine and love.
“Oh, I wish I could sing in the choir your last year!” I said.
“Well, you can,” Jim quickly replied, disabusing us of our long-held notion that choir was open only to those with the voices of angels. Max and Claude also signed up that night.
Most Sundays since September, we’ve been at church by 9:15. We drop off Leif and Lyra at Sunday school and for the next hour, we practice with the choir before slipping on our blue robes and golden stoles. Then, processing two by two, we sing our way into the sanctuary for the service.
Guess what? We are having the time of our lives. The choir is a raucous bunch, many of whom are, yes, professionally trained and also graciously helpful. Beginning each week singing beautiful music with joyful friends is, well, a blessing.
But what about sitting through a Christian service?
The young minister, who one-on-one is a quiet man, gives sermons that complement our Buddhist beliefs. At the pulpit he is gentle, yet not shy in addressing important issues.
After Charlottesville, he spoke about the importance of free speech, including hate speech. But he then pointed out the pain of those who are targeted by hateful, often violent, language. We need to stand with, support, and when necessary, protect the victims of hate speech.
To a packed church on Christmas Eve, when many a pastor would try to convert the occasional visitor to a full-time congregant, Westminster’s pastor made a brave choice. Without passing judgment, he asked the crowd to consider how to reconcile believing in Jesus as the Prince of Peace with the overwhelming number of guns, approximately 300 million, or one for each man, woman and child, in the U.S.
I like this guy. And the community at Westminster Presbyterian Church. We all do. It is yet another example of how living in Akron is a gift that keeps on giving.
No, I do not believe all central tenets of Christianity. Buddhist theology also has a miraculous birth story and, just prior to becoming an enlightened teacher, the Buddha was repeatedly tempted by a Satan-like being.
Whether these are facts or allegory is not the point. Love one another, have compassion, even for those who would do you harm. That is the point.
Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday last year. Thus, we sang both in the morning and at the evening candlelight service. Hugo was home from college and also joined the choir that day. Before the morning service, a group of seven good friends clustered together for a photo: Our big boys, Jim and Bruce, Max and me.
This column was published in the Akron Beacon Journal on January 14, 2018