BY TEQUILA MINSKY
For members of the choir of Middle Collegiate Church, caroling at Cooper Triangle Park —just south of Cooper Union—had been planned long before a Dec. 5 fire destroyed the 128-year-old church structure that was their home.
Singing on Dec. 12, one week after the devastation was a way for 20 members of the choir family to breathe together and support each other.
Says choir member Joy Lau, “You could see how much they need it, a safe way to gather outdoors and be together.”
Under pre-Pandemic times, the gospel choir numbering 50-60—a diverse mixture of seniors and young, professional musicians, artists, and even frontline health workers—was known for its incredible harmonies, its professional quality and performances.
When Middle Church indoor services halted in March and continued on-line, approximately 40 choir members began to meet weekly by Zoom, even attracting some who moved away. “It’s just not the same,” says Lau.
Also recognizing some attendees are not technologically savvy and just can’t participate, in the warmer months Lau started monthly gatherings in parks, mostly Washington Square, where people could distance themselves and be social, sing, picnic and combat pandemic isolation. They met four times.
“Not so easy singing through a mask,” she reports, admitting, “It’s not about the sound. It’s about being together.”
On an unseasonably mild mid-December afternoon, festively dressed choir members —Santa caps, stuffed antlers and ugly Christmas sweaters—sang their way through a healthy selection of well-known carols including Jingle Bell Rock and Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. Choir member, musical artist Deborah Berg, recruited by Lau, conducted the holiday songs for the joyful, spirited, and very first ever outdoor caroling with the choir— a perfect anecdote for pandemic isolation.
Side musicians including three plastic ukuleles and a plethora of tambourines augmented the a cappella caroling.
Middle Church’s gospel choir started in 1986 by the late Jerrise Johnson and now carries his name.
The church then had a dwindling following and the choir, attracting all sorts of performing artists, creatives from the neighborhood and others who loved to sing, helped evolve the church into an artistic and cultural center. Music became its revival.
On Saturday, following the caroling program of 18 songs, many of the singers walked the one block to 2nd Avenue. Staring at the shell of the church that had been their home, remaining choir members belted out two gospel songs—God is Here segued into God Put a Rainbow in the Sky.
Lau, like the others, was confronting again what had happened, just one week earlier. She sighed, “The whole thing was still surreal.” But singing helped.
“Somehow, singing in front of the burned down church, with the choir, allowed me to grieve and come to terms with it,” she says. “In that moment I was in a safe supportive environment and I recognized the church is not just the building but the community.”