by Heather Atkinson
Three years ago I “came out” to the former minister of the church where I sing in Pakenham. I had asked to meet with him, and I was very nervous. I had a big secret to share.
“Reverend,” I said, then took a long breath. “I’m afraid I’m an imposter. I don’t fit in. I don’t believe in a god. At least not the way everyone else here believes in god, as some sort of supernatural deity who takes care of us.”
The minister looked pensive for a moment and then he smiled and held out his hand. “Welcome to the club, Heather. Don’t be so sure you know what others believe.”
We spent the rest of our allotted hour chatting about religious faith, matters of the human spirit and philosophical issues we’d each pondered. We compared books we had read on the subject of religion and touched on dissenting views held by other ministers. He mentioned Gretta Vosper. I mentioned Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.
I’d been singing in the choir for several months before I could admit to my adult children that I sang every Sunday in church. They thought I’d gone mad, joined a cult and wondered if I needed an “intervention”.
“You’ve gone over to the dark side, mom,” said the eldest.
Indeed, across the Western world dwindling church congregations and the soaring population of Facebook followers suggests that church has become a four-letter word. Over the years I’ve been careful to explain to my friends—especially those I regard as atheist fundamentalists because of their intolerance of any form of religious belief—that I can sing in church and yet not believe in the entity most people call “God”. I tell them about our choir leader, a professional musician who makes our 13 voices sound like 30, and about the community of kind souls at my church, some devout believers in the traditional way, and others, like me, who are reluctant to say there isn’t a god because we can’t offer proof to support that claim. All I can say with certainty is that I don’t need a god to make my life purposeful and humane, but I appreciate that others might.
I and my 12 fellow choristers sing to a small congregation of tolerant and loving folk whose beliefs, I’ve come to learn, span the spectrum. Together we put on Sunday school that gets kids away from their wired world to a quiet space where they can think, for one hour, about loving, respecting, and appreciating each another and our shared mother earth. The divine is invoked (it’s a church, after all) but the children are free to see this spirit as they wish. The added bonus for parents is that each can use that hour to find their own quiet centre in the sanctuary upstairs.
Every summer we welcome children to camp with themes that support these values. Last summer, 30 children sat enraptured while the 11-year old granddaughter of a member of the congregation (our own version of Gretta Thunberg) delivered a PowerPoint presentation she’d created herself entitled the Eighth Continent, her exposé of the masses of waste plastic that are overtaking our oceans.
I especially love helping out with our many annual fundraising suppers, welcoming guests to long tables, hearing the harmonies of happy chatter and feeling the love in that space that reminds me of helping my grandmother serve at such suppers when I was a child. The lonely, the sad, those without families close by, come knowing we will welcome them as family.
We also open our doors to the Festival of Small Halls (the concerts are often sold out), lecturers for our guest speaker series and our guest ministers on Sundays. We reserve the fourth Sunday of each month to put on something special for the congregation. When our new audio visual equipment is in place there will be movie nights for youth.
Music drew me to this space three years ago, but beyond the shared harmonies I stayed for the companionship of my fellows. We don’t all think alike—what family can claim that?—but we enjoy singing and working, sharing ideas and breaking bread together. We accept the rituals set forth in the bible, some of us literally, others of us metaphorically, while our shared tolerance of each other and other faiths brings us joy and makes us, I believe, better people.
The poet Robert Frost reminds us that:
‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.’
I think of the place where I sing that way.
A four-letter word. Home.