On a sunny afternoon last March, I was strolling through Rome with a vague goal to make it to the Vatican by the evening. As I wandered through the medieval nest between the Piazza Navona and the river, I came on a tiny piazza, like all the others, with a café on one side and a run-down church on the other.
“Let’s go into that church,” one of my companions said.
“We can’t go into every church,” I said, “or else we’ll never make it to St. Peter’s.”
“Let’s go into this one. I hear music!”
We went in. And that’s how we spent the afternoon with the Congolese Catholic community of Rome.
It was thrilling. After being heartily greeted by throngs of children and children of God, we stood—then sat—to watch the mass. A large choir of men and women stood at the front of the room with an electric guitar, drums and a piano. The priest at the front of the room would sing out in Swahili, and the choir—and the whole church—would burst out in a flood of joyful music; swaying, smiling, and holding their neighbors' hands. When it was time for communion, the whole congregation literally danced to the altar. Mothers paraded up with their babies; sons held onto their old fathers. Prenez et mangez: ceci est mon corps! prenez et buvez: voici mon sang!
It was only afterwards, when we came out radiant into the piazza, that I even remembered the lifeless Jewish services that I’m used to going to. Soon an even sadder thought came to me: there was nothing in my ordinary life that even compares to what I’d seen in the church. And right after seeing it, it seemed like the only happiness worth having.
The key was music. None of the songs they were singing was anything I would put on my iPod. But when they sang, these Christians had an understanding of humanity that’s extremely rare in a staid culture like ours. Something happens to humans when we sing together: for a few minutes, the dikes between us burst and the algaed pools of our selves form a deep, surging lake. In front of a painting we can see beauty, listening to Mozart we’re covered in it, but when we sing together we become it.
Now I’d like to file a complaint. I hopped on a Chicago bus this morning and rode it from the beginning of the line to the end, spanning the entire width of the South Side. And the riders were silent! My mind was filled with the ways it could have been different: we could have sung the national anthem. We could have clapped and chanted. We could have called out Amazing Grace in four-part harmony. We had so many chances to be human together—and we were silent.
Pete Seeger died last month, but I’m waiting for his resurrection. It’ll come the day that our buses, our synagogues, our banks and our restaurants resound again with our voices. With that in mind, I’m off to amble across the quad singing a tune.