As Folk Choir alumni surely know, there is a tradition in the Folk Choir going back who-knows-how-long known as “tenor names.” Essentially, when new tenors join the choir, the older tenors assign them a new name. This name is generally taken from a song in the Folk Choir’s repertoire. I think it’s all kind of weird, but I’m a bass, so I’m biased.
In the spring of 2016, during Folk Choir’s tour to Ireland and Scotland, we basses decided to poke fun at the tenors and institute, for a limited time only, bass names. These names were intended to be as ridiculous and negative possible. Some of my favorites included, “Empty Noise on the Wind,” and “We are in Death.” Mine was simple: “Nothing at All.”
In writing a reflection to be published the day after our annual Mother’s Day visit to Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, I thought it would be appropriate to focus on the choir’s ministry to incarcerated men. I have some additional experience in that area, having served for a summer at Dismas Family Farm in Oakham, MA for my SSLP (Summer Service Learning Program). Operated in conjunction with the Dismas House in Worcester, MA, the farm represents a lifeline for men re-entering society after years of incarceration, especially those who would benefit from separation from the ills of the city.
The experience of talking with incarcerated men during the intermissions of our annual prison concerts and my time spent in the fields with men whose lives have been ravaged by drugs, alcohol, and imprisonment have many commonalities, but I will focus on the common characteristic which is most striking to me. Both arouse in me a strong sense of inadequacy. When I realize how little I have to offer to these men, I feel that I am really, “nothing at all.” Worse, I worry that maybe I’m being dishonest. A fake. Who am I to think I can have any effect on their lives when I can barely keep a conversation going with some of them? These fears can be paralyzing. It is in this way that fear isolates communities from each other. We often avoid interactions of love for fear of rejection or being unable to understand or help each other. Perhaps this is part of why neighborhoods and social circles in America are often de facto segregated by race and economic status. In the words of Mother Teresa, “we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Because of this, we are often afraid to reach out to each other.
We know the answer to this problem. In St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he declares, “[the Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Some are called to dramatic displays of faith, but equally important is the constant, everyday mission that each one of us carries. We are called to share the love of Christ with the world, in everyday life. And so, we choose to have that sometimes-awkward conversation with the prisoner, the person who is hungry, or without a home. We choose to meet the other with love. We endure uncomfortable silence. We reach out and hope to find each other’s true selves—there we can catch a glimpse of Christ.