As we prepare for the upcoming Martin Luther King, Jr. commemoration, I'm reminded of how volunteer work and a church choir membership helped me to better understand his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
Many churches, synagogues, and mosques have varying programs that allow members to perform required or volunteer outreach that can help one find common ground with our brothers and sisters. These opportunities can help to lead one to get a better understanding of one's own faith, as well as enhance one's professional emphasis, ecumenism, interfaith, and cross-cultural efforts.
After completing a year of volunteer work for the elderly per the Jesuit Volunteer Corps: Southwest in the San Jaquin area of California in 1981, I was looking for a church community to join in San Diego, where I was enrolled in Graduate Social Work at SDSU with an emphasis in Gerontology.
Christ The King was known as a great hang-out for former JVs, as well as being a Jesuit run parish with much outreach to varying ethnic groups that I had not previously been involved with much. Per a contact at a parish gathering, I found out about an elderly lady, Lucille, who needed someone to be a live-in caregiver, which I was able to do during my first year in school. What a blessing to learn more about elder concerns than I ever could have per all those textbooks we had to read. During my second year in graduate school, after getting married, we would still do a lot with Lucille and her family.
There was also a large Hispanic population in the area, and with such close proximity to the Mexican border, outreach programs were available. My wife and I became involved per the parish and the SDSU Newman Center in some of these like the Tecate Orphanage; we both are from Spanish heritage but only spoke "un pocito" (very little) of the language. This ministry allowed us to learn more of the dialect, but more importantly, to practice the unspoken golden rule. Also, we got to learn some neat Spanish songs like "Alabare!" (O Praise The Lord!).
With a church leadership music background, then mostly in contemporary Catholic music like the Dameans, the St. Louis Jesuits, and Carey Martin, I felt called by God to stretch a little and explore other opportunities at the parish. I found out about an Afrocentric Mass that was held at the church, so I felt the Holy Spirit was pulling me to see about trying to join that choir.
When I arrived at the first practice, I was anxious to begin learning some new styles, as well as making some new friends. While I was one of the few non-traditional members, I was warmly accepted—even though the others certainly had trouble keeping me in rhythm as we swayed with the songs. The other tenors did their best to keep me in line!
Randy, our choir director, was a strict disciplinary guy but knew how to lighten things up. Thus after I'd done about a month's participation with the group, he surely knew how to humble me with humor. After we all had done a great job with completing the closing song, "Come and Go With Me To My Father's House," at Mass, he told me that I "stood out in the choir that day!" As pride settled in on me and I wanted to know what I'd done well, this was his response to my questioning: "Look at your skin!"
So may we look beyond any boundaries that keep us from learning more about each of us and our Maker. In conclusion, here are some lyrics from DC Talk's "Colored People" song:
Pardon me, your epidermis is showing,
I couldn't help but note your shade of melanin
I tip my hat to the colorful arrangement
Cause I see the beauty in the tones of our skin