After church, kathrynzj and I are headed out in a hurry to drive the 350 miles to Smith College, attempting to arrive in time for Smith College Christmas Vespers tonight at 7:30, the second of two opportunities today for the campus and community to enter liminal space while hearing beautiful music from the choral groups, pondering meaningful interfaith readings of scripture and poetry offered by students and faculty, singing carols together and generally experiencing the season of Advent through word and music. It’s a cooperative effort of the music department and the Dean for Religious Life. It’s a service, not a concert, so there is no admission fee, but a significant free will offering is collected each year, all of which goes to support the local homeless shelter, the Hampshire County Interfaith Winter Cot Shelter Program.
If you want to know whether there is a homeless issue in that area, walk down the main thoroughfare of Northampton any day of the year.
Every year at Vespers, the student choirs sing “O Holy Night” by candlelight (video from 2011). Vespers is religious and highbrow, and attractive to adults and families in the surrounding area, and alumnae around the world watch it on livestream, so I suppose to students who aren’t directly involved, it just seems like the thing at JMG Hall that draws a big crowd. Therefore, this year, it’s an opportunity to turn attention to other matters.
Because “you can’t sing carols if you can’t breathe,” words written on a Facebook event page announcing an action at both services today (4 and 7:30). I am torn. I support protests as a tool for drawing attention and creating conversation where it is most needed, and I also support them as a vehicle for expressing deep anger and grief. I look at pictures of protests in big cities, and when I read that local people complained about traffic being tied up, I wish they would be quiet.
I also want to get there and hear LP sing, and I’m well aware of the limited routes in and out of Northampton, as well as the way a protest before Thanksgiving shut down traffic for hours.
A Smithie posted a caution to white students on Tumblr, urging them to stop clutching their pearls over Vespers. That’s exactly what some people would say I’ve been doing. I’m struggling with being a poor ally. I feel positioned against a movement I support despite my highbrow Christian white girl appearance. I want to see my daughter and to sing and hear beautiful music that speaks of the world’s need to change and be changed. But the world at large doesn’t know what Advent is or see it as meaningful. They hear Fox News complaining about the War on Christmas and believe it sums up all Christians. On the other side of things, law enforcement no longer regards religious institutions as protected either, raiding churches and threatening protesting clergy.
I know the four hours LP and other students spent rehearsing yesterday sounds like a big commitment at the end of the semester only until compared to the four-and-a-half hours Mike Brown was left lying dead in the street. I am convicted by the statement that young people want “freedom songs not choir songs.” It doesn’t matter that I have a spiritual understanding of Advent as a time when we call on God, waiting for the incarnation to show God’s care for this messed-up world, both the one Jesus came into and every iteration of it right up until the one we’re living in now. I grieve that faith plays no part in the lives of young people who care about the world so deeply. I regret that Christianity in particular has become so distanced from real people’s lives that a religious service can be compared, as it has been by today’s organizers, to the secular lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree as a venue for protest.
I’m not arguing that a religious service should be exempt from protest. I’m grieving the fact that a religious service is not perceived as allied to the cause the students promote. I don’t know what’s coming as we walk through this Advent, but I hope it’s an awakening and not a further separation of our society into color-coded boxes. It may be what the white Church deserves, but I pray it is not the end of the story.